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Dr Strangelove

Dr Strangelove

Trident – the case against renewal

As the Trident debate hots up, Rachel Lever here puts the case against renewal in the first of a two-part piece. Meanwhile Hastings Against War is to hold an open discussion on the subject on Sunday 21 February at the Observer Building (see below for details).  

The Trident system consists of four submarines armed with 48 nuclear warheads, cruising out of sight under the sea. It replaced the earlier practice of having nuclear-armed aircraft always airborne and ready to strike. The current system is due for renewal. There will be a vote on it this year, possibly in July. Some estimates put the costs at more than £183 billion over 32 years.

Trident’s renewal raises the question: what is it actually for? Tory foreign secretary Philip Hammond spilled the beans when he said (Sky News, 2 February) that the North Koreans “seem to think possessing a nuclear weapon makes them safe. In fact it’s the opposite. Having a nuclear weapon makes them a target.”

Maybe he thinks North Korea is on another planet.

If it doesn’t make us safer, is there another purpose? US defence secretary Ash Carter has just confirmed what we also suspected, that being a nuclear power gives a country top-dog status. He says it’s what makes Britain great, puts us at the heart of the ‘special relationship’, allowing Britain to “continue to play that outsized role on the global stage that it does because of its moral standing and its historical standing”.

Big boys, big toys

And currently, it has one other use. It has been used to rally Labour’s Right against Jeremy Corbyn. For David Cameron, it’s a wedge to drive into the Opposition, saying Labour cannot be trusted with the country’s security.

Incredibly, Jeremy Corbyn has been accused of “destroying” billions of pounds worth of nuclear hardware simply by promising that he would never use it: you see, if you remove the threat of a lethal counter-attack, then the Russians (seems they are still allocated the villain’s part) could bomb us without a care, though it wouldn’t do much for the value of their London real estate.

No, but seriously, Corbyn is so naïve he just doesn’t understand that you have to keep them guessing. As Sir Humphrey riffed in Yes Prime Minister, “They probably certainly know that you probably wouldn’t, but they don’t certainly know that although you probably wouldn’t there’s no probability that you certainly would”.

And the 1964 film Dr Strangelove famously had the world teetering on the brink of such nuclear deterrence. See it at the Observer Building at 3pm on 21 February, brought to you by Hastings Against War (more details below).

The independent deterrent

Trident is not remotely independent: as part of the ‘special relationship’, its missiles are leased from the USA, which also supplies components and does the servicing and maintenance. The US also controls all targeting and navigational data.

As for deterrence, it would not do much to deter jihadis, fascists or bible-bashers using viruses, chemical, biological or cyber attacks that have no geographical centre to counter-attack. A senior American diplomat, Nancy Soderberg, told Newsnight: “Our own intel says the threat we really have would be a terrorist getting components. That argues that less nuclear material out there is better.”

No ‘deterrent’ would be effective against apocalyptic fanatics, who see the end of the world as a dream, not a nightmare. Just as Al Qaeda used America’s own planes to attack New York, today’s Da’esh (or some future mutation) could manipulate nuclear states into war with each other. Or just plant a ‘tactical’ bomb onto a truck, ship or train.

Accidental war

The whole nuclear system is not only millions of times more destructive than ‘conventional’ bombing, but is designed for response and counter-response at huge speeds, liable to accidental launch, or even hacking. In Dr Strangelove a deranged commander sets it off and it turns out that to ensure no enemy tampers with it, there is no recall facility.

False alarms, faulty equipment, human error and political brinkmanship have, at least 13 known times, brought the world perilously close to nuclear destruction. For example, the Trident warheads are regularly transported between Berkshire and Scotland on public roads, vulnerable to catastrophic attack or accident.


Accidents are accidental, but escalation is not; it is built into international relations and habits of conflict, driven by the primitive bar-room aggression that makes Donald Trump and his ilk so scary. Its language of confrontation rewards politicians in a way that conciliation cannot – and the culture seeps by natural selection into the top brass and mandarins.

