SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 196 March 2016

Socialism Today 196 - March 2016Nuclear weapons: state power and prestige

The Tory government is pushing through the renewal of Trident – at huge cost. Behind the bogus defence claims, the main aim is to prop up the pretence of Britain as a ‘great power’. LYNN WALSH reports on this colossal waste of resources.

The Tory government intends to update the Trident nuclear missile system, going for a parliamentary vote later this year. The upgrade will involve building four new nuclear submarines, each of which will carry eight missiles with 40 warheads. Each missile will have a destructive power 266 times the Hiroshima bomb, which killed 80,000 people in 1945.

This proposal has opened up a battle in the Labour Party. Jeremy Corbyn, who was elected leader with nearly 60% of the vote, supports unilateral nuclear disarmament and is opposed to Trident. The majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) support Britain’s ‘independent nuclear deterrent’ and an upgrade of Trident. Shadow foreign secretary Hilary Benn is the leading advocate of this policy.

The cost of the Trident refurbishment will be phenomenal. Money spent on nuclear weapons cannot be used to improve the NHS, education or other vital public services. There has already been massive spending on earlier systems, Polaris and the existing Trident. The four new submarines are estimated to cost £31 billion over five years, with an additional £10 billion set aside for ‘contingencies’. Nearly £4 billion has already been spent on the design stage.

However, defence department projects are notorious for their massive overspending. The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament estimates that the expenditure will be £100 billion over 40 years. Tory MP Crispin Blunt, chair of the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee and a former army officer, who opposes Trident, estimates the cost will be £167 billion between 2028-60, "too high to be rational or sensible". In the event of Scottish independence, moreover, the government would be forced to move the Trident submarine base from the Clyde to Devonport in the southwest of England. This could cost a further £4 billion.

In many ways, the debate on Trident is a sham. The system is already operational, the overwhelming majority of Tories support its renewal, and prime minister David Cameron can be confident that most Labour MPs will also back his proposal. In 2007, Tony Blair was similarly confident that he had the support of a majority of Tory and Labour MPs for the new nuclear warheads.

At the end of last year, Hilary Benn openly asserted that Labour would back Trident and that the measure would go through parliament, despite Jeremy Corbyn’s opposition. Benn claims he supports the eradication of all nuclear weapons but, pending multilateral negotiations to reduce and ultimately abolish them, he supports maintaining a nuclear arsenal and Britain remaining a member of NATO.

Faced with this challenge, Corbyn and his supporters in the PLP seem to be retreating rather than fighting for their position. Corbyn failed to sack Benn when he advocated British participation in the bombing of Syria, in direct opposition to the Labour leader’s policy. When the PLP recently debated Trident, Corbyn did not attend to support his shadow defence secretary, Emily Thornberry. She reportedly argued that there were ‘alternatives’ to Trident and fell short of opposing nuclear weapons.

Jeremy Corbyn also faces opposition from several trade union leaders. Len McCluskey, general secretary of Unite, and Sir Paul Kenny, outgoing leader of the GMB, two of the biggest unions which have a powerful influence within the Labour Party, strongly support Trident renewal. They argue that scrapping it would cost jobs, notably at the Barrow shipyards which would build the submarines and at naval dockyards with Trident facilities. There could also be job losses at Rolls Royce, which will build the reactors and turbines.

Under pressure from this opposition, Corbyn put forward an alternative proposal: the submarines should be built but should not carry nuclear weapons. This would be a massively expensive job creation scheme. Moreover, it appears completely ludicrous, like supplying rifles without bullets, opening the Corbyn leadership to ridicule.

The defence of jobs in shipbuilding and related industries requires the development of alternative lines of production, for socially useful projects. Shipyards could be used to build offshore wind turbines, tidal lagoons, etc. Other sectors of the engineering industry should be involved in producing equipment for renewable energy production. The scientists, engineers and technical workers now involved in the nuclear weapons industry could be employed developing new energy technologies. In the 1970s, for instance, trade unions at Lucas Aerospace drew up a plan for producing medical equipment, equipment for people with disabilities, etc. It was a pioneering project and now should be developed by the labour movement on a much bigger scale.

Power and influence

Advocates of Trident try to stigmatise opponents as not ready to defend Britain. Hilary Benn reiterates the old arguments in favour of supporting a nuclear arsenal. Nuclear weapons, he claims, have ‘prevented major wars’. But they have not prevented a series of ‘small’ proxy wars, either during the cold war or subsequently. Nuclear arsenals have not enabled the major powers to resolve the terrible armed conflict in Syria. Nor have they prevented the North Korean regime from developing nuclear weapons or long-range missiles. Trident did not help the British state protect the Russia exile Alexander Litvinenko from a ‘nuclear strike’, when Russian agents poisoned him in a London hotel with radioactive polonium.

In reality, behind the arguments defending nuclear weapons is the determination of the British ruling class to maintain their prestige, power and influence on the world stage. They desperately want Britain to ‘punch above its weight’. In his memoirs, Blair admitted the pros and cons of Trident were evenly balanced. But he considered the decisive factor was that "giving it up [was] too big a downgrading of our status as a nation, and in an uncertain world, too big a risk for our defence… but the contrary decision would not have been stupid".

