Wednesday, 14 October 2015

Truth and lies

There were two related stories in the Sunday Times this week (sadly hidden behind their paywall) about the renewal of the Trident nuclear ‘deterrent’.
The first was about Cameron and the fact that he, like previous Prime Ministers in the nuclear age, had to write personal letters to the captains of all four Trident submarines.  Described as ‘letters from the grave’, the hope is that these letters are never actually opened, but simply destroyed when they are replaced by new letters from a new PM.  The letters give the submarine commanders instructions as to what they should do in the event that the UK has already been destroyed by a nuclear attack.
He didn’t talk about the content – he could hardly do that.  But insofar as the idea of deterrence has any credibility at all, the ‘enemy’ (whoever that may currently be) has to believe that the instructions would be for the commanders to unleash their destruction and obliterate between 15 and 20 cities and all their inhabitants.  If the enemy doesn’t believe that, then it is hardly a deterrent.
But if the letters are ever opened, then clearly deterrence will have failed.  The enemy will have weighed up the odds and decided to press the button anyway.  At the point at which such letters ever get opened, it’s way too late for deterrence – by then, it’s purely about posthumous revenge.  Oh, and incidentally making the world even less hospitable for anyone who survived the first attack than it already will have become. 
It serves only to underline the madness of the idea that possession of such weapons can ever make the world a safer place that the concept of deterrence depends on each side thinking that the other would sooner add to the death and destruction that has already been caused than try and save whatever would be left of humanity.
The second story was about a former senior US defence official called Franklin Miller trying to debunk the suggestion that the UK’s nuclear force is not as independent as is claimed, and that there is some sort of US veto on its use.  The idea of such a veto has been around a long time, and is credible, not least because the UK’s missiles aren’t actually UK property; they’re merely leased from the US.  It is only the warheads which are the property of the UK.  It is entirely possible that there is some sort of software or hardware lock on the firing of missiles without US agreement.
Clearly, for an ‘independent’ deterrent to be of any value the enemy have to believe that it is truly independent; otherwise they do not need to fear the UK, only the US.  So people like the UK Government and Mr Miller need to convince the enemy that it is truly independent, even if it isn’t.  That in turn means that we can never know whether they’re telling the truth or not.  They are truly caught in a logic trap of their own making.  No matter how many times or how forcibly they re-iterate the claim that there is no veto, we can never be certain that they’re telling us the truth.
In a sense, both stories come together at this point, because they both underline the fact that we can never know whether governments are telling the truth or lying.  And this isn’t exactly some unimportant little issue…


Anonymous said...

You may not like it but such a lack of clarity is precisely why Trident does its job.

Who knows. Not me, not you and not the enemy. Just how it should be in my book.

John Dixon said...

But surely the logic of that is that neither you nor I can ever really know whether it does its job or not? The supposition that it is doing any job at all depends on the assumption that if it didn't exist, then someone would be willing to drop nuclear weapons on us. The validity of that assumption is open to question, at the very least.