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Generals Against the Bomb


Three retired senior British military figures have condemned the Government's plan to replace Trident.  In a letter to the Times on 16 January Field Marshal Lord Bramall, General Lord Ramsbotham (pictured) and General Sir Hugh Beach say tht British nuclear weapons are completely useless as a deterrent against the threats that Britain is likely to face.  They add that the system is not independent, doesn't give the country political clout and spending on nuclear weapons is diverting funds from conventional military forces.  They conclude that "our independent deterrent has become virtually irrelevant".

Letter printed in the Times 16 January 2009

Sir, Recent speeches made by the Prime Minister, Foreign Secretary and the previous Defence Secretary, and the letter from Douglas Hurd, Malcolm Rifkind, David Owen and George Robertson in The Times on June 30, 2008, have placed the issue of a world free of nuclear weapons firmly on the public agenda. But it is difficult to see how the United Kingdom can exert any leadership and influence on this issue if we insist on a costly successor to Trident that would not only preserve our own nuclear-power status well into the second half of this century but might actively encourage others to believe that nuclear weapons were still, somehow, vital to the secure defence of self-respecting nations. This is a fallacy which can best be illustrated by analysis of the British so-called independent deterrent. This force cannot be seen as independent of the United States in any meaningful sense. It relies on the United States for the provision and regular servicing of the D5 missiles. While this country has, in theory, freedom of action over giving the order to fire, it is unthinkable that, because of the catastrophic consequences for guilty and innocent alike, these weapons would ever be launched, or seriously threatened, without the backing and support of the United States. Should this country ever become subject to some sort of nuclear blackmail — from a terrorist group for example — it must be asked in what way, and against whom, our nuclear weapons could be used, or even threatened, to deter or punish. Nuclear weapons have shown themselves to be completely useless as a deterrent to the threats and scale of violence we currently, or are likely to, face — particularly international terrorism; and the more you analyse them the more unusable they appear. The much cited “seat at the top table” no longer has the resonance it once did. Political clout derives much more from economic strength. Even major-player status in the international military scene is more likely to find expression through effective, strategically mobile conventional forces, capable of taking out pinpoint targets, than through the possession of unusable nuclear weapons. Our independent deterrent has become virtually irrelevant except in the context of domestic politics. Rather than perpetuating Trident, the case is much stronger for funding our Armed Forces with what they need to meet the commitments actually laid upon them. In the present economic climate it may well prove impossible to afford both.

Field Marshal Lord Bramall
General Lord Ramsbotham
General Sir Hugh Beach
House of Lords, London SW1

Comments made on BBC Newsnight 15 January 2009 -

General Lord Ramsbotham (Adjutant General 1990 – 93) -“We are not so much talking about unilateral disarmament, that is the interpretation that is being put on it.  What my fellow cross-bench peer, Field Marshall Lord Bramall and I very much hope to do is to encourage the sort of debate about all the issues around Trident, what it represents, whether it is independent or not ?"

“You don’t think it is ?"

“I don’t think it is first of all because we don’t own the missiles and secondly I think it is absolutely unthinkable that we should ever consider either using or threatening to use it without having the clearance of the United States."

“So £20 billion to modernise that is a mistake ?"

“Well I think it needs to be questioned.  This is why we’re arguing – we want to have a proper argument about this.  We’ve set out as much as we can in the letters the things that we think need to be discussed, and also we come to this question of affordability, there are two definitions of affordability – one can you afford it, and the second is can you afford to give up what you’ve got to give up in order to afford it and we argue that the conventional weapons that we now need, there pinpoint accuracy, there ability to help our forces in the sort of conflicts that are taking place, is something that you have to question the huge expense of Trident against, which is just eliminating what we can do.”“Our letter is about Trident and the fact is that Trident is an inappropriate weapon system. We cannot see Trident being used against something like nuclear blackmail by international terrorists and the consequences of using a weapon system like this which is actually unusable in the sort of circumstances we now are.  It was a Cold War weapon it is not a weapon in the situation we are now

“Are your views shared in the serving military ?"

“I haven’t tested, but I am quite sure there will be people in the military who are questioning whether a weapon system with this power and with the number of warheads we have is actually justified in the world as we now know it and also as we say in the letter the question of whether you possess or not something of this nature is not a military argument it is a political argument”

“What we want to be certain is that the Prime Minister considers everything. Our last question is can we afford both and if we want to have it we have to make absolutely clear that we’ve gone through all the debate.  I am very happy for the multilateral position, I am very happy that there should be the debate but it must happen ..”

 Michael Portillo (former Defence Secretary) –“I think the logic of the letter is absolutely faultless, that is to say that the independent deterrent isn’t independent any more, it is quite inconceivable that we could use it without the permission of the United States, it’s absolutely useless against terrorists and it doesn’t buy us a seat at the top table because everybody knows that it is useless and there is a very strong case for redeploying the money away from the nuclear deterrent which we will never use into weapons that we actually would use such as cruise missiles and aircraft carriers and they probably would make a contribution to giving us a seat at the top table.”

“I think it would be an extremely difficult decision for any British Prime Minister to give up the nuclear deterrent because we’ve invested so much political and national capital in it and we believe its very closely tied to our prestige, but there is no logic left in having the independent nuclear deterrent”.


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