Even more revealing is the comment from Fergal Dalton, a retired lieutenant commander from the Trident fleet: "I knew for 15 years that Trident was about keeping Britain as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, and most of the men I served with knew it too. We had an acute sense of ‘if we mess this up, the UK will lose its place at the big boys’ table’." (Ian Jack, Trident: The British Question, Guardian, 11 February 2016)

Tory ministers claim that Britain’s international status is enhanced by possession of an ‘independent nuclear deterrent’. But the independence is a fiction. The new submarines will be built in Barrow-in-Furness in Cumbria by BAe Systems (a multinational corporation) and Rolls Royce. They have already been dependent on technical support from the US military establishment. Trident missiles are US-built by Lockheed Martin in California. Britain will depend on the US for their maintenance. The warheads are built and maintained by the Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE, formerly AWRE) at Aldermaston and Burghfield in Berkshire – but AWE is currently managed by a consortium of two US firms and Serco. The British government legally owns the Trident missiles and warheads. But the US could pull the plug on the Trident system if it chose to.

Socialism Today 196 - March 2016

Out-of-date technology

The Trident system is also likely to become technologically outdated with the next few years. When Emily Thornberry made this point in the PLP meeting, she was heckled and vilified as ‘living in la-la-land’. Yet, she has a valid point. The rapid development of underwater sensors and underwater drones may well make it possible to locate nuclear submarines deep in the ocean. This would defeat the whole point of Trident submarines, which are supposed to be undetectable in order to avoid attacks and preserve their capacity to retaliate to a nuclear strike on their home territory. No doubt there is intensive research to protect the ‘stealth role’ of submarines.

But it is certain that major powers – the US, Russia, China, Britain and other NATO countries – are making intensive efforts to develop technology to locate submarines. For instance, such research is being carried out at the Centre for Maritime Research and Experimentation in northern Italy. (Julian Borger, Trident is Old Technology, Guardian, 16 January) By the time the new generation of submarines is launched, new technology may expose them to detection and attack.

There is also a huge effort being made to develop cyber warfare techniques. The Russian cyber-attack on Estonia in 2007, which paralysed the whole country, shows the potential power of this new weapon – which may be used against nuclear weapons systems. These developments are likely to render the Trident system as a gigantic white elephant.

Nuclear disarmament?

Benn argues that the nuclear powers have considerably reduced their nuclear arsenals and that the NPT (Non-Proliferation Treaty) has been successful in preventing the spread of nuclear weapons. True, there has been a huge reduction in the number of warheads internationally, from a peak of 68,000 in 1985. It is estimated that there are now 4,000 active nuclear weapons, with 10,300 still held in storage. But the NPT has not prevented North Korea developing weapons, nor India and Pakistan from building up their nuclear arsenals.

With the rise of international tension between the major powers and conflict, especially in the Middle East, the major nuclear powers are now embarking on an expansion of their arsenals. New technology is enabling the military to upgrade old weapons to turn them into battlefield weapons, with lower radioactive yields and more accurate guidance systems: "…smaller yields and better targeting can make the arms more tempting to use – even to use first, rather than in retaliation". (Broad and Sanger, US Shifts Focus to Smaller Nuclear Bombs, NYT, 13 January)

According to the Guardian, William Perry, US defence secretary (1994-97), commented that "the possibility of a nuclear exchange triggered by a military incident that spiralled out of control… is still remote, but it is no longer trivial". (Julian Borger, Nuclear Weapons Risk Greater than in Cold War Says Ex-Pentagon Chief, 7 January)

US president Barack Obama claims that he stands for the elimination of all nuclear weapons. Yet he is now sponsoring a programme to hugely expand the US arsenal. The Pentagon is planning to spend $355 billion (£243bn) on a range of nuclear weapons, missiles and submarines, nuclear-armed cruise missiles, and more, over the next decade. This is a new nuclear arms race. By supporting the renewal of Trident, the Cameron government, backed by Benn and his supporters, will be signing up to continue Britain’s role as an expensive appendage to the US military-industrial complex.

Jeremy Corbyn is right to oppose Trident. Nuclear weapons hang like a dark cloud over all of humanity. The diversion of resources to armaments from vital social expenditure is grotesque. But (as elaborated in our reprinted article from 2007) it is also necessary to recognise that Britain’s military apparatus and its nuclear arsenal is organically linked to the defence of the interests and the prestige of the ruling class. The elimination of nuclear weapons requires a fundamental change in the social system, in Britain and internationally. Only democratic socialist planning can provide a basis for the development of science and technology to satisfy the needs of the majority of society. Only global socialist cooperation can eliminate the causes of war and widespread military conflict.

For a start, Trident should be scrapped along with any other nuclear weapons. The jobs of defence industry workers should be protected, not through continued arms production, but through the development of alternative technology. The big arms manufacturers should be nationalised, as the basis for a plan of production to expand Britain’s manufacturing industry in the interests of the majority.

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