Trident, Euro 2016 and the Somme

In this blog I consider the renewal of Trident from a risk management perspective. I used to think Trident was a disastrous idea and a total waste of money. But Euro 2016 made me re-think; I shall explain why. I have now concluded that Trident is just a very bad idea and a terrible waste of money.

When you do risk management you look at the risks and then look at ways of managing those risks. This might seem obvious but let’s see where this obviousness takes us.

Trident is a nuclear deterrent, so it’s an attempt to manage the risk that if someone is considering threatening us, possibly with nuclear weapons, or our allies or our interests, by deterring these potential assailants because of our possession of Trident.
Who might be these potential assailants be and will they be deterred by Trident?

Countries in Europe have the potential to attack the UK. France, for example, has nuclear weapons and is easily within striking distance. But is France or another European country going to attack the UK in the foreseeable future?  I think this is so unlikely that it should be immediately discounted. It is possible that a major European country did have a social breakdown, elect a war-mongering neo-Fascist government and start to make threatening noises. But this would take quite a few years, giving us enough time to re-build our nuclear capacity.

The USA has the capability of taking out the UK, but if it decided to do so, quite frankly we are doomed weather or not we had Trident. Plus, I don’t think President Trump would do so because he would want to play golf on his course in Scotland.
There are terrorist groups such as ISIS who do threaten the UK. But Trident provides no deterrent against them.

There are countries with powerful militaries in Asia, some of which have nuclear weapons or could develop them. These might include China, India, Pakistan, Israel, Iran, North Korea amongst others. But these countries are too far away to attack the UK, and anyway why would they? They have many other countries they would pick a fight with long before the UK. If we got involved, with Trident, I can’t see that it would ever make the situation better, and quite frankly we are too small and puny to make any difference anyway.

So that leaves one credible threat and that is Russia. Russia has a very powerful military and lots of nuclear weapons, some of which are probably targeted at the UK.  I used to think that Russia was no threat at all, but I now think it could develop into one. Vladimir Putin has ruled Russia since 2000, so we have had a long time to get to know the guy and he is actually quite predictable. He has one main overriding concern, and that is to stay in power. If you look at his foreign interventions, they follow a pattern; he goes into a country which he considers is in his sphere of influence and he doesn’t like the government, supports or puts his guys in, and then gets out quickly, trying to work through his local allies, and trying to hide Russia’s involvement. He sometimes tries to annex a bit of territory where Russians are in the majority. He has done this in Georgia, Ukraine and Syria.
What he has not done is openly invade and threaten countries outside his sphere of influence. He may conceivably do something similar to Estonia. Are we going to have a nuclear war with Russia and risk annihilation over Estonia? I think not. Over Poland? Maybe. But Putin will not invade Poland because it puts at risk his main and overriding objective which is to keep himself in power.

So why have I had a rethink and why the Euros? If you remember the English fans were attacked by Russian fans called the Ultras. These are part of the extreme nationalist movement in Russia. Putin sponsors “opposition“ movements from the Kremlin; these opposition movements are of use to him but he controls them whilst giving the appearance that there is an opposition. He has done this with the nationalist movement but has lost control over it, and it is very poisonous indeed, the Ultras being one expression. Putin is now 63, he won’t last forever. What will come after him? I have no idea but it could be nasty.

So there is a potential risk that a post-Putin ultra nationalist government will gain power in Russia and start threatening its neighbours, which is why I now think that the kind of risk that Trident attempts to manage could conceivably come to pass.
Also, of course there are unknown unknowns. This is that some new risk emerges that we haven’t thought about. But when it comes to powers emerging that could develop nuclear capacity, there are only the potential players that I have mentioned, as it takes a long time to do so, and you need to control a large economy to get to that stage, and it takes a very long time to develop a large economy. It is conceivable that a non-government actor, like ISIS, would get hold of a nuclear weapon, but then Trident will not deter such a group, so is useless against such a threat.

Trident will cost somewhere between £30 billion and £205 billion depending on whom you believe. Could we provide a better deterrent for this money? I think we could. We could use the entire budget on cyber defence. If we could develop cyber-assault facilities with the capability to take out Russia’s weapon’s system, this would indeed be a deterrent and genuine defence. Even being able to knock out their power, logistic and transport systems would hamper any military ambitions they might had. Will this work? Maybe not, but £205 billion is a lot of money to spend on computer programmers.

On the other hand having Trident will be no deterrent against a bunch of ultra-nationalists controlling Russia, their only concern would be what USA might do. And at least a cyber defence will have positive externalities, it will make us more secure against more immediate threats such as cyber-attacks and terrorism, it would create a huge number of jobs in a highly useful industry and it could make the UK a world leader in cyber security which is of increasing importance to business. By contrast, as well as not even potentially working a deterrent, Trident will generate 500 jobs and no positive externalities that I can think of.

This year is the centenary of the Battle of the Somme, so readers might have recently seen the military technology used in that terrible battle. None of those weapons would have been any use at all at the end of the 2nd World War, which was 30 years later. Indeed, most of the weapons and tactics used in 1916 were pretty much obsolete by the end of the 1st World War, 2 years later. Yet Trident is supposed to last for 30 years, as if military technology will not have changed dramatically over this period. In contrast, cyber-warfare is much more likely to be how battles are fought in the future, so we better start preparing now.
Other arguments are put forward in favour of Trident which are, quite frankly, pathetic; for example to share the burden of defence with our allies – buying a useless weapons system does not help our allies – or getting us some seat at some table. Really? Has anyone done a cost benefit analysis on this?

The proposal that I have made of spending £205 billion on cyber-defence is hastily drawn up, and not necessarily the best use of the money, in fact I have just made it up whilst writing this blog, yet it is demonstrably a better idea then blowing that budget on Trident. Cyber defence would have more chance of success as both a deterrent and a genuine defence than Trident. It could defend UK interests from a variety of other real and potential threats which will only increase in the future. It will generate a great deal of employment and spin-off benefits for the UK economy. Which all shows just what a terrible, useless waste of money Trident would be.

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Radix is the radical centre think tank. We welcome all contributions which promote system change, challenge established notions and re-imagine our societies. The views expressed here are those of the individual contributor and not necessarily shared by Radix.

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