As the United Kingdom considers the renewal of their Trident submarines, it’s time for a debate about nuclear weapons in Europe.
Nuclear weapons threaten peace, they don't secure it, and European governments seem to get that message. A cable released by WikiLeaks shows that Belgium, Germany, Luxembourg, Netherlands, and Norway sent a joint letter to NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, signed by their respective foreign ministers, calling for a debate about NATO's nuclear policy. Even though elements within his government disagree with him, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle has called for the removal of ALL nuclear weapons from German soil.
However, while their Trident submarines are reaching their retirement age, the British government stands firm and remains committed to maintaining their nuclear deterrent. A weak economy and severe budgetary woes have critics questioning the British policy position. And as with all things nuclear, there is no such thing as a cheap solution.
In 2009, The Guardian reported that replacement of the current Trident system by two aircraft carriers equipped with various fighter aircraft would not cost up to $32/£19.5 billion, as the British government claimed at the time, but that the total cost will run up to $156/£96 billion over the program’s 30-year lifespan. Another option would be to maintain and modernize the current Trident system of four nuclear submarines with an average of 16 missiles and up to 48 warheads each. Over the years, talk of slashing the entire program or reducing the arsenal from four to three submarines has had varying support from administration officials. The lack of decision-making about the program had spurred rumors that the government eventually wants to entirely abandon the Trident program. In February of this year, however, Minister of Defense Liam Fox announced in a BBC documentary about the Trident program that “at the moment the assessment is we need four. If you reduce the number you take an increased risk in your ability to deploy that deterrent at all times. So at the moment the technology says four. That’s something that can always be kept under review.”
Fortunately, this position may change as a decision about the Trident program has been put off until after the next after the next general election in the UK. Meanwhile, an independent commission of senior defense, diplomatic, scientific and political figures proposed by the British American Security Information Council (BASIC) will scrutinize the government’s assessment that a new nuclear missile system is essential for the country’s security. Ian Kearns, research director of BASIC noted in a recent article in the Guardian: "Given the government's decision to delay Trident renewal until after the next election, there is an important opportunity before the country for a fresh an in-depth debate. This commission will provide a focal point for that debate.”
British NGOs doing work around disarmament and military spending could seize this opportunity to put extra pressure on the government to revise their position on the Trident submarines. With Britain’s economy having shrunk 0.5% in the last three months of 2010 and the government planning to eliminate half a million government jobs, slash welfare benefits and cut $131/£80.6 billion in public spending by 2015, there is no legitimate reason from a budget perspective to maintain the expensive Trident program.
Disregarding the astronomic cost of replacing the system for a moment, the maintenance bill for Trident is currently at $3.5/£2.2 billion per year. The annual cost of health per capita in the UK is $2300/£1415. A simple calculation shows us that 3,500,000,000 / 2300 = 1 521 739. More than 1,5 million British citizens could be provided with essential health care with the money spent on Trident each year. With medical services being cut throughout Britain, these $3.5/£2.2 billion could make a real difference. A compelling example comes from the city of Rochdale outside Manchester. In Rochdale borough, acute inpatient medical services will be lost at the end of March; acute inpatient gynaecology, general surgery and critical care will close at the end of May and, by the end of June, maternity inpatient services, the delivery unit, children’s inpatient services and cardiology will all be lost. We need to remember the very real impact that even the smallest cuts in nuclear spending could and will have on the lives of individuals and the fact that a ‘billion’ is a thousand times more than a ‘million’. Nuclear weapons are a threat to health - both direct through their devastating power, as well as indirect by depriving funding for basic human needs. A string of nations in mainland Europe want to revise NATO policy and get rid of nuclear weapons in Europe. Britain has the opportunity to show true leadership and push for the removal of these weapons from their country