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Ken Livingstone on Trident – Another Episode from Yesterday’s Man By Howard Wheeldon, FRAeS, Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd.

tridentIn an article in the soon to be defunct print version of the Independent newspaper Mr. Ken Livingstone, former leader of the now defunct GLC, former Mayor of London, a man who had been a major left-wing thorn in the side of Tony Blair’s government and former long-time Labour Member of Parliament for Brent East, chose to speak out and condemned interview remarks made by US Secretary of State, Ash Carter over the weekend to the BBC covering the importance or otherwise of the need for the UK to retain and renew its Trident nuclear deterrent capability. The view from yesterday’s man Livingstone is that Ash Carter is talking  “rubbish”. Sorry Mr. Livingstone, but I and a great many others beg to differ.

I thought long and hard about whether it might be more sensible to ignore Mr. Livingstone’s ridiculous article and that, should I respond all that I would be doing would be to give him more of the publicity he craves. Even so, in the end I have taken the view that given my belief in the importance of Britain retaining the nuclear deterrent and replacing it with Successor such damaging and ignorant remarks made by him should not go unchallenged.

Perhaps the first thing to say is that one can hardly be surprised that sales of the print version of the Independent have sunk so low when I read such a one sided anti-nuclear deterrent response to what Carter has said. ‘Independent’ the newspaper might like to call itself but reading such one side left wing leaning article which contains no balancing argument to counter it shows that the paper is hardly independent in its political views! Did they bother to consider seeking out someone more supportive of the opposite view and did they ask them to write an opinion as well? No, not as far as I can see.

Livingstone was responding to an interview done by the BBC in which Secretary of Defence Ash Carter was ‘invited’ to give his comments in relation to Britain’s plans to replace and renew its current Vanguard class Trident nuclear deterrent capability with ‘Successor’ class. Maybe this was another case of the BBC trying to play politics again and attempting to stir up trouble. After all, these days the idea sometimes seems to be about making news as opposed to reporting it but there we are. In the interview Secretary Carter said that “It’s important that the military power matches that standing and so we’re very supportive of it…we depend upon the United Kingdom, the United Kingdom depends on us, that’s part of the special relationship. We build Joint Strike fighters together, we build Trident missiles together.”

Mr. Livingstone responded by saying that “America’s dominance of the twentieth century wasn’t because they had nuclear weapons, it was because they had the largest economy in the world. At the end of the Second World War 48 per cent of the global economy was in the hands of America”. “The question” he said “is at a time when people are facing the most savage reduction in the size of our welfare state and the public services should we be spending what looks like £41 billion now just to build four submarines which we will never use at the time when the government’s agreed to cut the size of our armies from a 102,000 down to 82,000. That will leave us much more vulnerable to the real threats we face which are increasing all over the world in terms of terrorism.

Well Mr. Livingstone, yes we should be spending whatever the amount of money that we need to do to replace our nuclear deterrent capability. America’s dominance and how it got to that point is not the issue. True, defence spending has been cut for the most irrational of reasoning but the reality is that because technology of war has changed and how we defend ourselves and play our part in NATO has changed as well means we no longer needed 102,000 troops. We haven’t used our tanks in a long time but that doesn’t mean we have taken a decision to scrap them. Yes we having to cut back because we have lived beyond our means for years as we have spent more and more on health and welfare. Defence has paid a high price but no government, be it Labour, Coalition or Conservative, has questioned anything other than the need to retain and renew our Trident nuclear deterrent capability.

I note that the second part of the headline quotes the former London mayor saying that “there are not many MP’s who get turned on at the thought of being able to kill millions of people”. Well, let me tell Mr. Livingstone that there are not many other members of the human race that like that thought either and that is exactly why it is so important that we continue to retain nuclear deterrent capability. Let me remind Mr. Livingstone in case his memory is playing tricks that Deterrence is defined as a strategy intended to dissuade an adversary from taking an action not yet started, or to prevent them from doing something that another state desires. The late Bernard Brodie, a well-respected American military strategist who believed nuclear war was unthinkable but who also thought much about the unthinkable and helped provide an intellectual framework for avoidance of nuclear catastrophe nuclear deterrent, wrote in his excellent ‘Strategy in the missile Age’ 1959 publication “that a credible nuclear deterrent must be always at the ready, yet never used. Brodie’s paper still retains much relevance in the world we live in today.

So now allow me to respond to the other views espoused by the big politician of yesteryear: Livingstone says that “building the Trident submarines which we will never use at the expense of the armed forces will leave the UK more vulnerable to the threat of terrorism”. Absolute rubbish – nothing is ever done at the expense of the armed forces but in any event, this argument isn’t about building Trident – we already have Trident submarine nuclear deterrence and have had this in its present and predecessor Polaris form for the past fifty year. That no missile has needed to be fired in anger displays not only that we take our heavy responsibility as a nuclear power very seriously but moreover, that our Trident nuclear deterrent is conducting the deterrence role that it is designed to do and keeping our would be aggressors at bay. Sadly it is an undisputable fact that all nations are vulnerable to potential acts of terrorism today and whether one has or does not have nuclear deterrent capability makes no difference. But, quite apart from sending a message to those that would see us as their enemies having nuclear deterrent capability over many years has allowed us to play a part in establishing peace and stability in the ‘old world’ just as it has in the ‘new’. In the act of showing presence and the role that it pays in defence diplomacy we are all the better for retaining and renewing our nuclear deterrent capability.

In his Independent article Mr Livingstone added: “The question is though, by the time they (he is referring to the planned Successor class submarines] are operational in 15 years [time] China and Russia will have underwater drones all over the world. Submarines are very noisy – they will be traceable. The original idea that you had a submarine and no one knew where it was had a lot of logic to it. But that’s not the world we will be living in.”

My answer to this point is that anyone, and that includes Labour’s hapless senior shadow defence spokesperson, who can imagine that in 15 years we will have developed a drone that will be able to find a submarine in deep water is either living in cloud cuckoo-land or is really out of their mind. The oceans occupy 71% of the worlds mass – it is just not feasible and as far as I and most other defence experts are concerned the notion is nothing more than a figment of someone’s imagination. If we can’t find a large passenger jet downed by some form of terrorist or other action in a relatively small area of water today with submarines, ships, aeroplanes and all the most sophisticated technology that we have got what chance has a underwater drone?

Yes, Mr. Livingstone, it is certainly electorally damaging for Labour MP’s to believe that failing to renew UK nuclear deterrent capability is an option. Most sensible voters know and understand what the option of having an independent nuclear capability has provided for us over the decades. They get the message but it seems that red Ken, Emily Thornbury and Jeremy Corbyn do not. They may well be able to damage public opinion on the issue of the nuclear deterrent but they will never win the underlying argument. Thank heavens that none of them will ever find themselves as part of good government.

CHW (London – 16th February 2016)

Howard Wheeldon FRAeS


Tel: 07710-779785



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