The UK’s Military Show Time

Photograph Source: Eybl, Plakatmuseum Wien/Wikimedia Commons – Public Domain

Readers of any reliable news outlet will probably be aware that the UK’s Brexit rollout has been little short of a disaster.

Adding to the catalogue of Brexit failures, the UK is now being sued by the EU for extending unilaterally a grace period on food imports to the island of Ireland, where the EU and the UK share a land border, and where a special trade system was set up as part of the Brexit deal. The wheels of the international justice system grind slowly, so it may be a while before this case is resolved.

These readers may also be aware that, a successful Covid vaccination programme notwithstanding, the UK’s death toll from the pandemic is among the highest in the western world.

They may also be aware that the combination of Brexit and the pandemic has plunged the UK’s economy into depths not encountered for 300 years.

What better time, therefore, to conduct a review of existing defence arrangements, and to promise an upgrade of current weapons systems, as a hoped-for boost to the morale of Brits uneasy or depressed about the situation described above.

A war, started by the Americans on some pretext with the UK joining as the ever-loyal ally, might have served this morale-boosting purpose better, but a populace distracted by the pandemic and its ramifications may be less easily cajoled by previously effective recourses to bellicosity such as the invasion of Iraq.

So, time for Prime Minister Boris “BoJo” Johnson and Ukania to head to the weaponry gym where armaments, and other military paraphernalia, can be bulked-up for show without any imminent prospect of battle-field combat.

The UK Defence Review 2021called for an increase in expenditure of £40bn plus /$56bn plus on WMDs. China was very much its focus.

“China’s growing international stature is by far the most significant geopolitical factor in the world today…. The fact that China is an authoritarian state, with different values to ours, presents challenges for the UK and our allies. China will contribute more to global growth than any other country in the next decade with benefits to the global economy”.

BoJo, the ersatz Churchill, announced that the UK intends to deploy the HMS Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier and supporting carrier strike group in Indo-Pacific waters later this year, perhaps in the hope that it will make China (2 aircraft carriers) tremble at the knees.

CounterPuncher Dave Lindorff has given a recent overview of Russia’s and China’s nuclear warfare capabilities.

Lindorff points out that China has 380 nuclear warheads, and is estimated to have 100 nuclear-capable missiles with a variety of ranges. It has 6 nuclear-missile carrying submarines, and 2 aircraft carriers, which are deployed close to home.

The UK has 4 Trident nuclear-missile carrying submarines.

The UK Defence Review calls for an increase in the UK’s stockpile of the Trident nuclear warheads from 180 to 260, the biggest increase since the end of the cold war.

However, to call Trident a “British” missile is something of a misnomer.

Trident missiles are designed and manufactured in the United States by Lockheed Martin. Maintenance and in-service support of the missiles is undertaken at King’s Bay, Georgia, USA. While Trident’s nuclear warheads are manufactured in the UK, they are patterned after their US equivalent, the American W76 warhead. The missiles are in effect leased from the US.

While the UK has operational control over its Trident missiles, it is impossible to believe that the UK’s missiles will be launched without prior American approval. A country receiving a submarine-launched Trident missile strike will probably have no way of distinguishing between US and UK missiles, since both use Trident, and thus could just as feasibly retaliate against the US as the UK.

Nuclear missiles are of course professed to be a deterrent, in response to an enemy’s first strike, but this renders their deployment moot, for the UK at any rate.

The (relatively tiny) UK fits into Oregon state, so an enemy strike, involving multiple nuclear warheads much more powerful than the single bomb dropped on Nagasaki (22 kilotons on Nagasaki vs a single Trident warhead-equivalent of 100 kilotons), directed solely at London would nonetheless wipe-out any semblance of everyday life in most of the UK, with the possible exception of a few islands to the far north of Scotland.

What then would be the point of a Ukanian retaliatory strike?

The UK Defence Review 2021also makes much of the threat posed by cyber-warfare, but there seems to be little connection between this trepidation and the decision to increase unilaterally the UK’s nuclear warhead stockpile by 40% and to lower significantly the bar for first use of WMDs.

This altered position, the review argues, is a response to the challenge posed by “emerging technologies that could have a comparable impact” to a strike by nuclear, chemical or biological weapons.

It is not clear what the Tory government means by “emerging technologies”, just as it is unclear how adding to a stockpile of WMDs will counter the threat posed by a cyber-attack.

Unless the muddle-headed BoJo thinks that one way to respond to a cyber-attack would be to launch a Trident missile strike against the presumed cyber-belligerents. But this would be an act of sheer lunacy, involving the almost certain annihilation of his country in the ensuing counter-strike.

The underlying motivation for this baffling flummery lies elsewhere.

Ukania’s political elite, with even the Labour leader Keir Starmer joining in, is in the midst of a frenzy of flag-waving.

BoJo’s new “media room” in 10 Downing Street has no less than 4 union jacks in the back— Americans may think a room with a phalanx of flags is normal, but it isn’t for many Brits.

BoJo’s transport secretary, Robert “three homes” Jenrick, explained BoJo’s enthusiasm for the union jack thus: BoJo was using “a symbol of liberty and freedom that binds the whole country together”.

This is arrant nonsense. The northern Irish (especially its Catholic community) have little enthusiasm for Ukania, especially after the chaos brought to that part of Ireland by Brexit; Wales is devolved, has its own parliament, and polls show increased support for independence; and Scotland, the current leadership crisis in the Scottish National Party notwithstanding, seems to be bailing on the sinking HMS Ukania.

BoJo even tried to get packages of the Oxford University/AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine labelled with an image of the union jack, despite the fact that AZ is actually an Anglo-Swedish company with a French chief executive.

The Ukanian project is in its death throes, and no number of union jacks and Trident missiles is going to come to its rescue.

Kenneth Surin teaches at Duke University, North Carolina.  He lives in Blacksburg, Virginia.