Scrapping Trident and transitioning to a nuclear-free world

As the illicit trade in nuclear weapons escalates alongside the risk of geopolitical conflict, it’s high time governments decisively prioritised nuclear disarmament – and that means scrapping Trident, the UK’s inordinately expensive nuclear deterrent, which would also facilitate the redistribution of scarce public resources to fund essential services.


As geopolitical tensions escalate in the Middle East and the world teeters on the brink of a new Cold War, it’s clear that the only way to eliminate the threat of nuclear warfare is for governments to fulfil their long-held commitment to the “general and complete disarmament” of nuclear weapons – permanently. A bold and essential step towards this crucial goal is to decommission Trident, the UK’s ineffective, unusable and costly nuclear deterrent submarines. Renewing Trident would not only undermine international disarmament efforts for years to come, it will reinforce the hazardous belief that maintaining a functional nuclear arsenal is essential for any nation seeking to wield power on the world stage.

Needless to say, modern nuclear bombs are many times more destructive than those dropped on Japan at the end of the Second World War, and would result in a host of immeasurably devastating impacts on the natural world and human life if they were deployed today. The extent to which nuclear weapons currently proliferate the globe is therefore alarming and underscores the need for radical action on this critical issue. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, nine countries (the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, China, India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea) possess a total of 16,000 nuclear weapons, of which 4,300 are deployed with operational forces and 1,800 are “kept in a state of high operational alert” – which means they can be launched within a 5 to 15-minute timeframe if necessary.    

However, these figures don’t tell the full story. According to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, five other European nations host US nuclear weapons on their territory as part of a NATO agreement, and 23 additional countries rely on US nuclear capabilities for their national security. Furthermore, the spread of nuclear technology and the illicit trade in nuclear weapons means that any state can potentially develop or purchase nuclear-grade weapons, which confirms the widely held view that a number of other nations unofficially harbour nuclear warheads, and many more could do so in the years ahead.

Fading visions of nuclear disarmament

The abundance of nuclear weapons and related technology highlights the weakness of the international Non-Proliferation Treaty, which has only made limited progress on nuclear disarmament since its inception in 1968 despite near universal membership. With high levels of nuclear stockpiles still in existence, there is also a very real risk of unintended but deadly consequences. According to a report by The Royal Institute of International Affairs, there have been 13 instances of nuclear bombs being ‘accidently’ deployed since 1962 by Russia, the US and other countries – mainly due to technical malfunctions or breakdowns in communication. As international disarmament efforts diminish, such risks are set to increase alongside the growing likelihood of targeted terrorist attacks on existing nuclear facilities.  

It’s clear that Trident, like every other nuclear weapons system, is a relic of a bygone age that simply cannot guarantee the safety of any nation at a time when global terrorism and climate change pose a far more urgent threat to national security than other states with nuclear weapons. As the columnist Simon Jenkins puts it, “All declared threats to Britain tend to come either from powers with no conceivable designs on conquering Britain or from forces immune to deterrence.” Indeed, most countries of the world (including 25 NATO states) don’t maintain their own nuclear stockpiles, and yet they have been just as successful in ‘deterring’ nuclear war as the UK.

Moreover, the International Court of Justice has ruled that the threat or use of nuclear weapons would be contrary to the rules of international law, which means that their use would be illegal in virtually any situation. Given that it is close to unimaginable that a so-called world leader would ever deploy nuclear weapons (on ethical and legal grounds, as well as for fear of retaliatory consequences) their value as an effective deterrent is unjustifiable and deeply flawed. The farcical arguments employed to rationalise building and maintaining such weapon systems are amusingly summarised in a Yes, Prime Minister comedy sketch from 1986, which aired soon after Margret Thatcher first inaugurated the Trident missile system in the UK:

Sir Humphrey: With Trident we could obliterate the whole of eastern Europe.

Hacker: I don’t want to obliterate the whole of eastern Europe.

Sir Humphrey: But it’s a deterrent.

Hacker: It’s a bluff. I probably wouldn’t use it.

Sir Humphrey: Yes, but they don’t know that you probably wouldn’t.

Hacker: They probably do.

Sir Humphrey: Yes, they probably know that you probably wouldn’t. But they can’t certainly know.

Hacker: They probably certainly know that I probably wouldn’t.

Sir Humphrey: Yes, but even though they probably certainly know that you probably wouldn’t, they don’t certainly know that, although you probably wouldn’t, there is no probability that you certainly would.

Redistributing vital public resources

Given that the nine nuclear-armed governments together spend an astounding $100bn a year on nuclear forces (mainly via private corporations), those who play a significant role in sustaining this appalling industry are also likely to be profiting handsomely from it. In the UK, for example, strong support for renewing Trident comes from the lucrative and influential defence industry as well as the many banks, insurance companies, pension funds and asset managers that invest heavily in companies producing nuclear weapon systems. According to some calculations, 15 percent of members in the UK’s House of Lords “have what can be deemed as 'vested interests' in either the corporations involved in the programme or the institutions that finance them”.

In both moral and economic terms, spending such vast amounts of public money on producing these weapons of mass destruction is tantamount to theft as long as austerity-driven governments profess to lack the funding needed to safeguard basic human needs and ensure that all people have sufficient access to essential public services. While estimates for the cost of renewing Trident vary considerably, it is likely that the initial outlay will be in the region of £30-40bn ($42-56bn), although this figure could rise to as much as £167bn ($234bn) over the course of its lifetime.

Rather than wasting these vast sums on the inhumane machinery of warfare, some of it could be used to provide emergency assistance to desperate refugees and asylum seekers that policymakers have shamefully neglected, or to shore up overseas aid budgets that are being syphoned away to cover domestic refugee-related expenses. As the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) calculate, if £100bn ($140bn) from the Trident budget was spent bolstering vital public services instead, it would be enough to “fully fund A&E services for 40 years, employ 150,000 new nurses, build 1.5 million affordable homes, build 30,000 new primary schools, or cover tuition fees for 4 million students.”

In light of the pressing need to decommission nuclear stockpiles and redistribute public resources in a way that truly serves the (global) common good, the upcoming vote in the UK Parliament on renewing Trident presents an important opportunity for campaigners and concerned citizens to raise our voice for a just and peaceful future. Many thousands of protesters are expected to unite on the streets of London this Saturday 27th February in a joint demand to end the UK’s Trident program and share public resources more equitably. As CND point out in their scrap trident campaign, it's high time the UK government complies with its obligation under international law to eliminate our nuclear arsenal: “By doing so we would send a message to the world that spending for peace and development and meeting people’s real needs is our priority, not spending on weapons of mass destruction.”

Image credit: Surian Soosay, Flickr create commons