Trident is the Eurofighter of nuclear deterrence
In Britain we are debating if we should replace Trident, our fleet of four aging SLBM equiped nuclear submarines. The argument against replacing Trident is that it would be too costly, or that the money would be better spent on conventional forces, or that given the UN Security Council resolution calling for nuclear disarmament we should not be pursuing rearmament at all.
I want to talk about something else: the pertinent question is not “Shall we replace Trident?” or even “Should we have a nuclear deterrent?”, it is “How should we best spend our defence budget to ensure the security of our nation?” Answering that question requires us to analyse the threats we face and requires us to work out the best ways to defend against those threats. It means we need to weigh the benefit of additional conventional forces and equipment against the benefit of a nuclear deterrent. It means, even if we decide we need a nuclear deterrent, we need to decide what form that deterrent should take, given the technology currently available and the threats we are likely to face in the future. It does not mean blindly re-adopting a technology that was appropriate in the 1980s.
For the purposes of the rest of this blog post I’ll assume that we have decided that Britain needs a nuclear deterrent.
During the cold war the our nuclear deterrence was based on the strategy of Mutually Assured Destruction: any one who attacked us with nuclear weapons would face an immediate retaliatory strike resulting in their own destruction. Our ability to retaliate depended on our second strike capability: the ability of our nuclear arsenal to survive a preemptive first strike. In this situation submarines with nuclear armed ballistic missiles are an effective means of providing a second strike capability. Their long range, high survivability and ability to carry many medium- and long-range nuclear missiles, makes submarines a credible and effective means of delivering full-scale retaliation even after a massive first strike.
During the cold war Trident may have been an excellent nuclear deterrent for Britain.
But the cold war is over. Weapons that were effective during the cold war are not necessarily effective now. Witness Eurofighter. The threats are different and the technology available has improved.
We longer face the threat of a massive preemptive first strike by a large cold war adversary. Instead we face the threat of a small scale strike by a rogue state or terrorist group. Our ability to retaliate is no longer determined by our ability to survive a first strike.
We could blindly readopt a costly cold war solution that will be expensive and won’t work. Like we did with the Eurofighter. Or we could look at a modern more cost effective solution. And we could spend the savings on conventional forces.