The first task of a new Prime Minister is to write the official sealed orders of last resort which immediately go into the safes of Britain’s four Vanguard Class submarines. That should make us think before we vote. These missives determine what happens in the event of a nuclear attack on the UK: every submarine carries sixteen Trident missiles each with six nuclear warheads targeted at an aggressor capable of causing millions of casualties and destroying many cities. When asked in a 2015 BBC interview shortly after becoming leader of the Labour Party, Mr. Corbyn said he would not authorise their launch. Or what he did not say, he refused to contribute to the destruction, or near-destruction, of human life on this planet in a thermonuclear war.
The Parties’ Manifestos appear to differ on Trident. The Conservatives’ says in a single line “we will maintain our Trident nuclear deterrent”. It might have said “our independent Trident nuclear deterrent will continue to be maintained by the US Navy at Kings Bay, Georgia”, but Mr. Johnson’s Party is never one for too much detail. The Labour Party Manifesto says it “supports the renewal of the Trident nuclear deterrent” and will actively lead multilateral efforts to create “a nuclear-free world”. The replacement of the four submarines would initially cost c. £35 billion and, over their lifespan of forty years c. £100 billion for maintenance as a viable deterrent, a lot of money for a weapon Mr. Corbyn would never use.
Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), inevitable nuclear retaliatory strikes, is considered the best way to ensure security and avoid nuclear conflagration in the future. The justification for this perilous belief is that MAD has “kept the peace” and that, since Hiroshima and Nagasaki, use of nuclear weapons in warfare has been avoided. This conclusion is at best wishful-thinking projected into the past, at worst Mad is mad.
The Cuban Missile confrontation of 1962 showed MAD to be false. We have luck to thank for avoiding nuclear conflagration then, not possession of a nuclear deterrent and threat of its use. Nuclear war has to date been avoided because prudent people were in the right place at the right time, and responded well to the miscalculations and mistakes of fallible people in the wrong place at the wrong time.
In October 1962, in international waters off Cuba, the Soviet and US navies confronted each other as the US imposed a naval blockade. On 27 October 1962, the US Beale destroyer and a formation of eleven US warships which had located a “Foxtrot” class B-59 Soviet Delta patrol submarine and had been shadowing it for hours, dropped signalling depth charges to indicate that the submarine should surface.
The Soviet captain, Valentin Savitsky, hiding at depth, had lost communications with the Soviet Union and had received no order to turn back. The temperature in the submarine soared, peaking at over 50 degrees centigrade. Crew members were fainting. Under great stress, Savitsky concluded that war must have broken out, and gave the order to arm his nuclear-tipped torpedoes ready for firing. The vessel’s deputy political officer who was the second half of the dual authorisation needed to launch the nuclear weapons agreed. From that moment only one man stood between a Soviet nuclear weapon being fired at a US warship. By sheer luck, Commodore Vasili Arkhipov who commanded the submarine flotilla of which the B-59 was a part was on board. Though not in command of the vessel he outranked the captain and vetoed the decision to launch, almost certainly avoiding a thermonuclear war.
This was not the only incident that could have sparked an escalation to thermonuclear war. That same day, Black Saturday, Fidel Castro gave an order which resulted in the shooting down of an American U-2 spy plane over Cuba killing its pilot. Then a few hours later, another U-2 pilot, unsighted by an intense aurora borealis, strayed into Soviet airspace over the Chukotka peninsula in Siberia. MIG-19s were scrambled. Fortunately, the pilot found his way back to international airspace where two F-102s escorted him to an Alaskan airfield. Everyone involved, from MacMillan in London with nuclear armed Vulcan bombers in the air to Khrushchev in Moscow, desperately recalibrating his not-so-clever plan of putting nuclear facts on the ground in Cuba, Operation Anadyr, and fearful Castro was out of control, were on a knife edge.
In retrospect it was luck that events such as these did not escalate into a nuclear war. By good fortune the Soviet and American leaders were both rational and capable of accurately calibrating the risk of a nuclear conflagration. John.F. Kennedy had the self-confidence, born of an almost aristocratic disposition and the wise support of his brother Bobby Kennedy, to resist pressure from his military chiefs immediately to bomb the Cuban missile bases and invade. Nikita Khrushchev, wily, brash, from peasant stock, had a clever gambler’s ability to see when it was time to fold on a bad hand. The US Jupiter missiles in Turkey, proved a crucial bargaining chip. Kennedy secretly traded the removal of US Jupiter missiles for the removal of Soviet missiles in Cuba. By one of those quirks of history Kennedy’s offer of a swap-deal was made before he knew Khrushchev had already ordered his vessels to withdraw.
Huge questions arise from the Cuban missile crisis. Does deterrence work? Had Trump been in the White House, and Putin in the Kremlin, would there have been a happy ending? If Arkhipov had been in another submarine would Savitsky really have launched? We will never know.
But if the future of humankind and the planet actually depends on happenstance, luck, and having political leaders with common-sense, we should urgently be taking a lead in seeking multi-lateral nuclear disarmament. Only in an ideal world led by rational, prudent statesmen, a world devoid of mistakes and miscalculation where we always get lucky, would humanity be safe. Is that the world we are looking at today. I don’t think so.
See TheArticle.com 10/12/2019