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Retired army generals: Spend Trident money on the army

Well, they would say that, wouldn't they

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Comment Three long-retired British army generals have written to the Times, expressing their opinion that the UK should not - as the government has said it will - renew the Trident nuclear weapons programme.

The three ex-soldiers are Field-Marshal Lord Bramall (87, retired as head of the armed forces in 1985); General Lord Ramsbotham (75, retired as adjutant-general in 1993) and General Sir Hugh Beach (85, retired as master-general of the ordnance in 1981).

Their letter to the public can be read here. In it, the three men set out their opposition to Trident on the standard peacenik arguments: that nuclear weapons are nasty things, that a freshly-armed UK will find it difficult to preach disarmament to others (Iran), that Trident is dependent on US servicing, and that possession of nuclear weapons does not confer the diplomatic clout it once did. It is also pointed out that nuclear weapons aren't much use against terrorist groups, which could of course be an issue if you consider terrorism to be a serious threat to the UK.

The three men also reveal another major reason why it is very normal to find senior armed forces officers who are against nuclear weapons. Beach, for instance, was one of 57 retired senior officers who signed a statement condemning nukes in 1996. A committed Christian - of the sort who finds Christianity incompatible with nukes - he has been a unilateral disarmament advocate since he retired nearly 30 years ago. He can't be accused of hypocrisy for joining the forces in the first place: back when he and his co-signatories joined up there weren't any nuclear weapons.

Religion is one thing, but even among less righteous military men it's common to look with disfavour on nukes. This is because they are very expensive, and much if not all of the money is found from the defence budget - which could otherwise be spent on lovely tanks, ships or planes, and lovely subordinates for senior officers to command.

Opposition is usually especially strong in those arms of service which have no involvement in delivering whatever nukes a country has chosen. This always includes the army, and it's no surprise to find three former generals - as opposed to admirals - writing such a letter.

With the British armed services already going through a terrible, ongoing rolling funding crisis at the moment, many of the Forces' friends are dreading the arrival of the Trident-renewal funding lines in next decade's MoD budget. No one more so than the three ex-generals:

Major-player status in the international military scene is more likely to find expression through effective, strategically mobile conventional forces, capable of taking out pinpoint targets... Rather than perpetuating Trident, the case is much stronger for funding our Armed Forces with what they need... In the present economic climate it may well prove impossible to afford both.

In the UK, it's also quite normal to find air-marshals who are against nukes. The RAF became unfriendly to the British deterrent, in fact, at around the time it moved from their beloved long-range heavy bomber force - at a stroke taking away the bombers' future - onto submarines at the end of the 60s. Anti-nuclear campaigners still love to quote the bitter letter written at the time by the head of the RAF bomber fleet, describing the new Polaris sub-based deterrent as a "myth" - and the constant drip of antinuke sentiment which has emanated from the upper levels of the RAF since.

Even among British admirals, enthusiasm for nukes can be lukewarm. The navy, rather than gloating over the chance to have missile subs, often feels that it is made to shoulder a disproportionate share of the deterrent's cost, money it might rather spend on other things more to its taste such as frigates, destroyers, aircraft carriers and so on. Even the submariners aren't that excited about Trident - deterrent patrols are astonishingly boring duty, and offer few chances for a keen submariner to polish his skills or his reputation. You could have at least a couple of sexy, fun attack boats for the money it takes to provide a Trident one.

Quite apart from the fact that the officer class of the armed forces are actually much more diverse in belief, politics and opinions than people think, then, it isn't surprising at all to find senior military officers who dislike nuclear weapons. Nukes are in general bad for their career prospects, and act as a constraint on the budgets of the service communities they love. It can even be argued that nukes make a lot of these service communities obsolete.

What's odd, then, is the way that the British public and media are so perennially surprised when the Hugh Beaches of this world pop up yet again, as they have been doing ever since the nuclear bomb was invented - and the way this is seen in some way as an authoritative new argument.

The three generals mutter discontentedly that "our independent deterrent has become virtually irrelevant except in the context of domestic politics", rather missing the point that this is a democracy and domestic politics is where the issue has to be decided. Labour have tried unilateral disarmament as a policy, and found that it made them unelectable. The Tories are hardly going to go that route.

But the Lib Dems are there. If, as the disarmament campaigners suggest, the British electorate has changed its mind on nukes, we can expect a Lib Dem landslide and Blighty will disarm itself - with, I would personally suggest (only one man's opinion) - potentially unfortunate consequences down the road. Following such an election result, one might also expect a national transport policy based on Segways. And/or flying pigs.

If the LibDem landslide doesn't happen, the armed forces will just have to do as they are told by the elected government of the day and spend some of their budget on nukes - much though they'd rather spend the taxpayers' cash on things they personally enjoy more. But that's just tough. As even the most passionately committed anti-nuclear general would acknowledge, the armed forces must remain obedient to the civil power. ®

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