By Tim Webb
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New Nukes are Bad News

This article is over 18 years, 8 months old
Tim Webb condemns Britain's nuclear proliferation.
Issue 297

Apart from Iraq, foreign and defence policy hardly rated a mention during the recent election. That is about to change. The government now faces a major decision on whether it should renew its nuclear weapons or fall in line with all other European countries, except France and Russia, in acknowledging that these are massively expensive, have no discernible targets and provide only an illusion of power in a world that has changed dramatically since the end of the Cold War. However, it will come as no surprise to regular Blair observers if he announces his intention to replace the Trident nuclear missile submarine fleet at the end of its natural life in 2024. That is a fairly long way off but the planning – and the expenditure – has to start soon.

Britain’s current nuclear attack force is based on four submarines carrying Trident II missiles. Each submarine deploys 12 missiles with a total of 48 warheads. The government refuses to say how much explosive power is carried by each warhead but 100 kilotons is probable. The Hiroshima bomb was 12.5 kilotons and killed 140,000 people.

Launched in 1994 and targeted at the Soviet Union, Trident’s development and production cost over £12 billion. However, this was only part of the total bill. An estimated £20 billion would be needed to operate and refit the submarines over their 20-year lifespan, the bases in Scotland overran their construction costs by £800 million (an increase of 72 percent) and a subsidiary of the US company Halliburton submitted a bill 176 percent over its original estimate for the refit yards at Devonport. Put simply, a huge amount of public money was spent on a weapons system designed to destroy an enemy that had ceased to exist.

As this was planned and executed under a Tory government, it might be thought that Labour would not necessarily follow the same policy. That, however, does not take into account the mindset of our prime minister. Tony Blair is in awe of men in uniform and has inherited the jingoistic, flag-waving instincts of Mrs Thatcher. The service chiefs and the defence manufacturers do not face a tough cross-examination from the ex-barrister in Number 10 when they lobby for new weaponry. Apparently even the prudent Gordon Brown has saluted and climbed aboard. One of his close colleagues was quoted as saying that giving up the independent nuclear deterrent ‘would be a catastrophic loss of influence’.

Trident, of course, is not ‘independent.’ It is an essentially American weapon that can only be deployed with the permission of the US government. The US-manufactured missiles have to be sent to King’s Bay, Georgia, for servicing and their warheads are made at Aldermaston by three private contractors, including Lockheed Martin. If it were independent, it would run counter to current British policy, as the 2003 Defence White Paper clearly stated that Britain could no longer fight wars separately from the US. In fact, the British armed forces are being reconfigured to serve as support for the American military.

The Scotsman, using US defence sources, has revealed the surreptitious plans of the government. The Ministry of Defence has told the Royal Navy to prepare for a multi-purpose nuclear submarine and for a new missile warhead to be designed at Aldermaston. The new submarine, called ‘maritime underwater future capability’, would carry vertical launch missile tubes, allowing them to fire both nuclear-tipped long-range missiles and conventionally-armed Tomahawk cruise missiles. This would replace both Trident and the navy’s hunter-killer submarines.

Big British military projects are often so far behind schedule that when they are eventually delivered, their original purpose has disappeared. The classic case is Eurofighter, designed in the 1980s to intercept incoming Soviet aircraft, and only now coming into service. Each plane costs £57 million, plus billions in development, and Britain has ordered 232, even though they cannot be used on the two new aircraft carriers. For that the public will have to pay for the Lockheed Joint Strike Fighter. The carriers are also subject to a dispute over price and specifications.

The problem faced by the advocates of more military spending is that they can’t find an enemy to be deterred by this expensive hardware. ‘Rogue states’ are sometimes mentioned vaguely. The only power with any such potential is China, but why would it want to launch a military attack when it is successfully mopping up western industries and selling itself as a cheap manufacturing base? Men plotting ‘terror’ in caves in Afghanistan are hardly likely to be deterred by a new British nuclear submarine. Some years ago, when I asked the chief executive of British Aerospace which air force the Eurofighter was intended to confront, he said he hadn’t a clue. For that, I’d have to contact the Royal United Services Institute, who analysed that sort of stuff. In any case, he added, his main enemy was ‘the Yanks’ who were trying to oust his company from its traditional military markets like Saudi Arabia.

British deployment of new missiles could well be a breach of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Article VI states, ‘Each of the parties to the treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith for effective measures relating to cessation of the arms race and to nuclear disarmament…’ Far from ‘pursuing negotiations’, the government is planning to continue the threat of nuclear weapons for a further lengthy period.

The government will argue that these are vital for the country’s security and will create more jobs. This will provide an opportunity for a broadbased campaign of opposition, centred on:

1) The cost. The expenditure will be at the expense of essential services (and jobs) in the public sector.

2) The lack of a credible enemy.

3) The Non-Proliferation Treaty. Why should countries like North Korea and Iran listen to lectures from a government that is planning to extend its own nuclear capability?

Such a campaign could be much wider than earlier peace protests as the economic factors would play a larger part and attract the support of those not normally associated with the anti-nuclear movement. The government should be forced to discuss the issues openly and not keep them hidden behind the closed doors of the Ministry of Defence.

Tim Webb was formerly Assistant General Secretary of the trade union MSF (now Amicus) and author of The Armour-Plated Ostrich – The Cost of Britain’s Addiction to the Arms Business.

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