2 February 2016

John McTernan’s Trident Case

10 years is a long time in politics

John McTernan was Political Secretary/Director of Political Operations for Tony Blair from 2005 to 2007. Later during the last Labour government, he was Special Adviser to Des Browne, Secretary of State for Defence. Since 2010 he has been involved in Labour politics in Australia (Labor) and Scotland. Of late has been commenting widely on the emerging policies of UK Labour under Jeremy Corbyn. Late last month he took issue with Corbyn’s approach to Trident renewal in a piece for the Telegraph, If Jeremy Corbyn were a proper politician, here's what he'd be saying about Trident. In McTernan’s view:
It is an existential decision – about who we are and at the most extreme end whether we can survive as a nation. It is also one that decides what we can and cannot do for the next 50 years.
And it requires “a proper debate [which] “…is not going to come from Jeremy Corbyn”. As a better model he points to this passage in Tony Blair’s A Journey:
We agreed to the renewal of the independent nuclear deterrent. You might think I would have been certain of that decision, but I hesitated over it. I could see the force of the common sense and practical argument against Trident, yet in the final analysis I thought giving it up too big a downgrading of our status as a nation, and in an uncertain world, too big a risk for our defence. I did not think this was a ‘tough on defence’ versus ‘weak or pacifist’ issue at all. On simple, pragmatic grounds, there was a case either way. The expense is huge, and the utility in a post-Cold War world is less in terms of deterrence, and non-existence in terms of military use. Spend the money on more helicopters, airlift and anti-terror equipment? Not a daft notion. In the situations British forces would likely be called upon to fight, it was pretty clear what mattered most. It's true that it is frankly inconceivable we would use our nuclear deterrent alone, without the US – and let us hope a situation in which the US is even threatening us never arises – but it’s a big step to put that beyond your capability as a country. (Note 1)
McTernan goes on to describe how a case against Trident should be made:
… it needs to be located in a muscular defence policy. The reality of a non-nuclear Britain has to be planned for. That means realistic commitments to alternative defence sending – and not the politically lazy and untrue notion of pretending that you can switch defence to social spending. It also means an explicit commitment to sheltering behind the US deterrent within Nato – not taking the intellectually lazy option, in this case of pretending that nuclear weapons are immoral. And, it means committing to deeper bilateral defence relations with France, including a nuclear weapons treaty that would mean the UK had a backup to the US in case of the triumph of US nativism.
McTernan’s opinions are usually well-founded but on this occasion I find his arguments less than convincing. Firstly, he fails to point out that A Journey was published in 2010 and that Blair was describing policies being debated in the closing months of 2006, immediately before the publication of the White Paper Cm6994, The Future of the United Kingdom’s Nuclear Deterrent. At that time “the utility [of Trident] in a post-Cold War world” may have seemed “less in terms of deterrence”, but the last nine years have seen a considerable modernisation of Russia’s strategic nuclear forces. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists Nuclear notebook provides regular overviews of Russian nuclear forces, and the 2015 survey by Hans M. Kristensen and Robert S. Norris states that:
The broad modernization reflects the Putin government’s conviction that nuclear forces, in particular strategic nuclear forces, are indispensable for Russia’s security and status as a great power. Maintaining parity with the United States is a strong motivation for this modernization, but the development of multiple versions of the same missiles indicates the strong influence of Russia’s military-industrial complex on nuclear planning.
Overall, the nuclear modernization effort will present Russia and the international arms control community with new challenges. Unless a new arms control reduction agreement is reached in the near future, the shrinking of Russia’s strategic nuclear arsenal that has characterized the past two decades will likely come to an end …
They go on to give details of the Russian ICBM, SSBN/SLBM and heavy bomber programmes to replace nuclear systems from the Cold War period and which have been put in hand within the limitations of New START in the years since Cm6994.

Secondly, the case against Trident which McTernan thinks should (or could) be made has some weaknesses. He describes “pretending that nuclear weapons are immoral” as a lazy option. Surely so would be “sheltering behind the US deterrent within Nato” when, as no doubt McTernan is well aware, Blair’s letter to President Bush of 7 December 2006 (extract below) makes it clear that the UK assigns Trident to NATO?

The UK’s giving up Trident would be to transfer part of the NATO burden of providing deterrence – McTernan does not dispute its necessity – to the US. He also seems to believe that, post-Trident, the UK would be able to enter into a nuclear weapons treaty with France which would provide “a backup”. France would probably see themselves as being in a very strong negotiating position were such an arrangement to be requested. McTernan sees this as a safeguard against “US nativism” – presumably he means an isolationist US turning its back on NATO. Oddly, he doesn’t raise the possibility of such a US government, unlikely though it is, withdrawing support from UK Trident. Amusingly, one of the intriguing aspects of Michel Houellebecq’s recent novel Submission was its exploration (frustratingly not sustained) of French nativism. And where would that possibility, again unlikely, leave us?

Note 1. This appears on pages 635/636 of A Journey. McTernan has replaced “non-existent” with “non-existence”.


Anyone interested enough to read this far might like to look at the speech US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter gave to the Economic Club of Washington DC on 2 February about the five challenges facing his budget. Two extracts:
Two of these challenges reflect a return to great power of competition. First is in Europe, where we're taking a strong and balanced approach to deter Russian aggression, and we haven't had to worry about this for 25 years. While I wish it were otherwise, now we do.
Another near-term investment in the budget is how we are reinforcing our posture in Europe to support our NATO allies in the face of Russia's aggression. In Pentagon parlance, this is called the European Reassurance Initiative and after requesting about $800 million for last year, this year we're more than quadrupling it for a total of $3.4 billion in 2017. That will fund a lot of things: more rotational U.S. forces in Europe, more training and exercising with our allies, more preposition and war-fighting gear and infrastructure improvements to support all this. And when combined with U.S. forces already in and assigned to Europe -- which are also substantial -- all of this together by the end of 2017 will let us rapidly form a highly capable combined arms ground force that can respond across that theater, if necessary.

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