Escalations are driven by treaties, alliances and ultimatums, military exercises, ‘errors’ and dodgy apologies; public anxiety and enmity are magnified by manipulated news. Each blow must be countered by a bigger blow to establish dominance. Targets ratchet up from military installations to punitive attacks on civilians. If it isn’t stopped, vital political, cultural and financial centres such as capital cities are targeted.

Escalation goes rapidly from explosives to ‘tactical’ nuclear weapons, which have a lower threshold of use, evoking fewer inhibitions. Second strike responses (seen as more justified, less aggressive) are actually purely vengeful and also more likely to lead to all-out war. In the Cuban missile crisis, such a stand-off had the world just hours from war until one side (Russia, to its credit) blinked and pulled back.

Cyber attacks

Already, in any week, several hundreds of cyber attacks against NATO are intercepted. Many are aimed at financial and commercial infrastructure, but what if such attacks could reprogramme Trident submarines? They can’t do it now, but as one expert says of the new Trident: “The technology chasing them will be 30 or 40 generations on by the time they hit the water.”

The US Defence Science Board recently set up a 24-member task force; they spent 18 months studying more than 50 briefings from the intelligence community, commercial sector, academia, national laboratories and policymakers – and concluded that the cyber threat is serious and that the US “cannot be confident that our critical IT systems will work under attack”. This included “the success adversaries have had penetrating our networks” and their weak cyber hygiene position. IT was the weak link in the systems, with “staggering losses of system design information”. For the future, the most that could ever be achieved would be to contain and manage the threat. “There is no silver bullet that will eliminate the threats … and it is impossible to completely defend against the most sophisticated cyber attacks”. To do so would be “neither feasible nor affordable”.

Des Browne, Blair era defence secretary, who in 2007 argued in favour of replacing Trident, now asks whether the present government have carried out any such exhaustive research as led to the US report. And Ken Livingstone, co-chair of Labour’s defence review, said that Browne’s remarks and the US report show that Cameron should abandon plans to replace Trident, unless he can offer assurances that the system is protected from cyber-attacks. Meanwhile, underwater drones are the next thing and could change the equation once again.

In Part 2: The ups and downs of nuclear disarmament: a new challenge to the privileged role of the nuclear states – and breaking the distinction of unilateral and multilateral.


STOP Trident Hastings Feb 2016 003-3

Local campaigners against Trident

HAW Trident debate plus Dr Strangelove

With the decision on whether Britain will renew its Trident nuclear weapons system imminent, campaigners in Hastings will host a discussion event on the subject on Sunday February 21st, from 3 to 5.30pm at the Observer Building, 53 Cambridge Rd, Hastings.

Hastings Against War say: Interest in the issue of Trident is growing, with members of Hastings Against War reporting that a recent information stall held in the town centre was well received and gained support from local councillors, as well as members of the trades council and local religious groups.

In speaking out against Trident, long-term opponents of nuclear weapons have been joined by figures from a broader spectrum, such as former Conservative defence secretary Michael Portillo and Patrick Cordingley, leader of the 7th Armoured Brigade in the 1st Gulf War.

Fiona MacGregor of Hastings Against War said: “Nuclear weapons do not deter terrorists. They represent mid-twentieth century technology that is irrelevant for today’s security threats: climate change, pandemics and cyber attack.

“False alarms, faulty equipment, human error and political brinkmanship have brought us perilously close to nuclear destruction on numerous occasions. It is pure luck that we haven’t yet had a disaster – but luck will eventually run out.”

Hastings Against War will lobbyMP Amber Rudd about Trident renewal and in addition will be present at a national demonstration against Trident in London on Saturday 27 February. Anyone wishing to travel with the group should meet at Hastings rail station at 9am on that date.

At the discussion event there will also be a screening of the classic black comedy about nuclear weapons, Dr Strangelove. The event is free.

Hastings Against War meets at 7.30pm on the 1st and 3rd Tuesday of every month at Friends Meeting House, 5 South Terrace, Hastings TN34 1SA.


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Posted 20:36 Tuesday, Feb 16, 2016 In: The HOT Planet

1 Comment

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  1. Patrick Sydes

    Very good piece, Rachel. With you all the way.

    Comment by Patrick Sydes — Wednesday, Feb 17, 2016 @ 20:03

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