N-Britain Goes Uselessly to Sea


Nuclear Abolition News | IPS
By Sanjay Suri

LONDON (IPS) - Too early yet to call it a victory for anti-nuclear lobbyists, but the British government decision last week to put off an upgrade of its Trident nuclear system is at least denial of immediate victory to those who want newer nuclear weapons.


A move to upgrade the Trident system was due to get going in September. But several MPs asked for a debate on this, rather than have the move go ahead while Parliament was in recess. Prime Minister Gordon Brown did one better – he has put off the decision until after the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) meeting due in May of next year.

"This is consistent with the intentions of the Prime Minister in favour of multilateral disarmament decisions worldwide," Kate Hudson, chair of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) Kate Hudson told IPS.

The question of the extension of the Trident system will also now be included in the Strategic Defence Review due to begin in the spring of next year.

Trident is a system comprising 58 nuclear-armed submarine-launched ballistic missiles fitted on to four submarines. At least one of these submarines is on constant patrol. The system is a shorter version of the U.S. Navy's fleet of 14 submarines each equipped with nuclear missiles.

The Trident system was considered by many to be outdated even when it entered service in 1994; the Soviet threat against which it was designed had already receded. The case for keeping up such a system is now far weaker.

"We don't believe the UK needs a nuclear weapons system, and we are very pleased that recent polls show that the UK should scrap it," says Hudson. "Retired generals and field marshals have been saying the system is militarily useless and should be scrapped."

A Guardian/ICM poll on Jul. 14 indicated that 54 percent of Britons want the country to get rid of nuclear weapons, and that only 42 percent want replacement of the Trident with a new generation of nuclear weapons.

Britain keeps the system going at a considerable cost of up to 2 billion pounds (3.2 billion dollars) a year. The official upgrade cost would be 76 billion pounds (124 billion dollars). Taking into account the cost of dealing with the present system, Britain is looking at a nuclear weapons bill of 100 billion pounds (160 billion dollars).

But there is a cost here that goes far beyond money. Many fear it is damaging to keep a useless system going just in case of some threat that may emerge in the future, even if there is none at the moment that the submarines are guarding Britain against.

"It cannot be just a matter of keeping these weapons in the cupboard just in case," says Hudson. "That would only encourage others to have them, and as a result you might just end up creating a situation where one might actually need them. Instead we need a virtuous cycle, and begin to come down to the global zero that everyone in the world aspires to."

The push to include the Trident replacement in the Strategic Defence Review has a limited degree of cross-party support, but the position on the Trident is certain to change after elections due in Britain next year – possibly around the same time as the NPT conference in May. There are clear indications that the Conservative Party will win the next election. The Conservatives have traditionally been keener on nuclear weapons than Labour.

Conservative Party leader David Cameron has backed modernisation of the Trident system. "That's a mandate if we're elected that we will have to deliver," he says.

But a British leadership would have to take its cue from the trends that emerge from any agreement between U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. Talks between the two leaders in London in April and again in Moscow earlier this month have yielded encouraging signs of steps towards reduction of nuclear stockpiles, if not outright disarmament.

Any British move towards upgrading to new weapon systems would fly in the face of the trends Obama may set. And it may not be entirely a choice for Britain to make, dependent as it is on the U.S. to supply much of these systems, even though officially Britain's nuclear weapons programmes is independent of that of the U.S.

Any move to renew the Trident system also sets the government in London against Scottish parties; the nuclear submarines are all based at Clyde in Scotland. The Scottish National Party that campaigns for independence of Scotland from the UK has the support of several smaller parties, and a renewal of the Trident could strengthen these parties' campaign against the government at Westminster in London.

Scottish National Party leader Alex Salmond has already clashed with Conservative Party leader David Cameron over a Trident renewal, following Cameron's call not to obstruct the programme for renewing the Trident.

"If that missile system is unwanted by the body politic of Scotland, unwanted by Scottish members of parliament at Westminster, not wanted by the Scottish Parliament, then surely that Prime Minister would expect the Scottish Parliament to make its view known in every area and way that was open to it to do."