Bishop of Chester warns govt is fighting the last war by backing upgrade of nuclear forces

Bishop Peter Foster urges government to invest in cyber and electronic defense systems rather than Trident equipped nuclear submarines

On 13th July 2016 the House of Lords debated a Government motion “That this House takes note of the Government’s assessment in the 2015 National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review that the United Kingdom’s continuous at sea nuclear deterrent should be maintained.” The Bishop of Chester, Rt Revd Peter Forster, spoke in the debate:

The Lord Bishop of Chester: My Lords, the issue before the other place is the procurement of four new submarines, but it is not unreasonable at this time to contribute to our ongoing reflection upon why we have a nuclear deterrent at all. It is often said that countries and armies tend to prepare to fight the war that was fought 50 or more years ago without noticing how the world has changed, not least technology. Indeed, our recollection of the Battle of the Somme—when infantry charged machine guns—brings that rather vividly to mind.

A lot has changed in this respect since the Cold War in the 1950s and 1960s, when our thinking on nuclear deterrence was first shaped. One of my questions is whether our own thinking is moving on with the changed context from those now rather far off days. An empire has gone and the UK is no longer the international player that it once was, even if we do continue to punch above our weight in geopolitical terms. NATO has developed into surely the most significant mutual defence pact in history. Communism has essentially disappeared and, whatever one makes of Russia—which Churchill, of course, famously called,

“a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma”—

the threat that it poses is surely very different from what went before. For all the criticism that is made of President Putin, I personally do not recognise the same level or type of threat from him as from Stalin and Kruschev, but I recognise that some people take different views. I also recognise that the invasion—or the annexing—of Crimea was illegal, but it did have the support of 98% of the population, as I understand it.

The threats that the world faces have mutated in the face of the culture war between fundamentalist strands of Islam, with their rejection of all that western civilisation represents, and the ever more ubiquitous presence of the symbols of the western world on the global stage—so terrorism has become global. Perhaps, God forbid, the forces of terrorism will one day acquire a nuclear capacity of some sort but, if they do, I am not sure that submarine-based nuclear missiles, however sophisticated, will be much of a counter threat.

The extraordinary rise of cybercrime and cyberthreats can be predicted only to become an ever greater—probably much greater—threat in the years and decades to come. The digital revolution will also support ever more effective shields against ballistic missiles, as we are already seeing. Perhaps sophisticated surveillance will come to pose greater threats against submarines if major states in confrontation continue to adopt an explicit policy based upon mutually assured destruction. I can never quite get away from the fact that the first letters of those words spell “mad”. The rules of the game are of course much less certain today compared with the assumptions that were more easily made in the 1950s and 1960s. Is it still possible to envisage the circumstances in which this country would unilaterally send one of our Trident missiles on its way to a real target? It is certainly more possible today to wonder whether this is still credible.

The Christian churches in this country, in their official policies and pronouncements, present something of a consensus against the proposed renewal of Trident submarines. No doubt individual Christians take a variety of views across the whole spectrum—of course they do. In the Church of England’s case, in 1983 there was a report, The Church and the Bomb, in which it toyed with the hope that the UK might in fact unilaterally renounce its nuclear deterrent, but the Church rowed back from that and has never adopted that position, recognising that it was not equipped to reach such a conclusion in such a complex, political set of circumstances as surrounds this debate.

Clearly today the UK is set upon ordering a new generation of submarines equipped with nuclear missiles, which will renew this country’s nuclear deterrent until 2060 or beyond. I simply express the hope that, during that period, ever greater efforts will be made to reduce the threat to our world from nuclear bombs and that we will continue to keep under review why we are making such significant decisions, which will have an impact into such a far-distant future—a future that will change in ways we cannot anticipate today. Nuclear weapons cannot be uninvented, I fully accept that, but our continued and very expensive possession of an independent deterrent will need a justification that, I believe, will need to be kept under continual review.

One line of political justification from successive Governments, from Attlee and Bevan down to the Blair years in particular, has been that the possession of deliverable nuclear weapons, however useless they might be in military practice, helps to keep us at the top table in global politics. I noted that in the Minister’s introductory speech, very little was made of that argument; I think he hinted at it at one point. But my question is whether that argument really has a future for us. Can the Minister confirm to what extent it is still a major factor in the thinking of the current Government that, in some sense, possessing our independent deterrent keeps us at the top table in political terms?


Lord Arbuthnot of Edrom (Con) [extract]: Clearly, it will not work against all the threats that we face—of course it will not. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester was right to say that it has no consequence in relation to terrorism, but it was not intended to. It is also true that our cyber vulnerabilities pose existential threats to the western way of life. This is a matter of opinion, but in my view, our nuclear deterrent has helped—only helped—to keep the peace over many decades. I do not think now, when the world is incredibly unstable, is the time for an experiment in unilateralism.

Lord Triesman (Lab) [extract]..I believe that the statement on Trident also provides a continuing rationale for the United Kingdom’s permanent membership of the Security Council with veto powers. We may have decided to weaken drastically our global standing. Whether any noble Lord agrees or disagrees with that observation, I hope we can all agree that we should try to remain influential, as advocates of our values in the international community. That point was raised and questioned by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester. In my experience, when seeking agreements on matters that seem a long way from nuclear deterrents, such as on Darfur or on the border between Eritrea and Ethiopia, our standing in the world community was significant, even on those occasions when we did not succeed.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Earl Howe) (Con) [extract] ..The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester and the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries of Pentregarth, questioned how nuclear weapons help us to fight terrorism. The noble Lord, Lord West, put it very well. Nuclear weapons by themselves do not deter terrorists, but they were never meant to. We believe that they will, on the other hand, deter states tempted to sponsor terrorist groups by providing the capability to enable them to act as nuclear-armed terrorists as proxy against the UK or our NATO allies.

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