Imogen Michel, ‘Nuclear Diversion’ The Student (Edinburgh), 26 October 2010
It was revealed a few weeks ago that the idea of shared UK-French nuclear deterrent, which has been suggested and then rejected previously, is back on the agenda for talks between Nicolas Sarkozy and David Cameron this year. In order to save money in difficult economic times, it is proposed that France and Britain could share their nuclear capabilities and thus reduce the amount needed to be spent by each country on maintaining their respective nuclear deterrents. Critics have claimed that any such action would endanger the independence of the nuclear deterrents of both France and the UK, an independence apparently highly valued by the citizens of both countries.
However, this debate on whether or not France and Britain should share their nuclear submarine patrols is both misleading and a distraction from the more important issues involved in discussing the future of these weapons of mass destruction.
Firstly, to claim that the UK currently has an independent nuclear deterrent is highly contentious. Britain relies heavily on the United States for almost everything related to the UK’s nuclear capability; from servicing, maintaining and testing missiles to satellite navigation, intelligence and targeting information. When we also take into account the similarities between the UK and the US foreign policies over the last decade, especially in the case of the Iraq War, the idea of the supposed independence of Britain’s nuclear weapons system seems more than a little far-fetched. To propose that sharing the UK’s nuclear deterrent with France would lose British nuclear independence presupposes that the UK has an independent nuclear weapons system in the first place, detracting attention from our already very real dependence on the US in this area.
Secondly, and more importantly, this debate turns our attention away from whether or not we should even have a nuclear weapons system in the first place, and from whether we should be considering renewing it in the near future. At a time when the economy is in the greatest recession since World War II, the government is proposing spending billions of pounds on upgrading Trident (Britain’s nuclear weapons system) in defiance of international law and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
In twenty years the existing system will come to the end of its life, and although David Cameron has said already that he is planning on delaying any decisions on the Trident programme until at least 2015, he is still committed to having a nuclear deterrent for the UK. This is in spite of massive implications for the UK budget in defence and beyond.
To discuss sharing our future nuclear capacity with France as the main issue also falsely pre-supposes both Trident’s necessity and its importance. Put simply, a nuclear deterrent (even an independent one) cannot deal with the most major issues facing the UK today.
Even Tony Blair admitted in 2005 that having Trident was no defence against the threat of terrorism, and nuclear weapons are clearly of no use whatsoever in dealing with the imminent threat of climate change. It may be claimed that to share Britain’s nuclear capabilities with France will save money compared to continuing with the status quo which involves Britain and France each having at least one nuclear-armed submarine on patrol at any one time.
However this is to evade the real question which is how it can be justifiable to spend so much money on this system in the first place.