The Wolfian Blog

Trident and Nuclear Theory

Let us start at the heart of this issue - Game Theory. That is what MAD (Mutual Assured Destruction) is, the laying down of a position that if you nuke me, I will nuke you, and we will both be dead. With two superpowers facing off against each other,this theory made sense in the 1960s, and to a lessening extent in the 1970s and 1980s. It is a 'Destroy the World' end game where humanity's survival is irrelevant if your own survival cannot be ensured.

But it is a game that can only be played at superpower level, because 'if you nuke me, I'll destroy 3 of your cities' does not work as a deterrent. Only complete destruction works - after all it says Mutual (i.e. both equally) and Assured (for certain) Destruction.

The British and French nuclear arsenal, for Britain originally the V Bombers, then the Polaris submarines, and now the Trident submarines, were simply one wing of this, like a force of cavalry or a tactical air brigade. We are all in NATO and under Article 5 an attack on one is an attack on all and will be met by mutual defence. Thus, if any one member faced attack, then the whole NATO arsenal would come out in its defence.

It was spreading the cost, so it was not all the USA, and it was being autonomous, so that not all decisions could only be made in Washington. But it was never an independent nuclear deterrent, not least because the missiles are American, even if the warheads and submarines are British-made. For their designed purpose, Trident (as it is now) had no independent role, it existed to serve as an adjunct to a larger US launch against an adversary.

After the end of the Cold War, the UK obviously wanted to retain its nuclear capability, without having to address the change in circumstances. Trident is what we had, and it was a vehicle for our warheads, and a boon to our submarine industry, but as a weapon of logic it made increasingly less sense - indeed Michael Portillo, former Defence Secretary said that Trident was unfit for purpose in the modern world.

Since Putin has rebuilt Russia as a USSR in miniature it could be argued that Trident once again takes its place as a wing of NATO, if the worse comes to the worse. But in any other sense, Trident has no logical position.

Is it a deterrent? Against whom? The usual culprits will be ranged against us in this answer - North Korea, Iran etc. North Korea is barely able to make a functioning ballistic missile, and miles away from any ICBM. Iran perhaps could make an ICBM out of their space technology, but it has a far more sane leadership that North Korea. Sanity is the point, anyway - if a country's leadership is sane and thinking of their own future they would not even contemplate a nuclear strike. If they are insane and self-destructive no amount of deterrence will deter them.

But beyond that, if a country did launch a nuclear attack on the UK, it would face retaliation from the entirety of NATO. And this is where the underlying tenets of Game Theory break down. Let us say, for the sake of insanity, that Iran nuked Southampton, then why in all humanity would the UK's reponse be to nuke an Iranian city, killing hundreds of thousands of innocent men, women and children? NATO could easily launch an all-out conventional offensive instead. Iran will never nuke Southampton, but the mindset that says if they did we should murder hundreds of thousands of their civilians is appalling.

Game Theory says we should say that we would do it, anyway. But Game Theory only works with MAD. It makes no sense once you are into smaller-scale attacks. If we don't have a conventional force strong enough to push its own attack, then that is its own issue, and if it turns out we spent all our money on Trident instead of a fully functional combined services defence, then we are culpable.

A true answer to the question of what would we do would be to set aside the retaliatory murderous nuclear weapons strike, and look at real world options. Game Theory says we cannot say this, but reality underlying it would even so say that is what we should do. That is a conundrum - we should not tell the truth, because lying might make us feel safer. But the truth is that a combined NATO conventional strike against political, military, and logistical targets across an aggressor would be far more effective than launching a nuke in anger at some city of theirs.

The same argument applies even with so-called rogue, or terrorist, states. Let's take ISIS for example. In the impossible situation that they somehow got their hands on an ICBM and launched it at the UK, would we then nuke Raqqa and kill hundreds of thousands of people who had nothing to do with it? It seems that Theresa May and Michael Fallon might like to commit genocide and mass murder, but I imagine the generals and admirals might have other ideas. A co-ordinated conventional military offensive with ground, sea and air from all NATO nations to take, hold and eradicate ISIS would be the logical, obvious and no doubt the only seriously accepted response.

Trident does not have any role against rogue states, terrorist states, or against terrorists, or cyber attacks. All four of these things are what is most likely to be the source of the next most serious attack on the UK.

What the UK has is an autonomous nuclear capability. It does not have an independent nuclear deterrent. I would actually be in favour of retaining the capability because once you gave up nuclear weapons getting them back would be a financial and logistical nightmare. But this has no relevance to the question of using them. Trident, or anything we might replace it with, only has a deterrence effect as part of MAD, and thus as an aspect of NATO. It does not and could not deter rogue states, or terrorist states, because the response would come from the whole of NATO, not just the UK, and if any leader who gained the miraculous capability were to launch an attack on the UK they would have abandoned all rationality, so deterrence would have no effect anyway.

The main threats to the UK come from autonomous terrorists who ex post facto are claimed by global amalgams, and from cyber attacks from states such as Russia, or North Korea. Nuclear weapons obviously do nothing here, and have no role to play. Whole other strategies demanding resourcing of police and the intelligence agencies on the one hand, and international co-operation with the EU, NATO and the UN on the other are how such threats can be countered. It requires money, a reversal of cuts, an investment for urgent security needs, and a willingness to operate within and engage with our international friends.

Jay Wolfe