National security: the irrelevance of nuclear weapons

By Mike Phipps

A new report from the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament looks at the huge security challenges of the COVID-19 era, why nuclear weapons can never keep us safe and how our security would be best served by scrapping the Trident nuclear defence system.

Security not Trident asks why Britain found itself so unprepared for the coronavirus pandemic, with insufficient equipment, staff and infrastructure. “For some years, pandemics have been designated tier one threats to our security,” says CND. ” Successive governments have identified such human health crises as needing the highest level of concern and planning. Yet the necessary level of investment has not been put into preparing for this major risk.”

Nuclear weapons, on the other hand, have been designated tier two threats by the government’s last two security strategies.  “Yet the governments that produced those risk assessments chose to automatically pour money into a new nuclear weapons system to ‘meet’ this lower level threat, leaving the health system chronically underfunded.”

Pandemics, the climate crisis, water and food insecurity are all major security issues now on the agenda. In fact, the largest security threats the UK faces are now non-military. But the government’s capacity to deal with them is hindered by the huge wasteful spending on nuclear weapons.

Replacing the Trident nuclear submarine system will cost at least £205 billion. Paul Rogers, Emeritus Professor of Peace Studies at Bradford University, argues in his book Irregular War: the New Threat from the Margins (I B Tauris in 2017), that “nuclear weapons are not just irrelevant and dangerous but they stop us addressing the real problems.”

He identifies three: rising “anger and frustration across much of the world as educated but marginalised people see so few life chances,” secondly, “the steadily increasing impact of environmental limits to growth,” and thirdly, “the propensity for elite states to maintain control of an uncertain and threatening world by resort to force.”

Climate change especially needs highlighting. Senior military figures have formally warned that global warming is the greatest security threat of the 21st century. Friends of the Earth estimate that there are currently 40 million environmental refugees, driven to migrate due to food insecurity, drought and rising sea levels. While vast sums are spent on Trident, the UK’s own Environmental Agency has had its budget halved since 2010.

“Britain’s nuclear weapons contribute to the ever-worsening climate crisis,” the report notes. “Trident uses massive energy and resources in research, production, operation, dismantling and eventual waste storage, never mind the environmental catastrophe that would be created if it were ever deployed. This is in addition to the environmental devastation wreaked by decades of uranium mining, nuclear testing and nuclear waste dumping.”

In any case, there are real questions about the future viability of Trident due to the potential for underwater drones to be able to efficiently detect the submarine platform on which the whole system is based.

The threat to security constituted by pandemics should also be emphasised. Even before the onset of COVID-19, the increasing interconnectedness of the world, inadequate public health services and the rise of drug resistance all meant that infectious diseases – now emerging at an unprecedented rate – could spread faster than before.

Terrorism also remains an ongoing concern, with the UK threat level still “substantial”. Nuclear weapons do not address this.

Finally, the UK is facing an increasing threat of cyber-attacks from hostile states, terrorist and criminals. In September 2020 it was revealed that Britain is defending itself against 60 significant cyber-attacks a day.

And cyber-attacks themselves could further render Trident obsolete, as former Defence Secretary Lord Browne warned five years ago. The worst-case scenario is a hostile, cyber take-over of our nuclear weapons system.

The government’s upcoming Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy is an opportunity to reassess the real security needs of the UK. CND is calling for a rethink, but few people expect the government to listen.

Image: A Mark 7 Nuclear Bomb. Author:  Chairboy at en.wikipedia,  licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.