Arguments against Trident are well intentioned but dangerously optimistic

They’re an optimistic lot, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND). They put the argument like this:

“Nuclear weapons have no legitimate purpose; nor would their use be legal due to civilian casualties being unavoidable. They are also genocidal and utterly immoral.”

Most sane people would agree with the message here. Immoral? Of course. Genocidal? Potentially. Illegal to use? In many circumstances, yes. Have no legitimate purpose? Well, that’s the tricky bit.

Anyway – so far so good(ish) for the abolition movement. We take their points. We agree that the world probably would be better off had nukes never made it out of Oppenheimer’s lab (Although this is far from being a trivial claim). If everyone in the world agreed with these reasonable propositions, and agreed to disarm tomorrow, and we could reliably audit their continuing disarmament, and could convince ourselves that they would never re-arm, then we agree that we’d all be better off for it.

So what’s the problem? Why don’t we criticise Trident?

Well, it turns out there are people in the world for whom sane, rational, moral arguments such as the CND’s don’t hold as much water. Let’s take a look at some of those people, and think about why they are relevant to this discussion.

First, let’s consider the phenomenon of global jihad, which currently manifests, for the most part, as ISIS. Jihad has so far involved precisely zero nuclear attacks. Why is this? Is it that the jihadis don’t want to? Is it that they can’t get one? Or is there another reason?

As any thinking person who watched those planes hit the twin towers realises, the reason for the lack of holy nukes is clearly not one of motive. The goal on that day was to kill as many US civilians as possible and terrify the remainder – two aims that would have been well served by a nuclear bomb. These motives continue to be salient in the mind of the jihadi to this day; to quote from ISIS’s monthly magazine Dabiq:

“If you can kill a disbelieving American or European – especially the spiteful and filthy French – or an Australian, or a Canadian, or any other disbeliever from the disbelievers waging war, including the citizens of the countries that entered into a coalition against the Islamic State, …kill the disbeliever whether he is civilian or military, for they have the same ruling.”

Of course, nothing about these comments will surprise you. The jihadis of this world would happily kill the infidel with WMDs just as they would happily do so with a Boeing 767. So why haven’t they? Is it that they haven’t been able to obtain one? How might they get their hands on a nuke?

Really, there are two options here. They could either build their own (tricky) or buy one off the shelf (a bit quicker) – for the sake of argument, let’s say they take the second option. For this, they would need both money and the help of a nuclear power; so the question is – how much money is there behind jihadism? And is modern jihad likely to have the support of any states? This is where things get very worrying.

9/11 is, of course, the most shocking act of jihadi violence to date. If former Democratic Sen. Bob Graham – who in 2002 chaired the congressional Joint Inquiry into 9/11 – is to be believed, the Saudi government were heavily involved. Speaking of the Inquiry’s report, of which 28 pages were redacted:

“The 28 pages primarily relate to who financed 9/11, and they point a very strong finger at Saudi Arabia as being the principal financier,” he said, adding, “I am speaking of the kingdom”

This seems to corroborate the testimony of the alleged “20th 9/11 hijacker” Zacarias Moussaoui, who claims that the House of Saud financially backed the attacks. Indeed, his claims were being used in a civil case by the families of victims against the Saudi government (the case was recently thrown out as Saudi Arabia, as a nation in itself, enjoys “sovereign immunity” in civil cases).

Given the above, it is at least possible that the Saudi government were bankrolling the whole thing. Of course, in this murky world of redacted documents and anonymous sources, we can never know for sure – but we shouldn’t ignore the possibility. When we are setting defence policy, we would argue that it is sensible to err on the side of prudence. Belt and braces and all that. The prudent assumption here would be that the Saudi royals are prepared to bankroll shocking acts of large scale terrorism against western civilians, and it follows that we should at least factor this possibility into our policy debate. Of course, Saudi Arabia is not currently a nuclear state – so even with Saudi money and political clout (not to mention an estimated $2bn in their own bank account), ISIS might struggle. Where then might they go shopping (or stealing)?

Well, handily, ISIS have an opinion on the subject – According to Dabiq, ISIS hopes to purchase a nuke from Pakistan within in a year. Obviously there is an element of grandstanding here, but are their ambitions that unrealistic? To answer this question, we need to have a close look at the security of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal.

According to Daniel Byman at the Saban Centre for the Middle East, “Pakistan is probably today’s most active sponsor of terrorism”, and that, “The nightmare of a terrorist group acquiring nuclear weapons is far more likely to involve Pakistan than Iran or North Korea”. We speculate that fears such as these are the reason that Pakistan is the “one thing that keeps Barack Obama up at night”, if George Clooney is to be believed. Are these fears well founded?

Pakistan’s attitude to non-proliferation has a checkered past – in 2004 top Pakistani nuclear scientist Dr. A. Q. Khan confessed to selling nuclear technology to Tehran and Pyongyang – a crime that some allege was backed by the government (although they deny this). He was, nonetheless, freed within 5 years, many in his mother country still refer to him as “Mohsin-e-Pakistan” (Benefactor of Pakistan), and he still commands widespread admiration amongst Islamists. This case is not unique, according to William Langewiesche (an expert on the subject writing for The Atlantic), who notes that

“.. the military leaders of Pakistan … have repeatedly demonstrated their willingness to sell this technology”

(Langewiesche does however go on to note that “[they] would balk at allowing a constructed device to escape—if only because of the certainty that this time they would be held to account. The same concerns would almost certainly restrain North Korea”. Clearly he agrees with our central argument in this piece – Western deterrence remains important to prevent proliferation and nuclear jihad.)

