The Defense of the Realm

Last night’s leaders' debate made it official; the future of Britain’s nuclear deterrent is the stand out issue of the election. Prime Minister Gordon Brown berated Liberal Democrat Leader Nick Clegg’s proposal to scrap the next generation Trident II nuclear missile system, telling him to ‘get real about the danger that we face,’ from Iran and North Korea. Conservative Leader David Cameron wasn’t as forceful but his message was on par with Brown’s. ‘We are safer having an independent nuclear deterrent in an unsafe and uncertain world,’ he argued. I agree with the Lib Dems on this issue. Trident II is outdated and the world has moved on. Committing upwards of £80 billion on a weapons system designed for the Cold War at a time when we’re gutting the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy to pay for operations in Afghanistan could very well compromise our defensive capabilities more than it will enhance them. Invoking the specter of rogue states hitting the launch button is scare mongering in my view. Iran and North Korea are no threat to Britain. As I’ve argued before, the hazards we face are much closer to home; specifically internal terrorists such as radical British Muslims hell bent on turning this country into a Caliphate or the Real IRA and its affiliates. Twice in the last ten days dissident republicans have targeted a police station in Co Armagh with car bombs, putting Northern Ireland on its highest security alert in twelve years. Replacing our ballistic missile deterrent on a like-for-like basis won’t curb these types of threats.

Binning Trident II and scaling back to a minimal nuclear deterrent will however force Britain to reassess its role in the world. The question of Britain’s global might is at the heart of this debate and indeed our broader defence and foreign policy strategies. A survey out this week revealed that 88% of defense and security specialists think the UK needs a radical reassessment of the position it wants and is able to play in the world.

‘Little Britain’ has always liked to punch above its weight. Historically, it’s not our nuclear arsenal but our outstanding ground troops, arguably the best in the world that has enabled us to do this. The reputation of our armed forces has taken a beating in recent years with charges that the British army ran away from Basra and parts of Helmund. Any failures though were not the fault of our extremely professional soldiers. As far as I’m concerned, blame lies squarely with military and political leaders who placed our troops in impossible scenarios in insufficient numbers.

Britain can outperform in future provided we deploy our military assets more wisely and allocate our financial resources strategically. The criteria we use to commit our troops to overseas campaigns must change. We cannot jump every time America snaps its fingers. We need to assess whether there is a real threat to our national security and then proceed accordingly.

I think it is criminal we won’t have a strategic defense review until after the election. Right now, it won’t include Trident, but I hope that will change. I also hope a defense review will examine the impact of our military campaigns and broader foreign policies on home grown terrorism. The world is unsafe and it is uncertain. So let’s get real and stop clinging to outdated notions of what it will take to protect our shores.

Bob Shepherd is an ex-SAS soldier and bestselling author of The Circuit. To read more posts by him, please visit