It came as little surprise last Monday when parliament, with a stubborn Theresa May at the helm, voted to renew the UK’s infamous Trident nuclear weapons programme. Party-politics played a large part in the shallow motives of the vote, but are there wider issues at play?
With only a decade left on their use-by labels, replacing the four Vanguard-class warhead carriers (each capable of carrying up to 16 Trident-II SLBMs) will cost an estimated £31 billion over the next 20 years (with a £10bn contingency fund)1. A quartet of submarines ensures the United Kingdom has a constant nuclear retaliation threat; with one vessel always on patrol at any given time.
A quick scroll back through legacy hitchhiker posts and the debate as to the necessity of Trident is a common theme amongst our guest writers. Most rational debaters note the sickening incredulity of the need for ongoing nuclear weapons programmes, coupled with the eye-watering expense in austere times—yet begrudgingly admit the foolhardiness of the total abandonment of our ‘ultimate insurance policy’. However, with North Korea’s escalating weapons tests and Britain’s place at the geopolitical top table awash with uncertainty, should we follow May’s no-nonsense lead and begrudgingly get down from the fence?
Eyes on Pyongyang
Let’s look briefly at the world’s latest nuclear fixation. Global media sources warn us not to take North Korea’s recent activity lightly. Current guesstimates tally Kim Jong Un’s arsenal at approximately 20 devices (and rising)2. A liberal estimate puts their weapons-grade plutonium stockpile at 38.5kg3, with 2010 revealing the potential for higher Uranium enrichment as part of ‘civil’ reactor operations. April this year saw the triple failure of North Korea’s longest range test yet – a 4000 kilometre Musudan missile. Fifth time’s a charm? Add to this a semi-successful satellite launch and a dubious claim to an underground thermonuclear detonation (global views of a ‘true’ H-bomb test are cynical at best, but nonetheless the actions represent a terrifying step backwards from the Non-Proliferation Treaty) and we must admit something sinister lurks on the horizon.
Who else can be relied upon to put their foot down? China has its own motives for allowing Pyongyang a little flexibility; North Korea is a strong trade partner and its regime, however oppressive, retains a modicum of stability for the Chinese government. Russian cards are forever played close to the chest. On the flipside, how much of Mr Un’s showboating and anti-western sentiments are to be believed?
Britain’s place in the world
The UK’s 2015 National Security Strategy Review4 states that “there is currently no direct threat to the UK or its vital interests from states developing weapons of mass destruction”.
Is that the matter settled then? Surely we, as a nuclear power, have a duty of protection and support to those countries in Kim Jong Un’s crosshairs? To the staunch unilateralist, total abandonment of our global defence commitments presents somewhat of a dilemma; ironically the much-maligned sting in our tails gives us the ongoing respect of NATO, who will certainly look upon us unfavourably if we sever our ties as a nuclear power, especially given our current anti-union approach.
Sadly, in the current political climate, pacifism comes hand in hand with isolationism, a word very much feared by those already troubled by the prospect of “little England” (other UK countries notwithstanding). Still reeling from the hangover of Brexit, and with no imminent curtailment of global weapons development, it would appear prudent for the Disunited Kingdom to keep its seat at the nuclear table a while longer. Justifying the expense of Trident renewal is difficult, but perhaps we aren’t just renewing ageing warships, more cementing foreign policy.
Alas, I fear I have written myself back onto the fence. Peeling away the multiple motives for this week’s vote, let us all hope that short term retention heralds long term abolition.
William Bower is a PDRA at The University of Manchester.