Tag Archives: Ernest Bevin

Trident, Cold War History, and the ‘Myth’ of Deterrence

5 Apr

Trident nuclear submarine HMS Victorious pictured near Faslane, Scotland.

This piece was originally written for the excellent Retrospect, a student-led history journal created and produced by undergraduate students from Edinburgh University’s School of History, Classics, and Archaeology. I am grateful to Kerry, Enzo, and the rest of the team for their permission to reproduce the article here.

Since April 1969 – the same month that British troops arrived in Northern Ireland at the start of ‘The Troubles’ – the Royal Navy began Operation Relentless. Since that time, not a day has passed without there being a British nuclear missile submarine on patrol somewhere in the North Atlantic or the Arctic Ocean. This is Continuous At-Sea Deterrence (CASD), the ability to strike back without warning – and with terrible force – should the UK or its strategic interests be attacked.

‘Deterrence’ is the cornerstone of debates about Britain’s nuclear future, a word used by politicians, military officers, think-tanks, and campaigners. If we fail to replace our current Vanguard-class submarines and their Trident nuclear missiles – so the pro-replacement argument goes – we will be exposed to attack from enemies known and unknown. In 2013 the then Secretary of State for Defence Philip Hammond stated that Trident was a “tried and tested deterrent” and that there was no alternative that “provides the same level of protection.” A recently published Ministry of Defence factsheet on the Trident Successor Programme noted that “the UK’s independent nuclear deterrent remains essential to our security” and that it could “deter any aggressor”. To discuss who our nuclear weapons might be used against is to enter a Rumsfeldian world of known and unknown unknowns.

But – and this is the heart of this article – what do we mean when we talk about deterrence? And do those arguing for renewal or disarmament understand what the term involves and the ways in which history complicates and confuses the concept? As political scientist Nick Ritchie argues, talking about “the deterrent” assigns an implicit, infallible ability to deter, an ability which stands counter to actual historical evidence. Speaking generally (always bad for an historian), the level of historical understanding when it comes to the nuclear debate is very poor. Thus, this article offers some historical context for the debates that are happening right now and demonstrate that an understanding of Britain’s nuclear history and the complicated, multifaceted ways in which nuclear weapons affected the Cold War can add to our contemporary discussions.

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