At last, foreign and defence policy has reared its ugly, but necessary, head in the UK general election campaign, and not before time.
The issue which has come to the fore reminds us that years before the heat of a nuclear battle even begins, a British Prime Minister must write a letter making a decision on whether to kill millions of civilians.
Britain’s defence secretary Michael Fallon says his Conservative Party will commit to building four new Trident nuclear missile-armed submarines. The Labour Party has suggested it might reduce the number of submarines to three, although its leader, Ed Miliband, said the party position ‘at the moment’ was to stick to four.
If the UK is to have at least one nuclear armed submarine deployed at sea 365 days a year it requires four. A decision needs to be made next year. The government estimates that four will cost £20 billion dollars. Government estimates of projects this size are invariably wrong and the real cost would certainly be higher.
Until now both major parties preferred to fight the election campaign without mentioning the possibility of war, of any kind. It has been a foreign policy free zone. No longer.
This leads us to the Letters of Last Resort.
Right now, somewhere under the waves of one ocean or another, there is a British submarine carrying nuclear armed intercontinental ballistic missiles. On the submarine is a Commander, and in the Commander’s safe is another safe. Inside this safe is a handwritten letter from Prime Minister David Cameron. The letter states what British policy will be in the event of a devastating nuclear attack which has killed the Prime Minister, (and one other unknown person), and left Britain a smoking ruin. The Commander has to ascertain this by the complete absence of any radio signals, military or otherwise, emanating from the UK including, it is thought, the absence of the BBC Radio Four station. It is the ‘Last Resort Letter’ Each of Britain’s four nuclear armed submarines have a copy.
It is suggested the options the Prime Minister has are 1 – Retaliate with nuclear weapons. 2 – Do not retaliate. 3 – Sail to Australia or the United States putting your services at the disposal of the government. 4 – Use your own judgement.
The system is designed to keep the UK’s enemies guessing – designed to deter them from attacking. But as each decade passes it becomes more flawed.
What if the attack is carried out by country X which simultaneously completes the world’s biggest computer hack leading the Commander to think that country Y was responsible? What if the attack was in error? Does the Commander give the go ahead to wipe out Beijing, Tehran, or Moscow in the future, based on what David Cameron thinks now? Putin might be trying to get through to the Commander to make the case for apologies, reparations, rebuilding – but the Commander has his orders and the orders might be to kill millions of people. And what if the Commanders wife and three children have just been killed in the attack – does his emotion override Mr Cameron’s orders one way or another?
If there is a change of Prime Minister the old letters are destroyed without being read, so next month they may be rewritten. Pray God no-one ever finds out what is in them.