Even if ISIS were unable to purchase a nuke from Pakistan, the country is only one coup away from Al-Qaeda having access to nuclear weapons – if that were to happen, the facts would quickly overtake the theory.

And even if jihadists can’t get a bomb from Pakistan, there’s always Iran, a nation whose commitment to a nuke-free Middle East we needn’t go into (not to mention late Saudi King Abdullah’s promise that his country would quickly go nuclear if Iran managed to). Admittedly Iran would be very unlikely to directly aid their Sunni co-religionists in ISIS, but there are more than enough unsavoury Shi’ite organisations to keep us awake at night.

So it is certainly not beyond the realms of possibility that ISIS or other jihadis will gain access to these weapons – therefore it makes sense to think about the consequences. So the relevant question becomes: if the soldiers of the Islamic State did get their hands on a nuke, what might stop them using it?

Whilst they claim to want nothing more than a martyr’s death in the struggle against the infidel (and we have no reason to think they’re lying), the soldiers of the Islamic State will almost certainly feel that nuclear retaliation from the west should be taken into consideration in their decision making processes. In other words, whatever they claim to believe about death, glory and paradise, they may well tacitly accept that the complete annihilation of their glorious Caliphate in a few hours of nuclear fire wouldn’t be the best way to move their project forward.

We shouldn’t lose sight of the ultimate goal of ISIS – to lure the infidels into the final battle in which the faithful will defeat the non-believers once and for all, bringing about the apocalypse. This requires actual soldiers on the ground fighting each other. Without a western nuclear deterrent, the best way to bring this about would be to nuke New York. In stark contrast to this, with a western nuclear deterrent, that nuke would surely only bring about the destruction of everything the true believers have been building for the last few years.

We would argue that this applies generally – whilst the religious maniacs of the Middle East’s political class might want to kill the citizens of the ‘far enemy’, and they might have the potential to acquire the means to do it in a nuclear fashion, it appears that saner, more secular concerns take precedence when the same people are faced with their own annihilation, along with that of their country, people and/or religious movement.

We suspect that, as William Langewiesche put in The Atlantic (writing about the 2002 India/Pakistan nuclear stand-off – one of those ‘mutually assured destruction’ moments):

“It seems to indicate as a general rule that even a stunted state is deterred by the threat of retaliation, because so long as its leaders have a government, an infrastructure, and indeed a delineated nation (not to mention their individual lives of luxury), they provide rich targets to be smashed and burned in answer to any first strike.”

‘Wait!’ You say, ‘9/11 was perpetrated by Al-Qaeda, a stateless organisation for whom the logic of nuclear deterrence doesn’t apply!’

Perhaps, but the key point here is that, in today’s world, a description of nuclear jihad will almost always involve some country or other (Iran, Pakistan, ISIS, Saudi Arabia), so it’s incomplete to describe jihad as “stateless”. Since modern jihad isn’t stateless, then the logic of deterrence applies.

Is the logic above borne out by the facts? Well, we’ve seen that nuclear war between Pakistan and India was averted through the threat of mutually assured destruction. We also feel that the lack of any sign of nuclear jihad up to this point speaks to our argument that state actors (who could provide nukes) are unwilling to get involved – whatever their ideological motivations – due to the fear of retribution.

In any case, even if a case of jihadis acquiring nukes without clear state involvement (unlikely, but possible) were to pertain, the logic would still apply. Trident doesn’t have to deter all the jihadis – perhaps it wouldn’t deter the stateless ones. But, in today’s world, we argue that that is largely irrelevant. In the Islamist sphere; power, resources and religious authority are monopolised by ISIS – to whom the logic of nuclear deterrence would apply. Furthermore, in today’s world, nuclear weaponry is exclusively the within the purview of established governments to whom (again) the deterrence argument would stick.

We agree that having our own nuclear deterrent isn’t a cure-all solution to the problem of global jihad, and obviously nothing can provide full assurance. But we do feel as though there are situations in which it does help – and of course having Trident missiles in our submarines in no way precludes any other tactic we might want to deploy. Therefore, in our opinion, ditching Trident is simply too much of gamble when the stakes are this high.

As an afterthought, it’s also worth touching on maniacs of the ideological, rather than religious, variety.

North Korea is an insane hostage crisis cum military installation, a caricature of a tin pot Stalinist state that apparently executes government ministers with anti-aircraft guns and packs of dogs for crimes like falling asleep. Unfortunately, it seems that they also possess (or are in the process of making) nuclear bombs.

There is little chance that the North Koreans would buy into the moral argument against nuclear weapons – this is not a controversial point. Neither should we forget Russia or China, whose commitments to world peace are less than convincing. We would likely say the same of Iran and Israel (although Israel continues to deny having them). So when you argue for multilateral disarmament, it’s important to remember that you are arguing for a world in which military power is, in an important sense, monopolised by these nations.

In short, there are people in this world, people of terrifying wealth, power and moral certainty, who wish death upon you and your family just for committing the sin of existing. These people pay absolutely no attention to your well-meaning arguments for disarmament. As such, your arguments are dangerously optimistic.

3 responses to “Arguments against Trident are well intentioned but dangerously optimistic

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