Friday, August 13, 2010

The end of the Cold War

Defence Secretary Liam Fox's speech this morning was an excellent explanation as to why Trident replacement should be cancelled. He spoke of the need to adapt to the conditions of the twenty first century and attacked the magnitude of Labour's legacy of unfunded but gigantic defence schemes. Interestingly, he constantly pressed the point about the Cold War being over and weapons of that era no longer being appropriate.

It's a pity that the logic of all this is not being applied to Trident replacement. Submarine launched intercontinental missiles armed with multiple nuclear warheads were the unused weapons of the Cold War. They worked because they never needed to be used. They were an effective balance of mutually assured destruction between two geographically gigantic nations around which the smaller nations grouped. The twenty first century is different. There is no need to maintain a nuclear weapons system that is designed to survive a massive first strike from the other side which can then be used to wipe out the side that launched the first strike. Other than China, the nations known to have the bomb or developing it cannot be conceived as superpowers looking to maintain a dominant world role in the face of another dominant power also seeking to maintain a similar role.

The occasionally stated case that we need a submarine based missile system to target the likes of Iran is spurious at best. Even with nuclear weapons, Iran could not hope to threaten the whole of the rest of the world. At best, they could hope to deliver an amount of physical damage to the rest of the world that would be relatively small. The cost of doing so would be their own complete destruction.

Were Iran to develop nuclear weapons, a submarine based missile based system is an absurdly costly and over-the-top response. The sophistication of modern weaponry which is none nuclear would be sufficient to bring Iran to her knees in a very short space of time (probably aided by her own people horrified that their government has just launched a nuclear strike). If a nuclear weapon system is needed to deter or defend against this (and personally I am not convinced a nuclear system is needed), there are much cheaper options, such as air launched weapons.

The submarine system of the Cold War was developed because each side feared that a first strike from the other side would make land bases such as missile silos and airbases vulnerable in a first strike, making it impossible to retaliate. Submarine systems got around that problem. Given that not even China could dispense such a knockout blow to the rest of the world, submarine systems are an expensive and completely unnecessary weapon system.

So, time for Trident replacement to be cancelled. It's a pity Liam Fox is therefore not pressing the logic of his own arguments.
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