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Making Sense of the Trident Debate Requires an Open Mind – In Defence of Emily Thornberry

It has always astounded me how little attention people have paid to risk and future developments when debating Trident. It’s a debate that heats the passions up more than most, because it deals with such visceral things as security and morality, and acts as a proxy for political identity. All too often people revert to established positions, comfortable that they are right, even if they lose.

But if we are to take security seriously, and not simply see our nuclear weapon systems as symbols of our power and status, then they have to work. If they do not they are worse than useless – we end up relying upon an illusion. As I have outlined elsewhere, the emerging threats are serious – our systems, particularly our nuclear submarines, are under significant threat rendering deep doubt on the assurance our concepts of nuclear deterrence rely upon. Just because we believe that they have worked in the past is no clear indication of the future. History is littered with examples of armies failing to wake up to the changes to military technologies and suffering humiliating defeats as a result.

This requires those responsible for the political decisions to account for those risks and set out a clear analysis before massive and generational commitments are made to systems that look likely to end up redundant. Scoffing at this without taking the time to consider it is highly irresponsible.

The Trident Alternatives Review was concluded less than three years ago claiming to give an exhaustive account of the choices. It did not mention the risk of vulnerabilities to submarines. On the contrary, it simply stated a bald and widely-held assumption that our submarines simply cannot be tracked. That assumption is what is today under question. It also claimed it would take Aldermaston 24 years to produce a warhead for any alternative systems. It was this assertion that meant alternative systems were then deemed untenable. The assumption at the heart of this has never properly been considered. Instead, leading politicians, true to form, used the report to score political points against each other

Emily Thornberry’s review appears to be open-minded. That is at least what she is claiming, and the evidence from her recent media interviews and the direct conversations I have had with her lead me to believe it. She is suffering a relentless attack on her character and intelligence on the basis that she has no place in questioning the assertions of invulnerability of our systems. But this is doing disservice, to her, but far more importantly, to the issue facing us as a nation. Are we really so confident, in the face of evidence, that submarine-based nuclear systems will remain undetectable in the future? Let’s talk about it openly and focus on the question, not engage in character assassinations. And let’s not pay too much attention to those (on both sides of this vicious debate) who play the men (and women) and not the ball.

This article was originally published on the Huffington Post Politics United Kingdom on 9 February 2016: http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/paul-ingram/trident-emily-thornberry_b_9192856.html 

Image: Defense Images, HMS Vigilant 

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