Nuclear Deterrent – A Necessary Defence, Or A Wasteful Expenditure?
Nuclear weapons have been a central component of national security since the days of the Cold War. It has been the symbol of power and strength for the mighty nations of the world, from the United States to Russia, as well as France and the United Kingdom. It has also been the catalyst for advancing the interests of smaller countries, including a belligerent North Korea under Kim Jong Un. Universally, however, it demonstrates the dangerous capabilities of humankind, having developed weapons that are designed to protect and deter, but in reality, can destroy civilisation as we know it.
So of course, it’s no surprise to see the debate over the future of nuclear weapons continue into the modern era. Opposition to nuclear weapons has been apparent since the near-beginning of nuclear weaponry, through the work of organisations such as the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, set up in 1957. Since then, efforts have been made around the world to continue the process of disarmament, though success is no doubt subjective and controversial.
The focus of this piece is centred firstly around the United Kingdom and its continuation of the Trident nuclear system. Inevitably, however, it will broaden to incorporate an international perspective on the issue, and thus raise the questions of whether these weapons are necessary, or just a wasteful expenditure. And in doing so, a further question must be raised: If disarmament is the way forward, then how do we approach it?
A necessary defence
Perhaps the central argument of continuing a world in which nuclear weapons exist is not one of desire but of necessity. The idea behind a system such as Trident is that by possessing a nuclear arsenal, potential enemies would be deterred from attacking them in the future; it also works vice versa. Though of course, nuclear weapons can destroy humankind, of which is frightening in nature, these days it is arguably necessary to continue a policy of nuclear weapons, so long as possible enemies choose to continue their own. It isn’t a morally-encouraging argument, no doubt, but arguably necessary in the safety of nations.
There’s also the argument of a lack of alternatives with regards to a deterrent. If it is agreed upon that nuclear weapons are a wasteful, useless example of a deterrent, then what instead fulfils the notion of a deterrent? In a world where provocations, aggression, and potential outbreaks of conflict are somewhat common, some form of hard military power is essential in the eyes of some people. Can a conventional arsenal, consisting of tanks, missiles, military aircraft, and so on, be enough to deter possible enemies from advancing their interests?
A wasteful expenditure
In the UK, the maintenance and operation of Trident are expected to hover around 5-6% of the Ministry of Defence’s budget. That money could be spent elsewhere. With an NHS in crisis almost every year, in particular during winter, more money is vital. Scrapping nuclear weapons would make more money available that can be dedicated to areas of immediate need, such as tackling problems of quality of healthcare, quality of education, resolving crises in rough sleeping, or funding the expansion of housing. In short, there are many areas in Britain which require financial assistance, and by freeing up money that is arguably wasted through a nuclear deterrent, a broader range of issues can be resolved.
Besides the money, we have to consider the issue of nuclear weapons and its world-destroying capabilities. One submarine in the Trident system alone has around eight missiles, each of which contains up to five warheads. Each of the Trident submarines has the potential power to kill ten million people and could cause many more in the resulting changes to global climates, economies, and politics [see reference]. The word’s nuclear-armed nations need to wake up and disarm. Maintaining nuclear weapons is not only a waste of money but an incredible risk to human lives. Regardless of politics and national interests, ultimately the world’s countries depend on one another economically, socially, and politically, to ensure relative peace and security on the earth. Nuclear warfare would destroy any elements of civilisation. Because of this, the world must think morally, and in doing so disarm to protect the billions of lives on this planet.
There also runs the risk of accidents. In the UK, there have been 16 submarine collisions and 266 submarine misfires, alongside other various safety issues. And even through transportation of nuclear weapons, there are risks. Between 2007 and 2012, there were 70 safety incidents involving convoys transporting nuclear warheads along British roads.
Unilateral disarmament vs Multilateral disarmament
Disarmament is already a feature of the world’s political efforts. It has been since the signing of the Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1970 by 190 countries, which set out the objective of ending the existence of nuclear weapons. With nine countries possessing over 16,000 nuclear weapons in the modern day, with the United States and Russia taking the lead on numbers, the need to disarm has never been higher; nor has the risk of a safety issue or even war. These two countries alone have around 2,000 nuclear weapons in active service and are on high-alert – meaning, that they can be fired within minutes. Other treaties have been signed in the modern day. In 2017, over 100 countries signed a UN treaty which bans nuclear weapons completely. However, not all countries have made it legally binding, with only a few dozen countries doing so. And most importantly, the nuclear-armed nations of the world, such as the US, UK, and Russia, have boycotted the treaty, citing its violation of the Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Nonetheless, it demonstrates that the answer to the original question has already been made. Nuclear disarmament is happening, but it’s not happening fast enough. And the way in which it’s being processed is debatable. The divide centres around two approaches – unilateral disarmament, and multilateral disarmament.
Unilateral disarmament refers to one country choosing to disarm their nuclear arsenal, regardless of whether other nations follow suit. In contrast, multilateral disarmament refers to multiple countries opting to disarm at the same time. Each have their critics. Critics of multilateral disarmament argue that the process is going too slowly and that by disarming completely alone, it will set a precedent to the world that says nuclear weapons can be abolished without needing countless summits and treaties between nations. The issue can be resolved – quickly. On the other hand, critics of unilateral disarmament could argue, depending on the nation in question as well, that one country disarming would not only not have any impact on the matter of global disarmament, but would instead raise the threat of war, as by removing the deterrent, potential enemies can gain the upper hand in some form. Of course, I am sure there are other arguments to consider on top of this for both sides, but this sets out the debate and the perspectives of each side on the issue.
Humanity has shown many sides throughout its history. It has shown that it is incredibly intelligent and able to advance technologies to such wonderful levels. But, it has also shown how destructive it can be in the development of technology, and also how easily technology can be weaponised. Nuclear technology could be utilised for providing a new source of energy, for example, which would help to alleviate dependency on fossil fuels. But, it has predominantly been used to create weapons of mass destruction that can wipe the world entirely at the push of a button. Disarmament is incredibly important, the way in which it happens is debatable. I for one would argue that multilateral disarmament is the way to go. One nation disarming isn’t enough, and the UN needs to step up their game and get involved with furthering efforts to disarm the nuclear-armed nations of the world. A nuclear-free world is indicative of a world that wants to advance beyond notions of conflict and war. As utopian as that is to some, disarmament can happen and should happen. It was Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Regan in 1987 who believed that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” That is a message the world must listen to as it seeks to create a more peaceful global society.