I Wouldn’t Want to Press the Nuclear Button for Boris Johnson
As Dominic Cummings sets his eyes on reconfiguring Britain’s military defence, a former Trident submarine commander explains why he has lost trust in the British Government
In his Radio 4 programme ‘The Human Button’ in 2008, Lord Peter Hennessy asked the commanding officer of HMS Vanguard if he would launch Trident nuclear missiles if ordered to. Without hesitation, he replied “yes”.
As his predecessor, I too would have answered with similar certainty. But I cannot say the same today. In fact, I would have been happy to serve as a commanding officer under every UK Government since 1945 – except this one.
‘Civil military relations’ – the subordination of military power to political control – is never more important than in the control of nuclear weapons. Indeed, modern deterrence is about the coherent use of levels of power to suppress crises and avoid conflict, it is not about blowing stuff up. It is a complex process that requires considerable expertise and sophistication in its application and it is not amenable to sound bites or media headlines.
As the UK starts its Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy, nuclear deterrence is unlikely to be much debated – it seldom is – but it underpins every aspect of British security policy.
This Government’s cavalier attitude to scrutiny and dissenting expertise risks breaking the very command relationship upon which British nuclear deterrence policy depends.
Faith in Expertise
The essence of deterrence is that it is a political not a military tool which relies on carefully calibrated political messages of resolve across the full spectrum of Government activity. The fusion doctrine is a last resort that includes an assured capability to respond to aggression with nuclear weapons. To work, the capability must be credible.
All UK military officers are apolitical – they have no allegiance to one party or another. Clearly, they hold personal political views but these do not influence the conduct of their duties. Those commanding military operations – including the continuous deterrence patrols which have provided the UK with national strategic nuclear deterrence since 1969 – have always done so regardless of which party is in Government.
Commanding officers of ballistic missile submarines – of which I was one – have generally always had reason to be confident that serious political decisions would be taken in the light of the advice of specialists; and that senior military and Civil Service figures would be intimately involved in deterrence decision-making processes.
Uniquely in the armed forces, the commanding officer of a ballistic missile submarine must simply obey an order to launch and so they have to base their readiness to do that on the faith that the appropriate expert scrutiny – political, legal and ethical – has been applied to any decision to launch before the order is sent.
The concern is that the Boris Johnson administration seems less competent, with little evidence of coherent or sophisticated policy-making in any sphere – let alone across the different departments of state involved in security. A whiff of corruption circulates around it.
The same complexity demonstrated by the Coronavirus crisis – involving inadequate information and conflicting pressures – would apply to the decision to launch nuclear weapons. And this presents some problems.
Government Without Scrutiny
Experts who do not ‘toe the party line’ are removed by this Government.
As we saw prior to the 2019 General Election, dissenting heavyweight Conservative Party MPs were thrown out of the party over Brexit. The Chancellor Sajid Javid was forced to resigned after being told to accept Dominic Cummings directing the work of key Treasury officials.
More recently, the Permanent Secretaries in the Home Office and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and the Cabinet Secretary and National Security Advisor, have all been removed early to be replaced by less experienced and possibly more compliant officials in the midst of a national crisis.
Speaking before Parliament’s Defence Committee earlier this month, the Conservative MP and Brexiter Mark Francois told General Sir Nick Carter, Chief of the Defence Staff, to “nip back to the department and ask them to sort their bloody selves out because if not Cummings is gonna [sic] come down and sort you out his own way and you won’t like it.”
A Conservative MP in a parliamentary scrutiny role threatening the professional head of the Armed Forces with direct intervention from an unelected advisor is not representative of the level of civil military relations suitable for a nuclear power in the 21st Century. Instead, it reduces the credibility of the UK defence and deterrence posture worldwide.
Just as serious are the attempts to politicise key institutions of independent scrutiny within and outside of Parliament, indicating a policy of weakening the very checks on executive impulse on which the assumption of the integrity of the political control of nuclear weapons is predicated.
The very ability of the Supreme Court and of Parliament to scrutinise Government decisions is being challenged by the Government.
The Supreme Court faces some kind of commission of independent legal experts to prevent it from making political judgments; despite its purpose as being the highest authority on matters of law in the UK, some of which will inevitably have political implications – a prime example being Johnson’s unlawful prorogation of Parliament last year.
Key parliamentary committees are being gerrymandered, as seen in last week’s attempt by the Prime Minister to appoint Conservative MP Chris Grayling as chair of Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee.
Every one of Lord Nolan’s standards of conduct in public life are regularly being flouted by Cabinet members, including the Prime Minister.
The UK nuclear firing chain is short. Should it come to it, the Prime Minister would issue the order to launch to a commanding officer. It would not pass through the military command structure. There is no military interpretation or further guidance provided from senior officers; no legal advisors in the chain who temper or validate this political instruction.
Each commanding officer, before they take command, must therefore be satisfied that they have confidence and faith in the political control of nuclear weapons to launch them based solely on that order; that the orders they will follow are not subject to any interests other than extreme national interest.
They have to make that judgement, probably the most serious any officer in any of the UK’s services ever has to make, in advance. It is too late to leave the decision until the moment the order arrives.
Every commanding officer assumes that burden in the knowledge of the possible consequences. Each one takes it for different reasons. Not one takes it lightly.
The crux of the acceptance of that responsibility is trust – an absolute faith in the integrity and ethics of the politicians in control. The only recourse for that assurance is a fundamental level of trust in the individual originating the order.
Discussions can be had about the ethical issues involved in nuclear deterrence. But the key point I am making is about the consideration of the integrity of political decision-making. During my time in command, that essential level of trust existed. I do not believe that this Government exhibits the integrity or humility necessary to justify that trust.
That is why it is not a Government I would be willing to serve.
Dr Andrew Corbett, formerly in command of two Trident submarines, is a teaching fellow at the Defence Studies Department, King’s College London, and the Joint Services Command and Staff College