Leader: Concept behind Trident past its sell-by date

A control room in the simulator of a Vanguard Class vessel  the kind that carries nuclear missiles. Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty
A control room in the simulator of a Vanguard Class vessel  the kind that carries nuclear missiles. Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty
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Members of parliament will have their say tomorrow on whether the UK should go ahead with a replacement for the Trident nuclear deterrent. It seems likely a majority will assert their support for a new generation of missile-carrying submarines costing billions of pound.

And there are, undoubtedly, arguments in favour of this course of action.

We live in unstable times of global unrest, old tensions between East and West have been reasserted, and there are legitimate concerns about the direction of travel of states such as Syria, Iran and North Korea. Tensions are rising across the South China Sea.

Opponents of nuclear weapons make the case that they are immoral, but many of those who would have the UK rid itself of them remain supportive of conventional weapons. Is there truly a moral difference between nuclear and conventional weapons? Some historians say, for example, that more civilians were wiped out in the carpet bombing of German cities in the Second World War than were killed when the atomic bombs were dropped on Japan. And at least the bombs on Japan ended the war.

There is, of course, one significant difference between conventional and nuclear weapons. The former are, in theory at least, primarily targeted at military opponents, while the latter are designed to be aimed at population centres. They are anti-civilian weapons.

Would our society ever give our political leaders a mandate to wipe out millions of civilians? Under what circumstances might this happen? Which country’s people might possibly be targets for such aggression? Would we ever act unilaterally?

The UK’s membership of Nato offers reassurance about our safety. It is an alliance of many nations that assures mutual defence. With this in mind, do we really require our own stand-alone nuclear deterrent?

Might it not make more sense to look at how we might shelter under the Nato umbrella – contributing to the costs of shared defences – and diverting funds to other areas?

The major threat to our citizens – to citizens across the western world – is from acts of terrorism by lone operatives or small cells, albeit with some kind of central organisation. Eliminating their organisational operating bases is important, but it does not need nuclear weapons fired from submarines.

It makes sense that money invested in a new generation of nukes would be better spent on anti-terror officers and intelligence services and on ensuring that members of the armed forces, when they are called upon to act overseas, are properly equipped to carry out the work we demand of them.

The horrific attack in Nice on Thursday night illustrated starkly how important it is that we adapt to meet the changing nature of the threats that we face.

The need for nuclear weapons is outdated. We understand that they might offer some comfort – where a threat is perceived, who wouldn’t want to keep hold of the big stick they represent? But common sense says it’s now time to get rid of these weapons.