Trident is the UK’s nuclear weapons system, consisting of four submarines carrying missiles and nuclear warheads. Trident has recently come to the forefront of the news again due to the government’s wish to upgrade the ageing system, which was developed in the 1980s. An upgrade is estimated to cost around £20bn, according to the MoD, while groups opposing the need for nuclear weapons claim the overall costs could be a lot higher than this. So, does the UK need Trident?
A Utilitarian Perspective
Trident’s primary purpose is to deter the most extreme threats to our national security and way of life. The potential risk of not investing in Trident is the lives of millions of UK citizens. Estimates for replacing Trident range from £100bn to £167bn. But are the alternatives any better? The Trident Alternatives Review in 2013 demonstrated that no alternative system is as capable as the current Trident based deterrent, or as cost effective. Its upgrade can therefore be argued for based upon its cost efficiency and unique remit.
However, analysis of social consequences indicates that Trident may not be necessary at all. The validity of the Trident Alternatives review relies on the assumption that such a deterrent is required. Former foreign secretary Robin Cook stated that Trident is “worse than irrelevant” for dealing with Britain’s international security challenges. Similarly, Major General Patrick Cordingley believes “strategic nuclear weapons have no military use”. This refutes the idea that a nuclear deterrent is necessary or relevant. Without the expense of Trident, money could be reallocated to alleviate the budget cuts on health and welfare sectors, providing significant benefits to millions of UK citizens. It seems illogical that spending for the project is allowed to balloon to the hundreds of billions whilst the Chancellor demands other departments to cut costs. On the other hand, the social cost of not upgrading Trident may prove disastrous since there would be an unprecedented hole in Britain’s defence strategy. Cook and Cordingleys’ opinions must be taken with a pinch of salt given that what they argue is essentially a step into the unknown, making it difficult to fully assess the consequences.
The decision to upgrade Trident will also have consequences on the UK’s political standing. In order to preserve our sovereignty, possessing a nuclear deterrent is the ultimate expression of military might, making hostile states think twice before attacking, and protecting the lives of UK citizens. However, once again the relevancy of this argument can be questioned. Tim Collins of the Centre for Science and Security Studies research group is sceptical that the UK will ever use its nuclear deterrent in the future. Due to the political support received from NATO and the UN, and the fact that no nuclear attack has occurred since World War 2, it is an unlikely set of circumstances that would see us deploy Trident. Despite this, we may appear as a soft touch or easy target were we not to possess a deterrent.
Applying a Utilitarian viewpoint allows us to justify a decision based on the greatest benefit to the greatest number of people. It is undeniable that the risk to 64 million British lives outweighs the social consequences of its financial cost. Therefore, it is clear that Trident should be upgraded.
A Deontological Perspective
As a leading economic superpower in the modern world, the UK has numerous obligations both to its citizens and to the rest of the world. With global tension rising due to conflict in the Middle East, the UK government has a pertinent duty to protect its citizens from the threat of war; and as a UN member, the UK is committed to supporting allied countries in potential conflicts. The Trident program can be seen as a huge deterrent to potential attacks, and gives the UK the military power to support allies. Trident could also allow the UK to “punch above its weight diplomatically”, enabling it to act dutifully in influencing sensitive global issues. Trident is seen as a safety barrier for the UK from other Nuclear Weapon States; a last resort system to be used under the strategy of “mutually assured destruction” – if you come for me then I’ll come for you. However, the intention is that Trident will never actually have to be used.
So if Trident may never be used – should the UK invest so much money into improving it? It can be argued that there are more effective methods than Trident of preventing war, and as a country with global influence, the UK is obligated to promote world peace by effectively managing diplomatic relations and advocating nuclear disarmament. How will this duty be met if we upgrade our nuclear defense system? By discarding their nuclear arsenal, the UK government would fulfil its obligation to defend human rights by reducing the threat to innocent civilians. Additionally, the UK has other, arguably more important worldwide responsibilities than military defense. The UK has a responsibility to invest in sustainable development to reduce its carbon footprint and combat the imminent threat of climate change, as well as a duty to provide financial support to developing countries. The huge cost of Trident could be better spent on achieving these objectives.
Similarly, looking closer to home, the government has a duty to provide support to its own citizens and maintain high living standards. With the present state of austerity, there is more urgent need for investment in existing problems than in preventative measures for an issue that may not arise. In light of the current strain on the NHS, the housing crisis, and constant issues surrounding education and welfare, it is arguable that the UK government has a greater and more pressing responsibility to invest in these areas rather than military defence.
Overall it seems the government’s duties to promote world peace, drive sustainability, and improve living standards for its own citizens, outweigh their obligation to invest in defense against a non-imminent threat. Therefore, the UK government should act responsibly and reject the proposed Trident upgrade.
36: Jodie Curtis*, Corey West*, Stuart Benson, Sophie Watson