The UK government should cancel plans to replace Trident nuclear weapons to help prevent humanity toppling “over the edge into a nuclear annihilation abyss,” says a former nuclear submarine commander.
Rob Forsyth, who commanded nuclear-armed and nuclear-powered submarines in the 1970s for the Royal Navy, now thinks that Westminster’s case for keeping Trident on the Clyde is practically, legally and morally indefensible.
The notion that the UK has an independent nuclear deterrent is “no more than national hubris” and conventional military capability is being “sacrificed” to preserve Trident, he argues. The government’s current nuclear stance puts submarine commanders “in legal jeopardy”, he warns.
Forsyth retired from the Royal Navy in 1980 to pursue a career in industry. From 1972-74 he was second in command on the nuclear-armed Polaris submarine, HMS Repulse, for four patrols, during one of which he was in charge because the commander was ill.
He was promoted to commander in 1974, and captained the nuclear-powered but conventionally-armed hunter-killer submarine, HMS Sceptre, from 1977-79. Now 78, he lives in North Oxfordshire.
Forsyth has written a comprehensive and detailed critique of the UK’s nuclear weapons policy for the latest issue of the defence magazine, Warships International Fleet Review. It’s under the headline “The Case Against UK Trident”.
He revealed that before his first Polaris patrol in 1972, he formally discussed and agreed with his commanding officer that firing nuclear missiles in response to a nuclear attack was lawful. “But we added that, if there was no other indication that a nuclear attack by the foe was underway we would pause the countdown, discuss and even possibly phone home,” he said.
According to Forsyth policy has since changed so that the UK no longer rules out a nuclear first strike. Westminster’s policy was now “deliberate uncertainty as to when and how the UK’s nuclear missiles would be used”, he said.
First strikes had clearly been ruled illegal by the International Court of Justice in 1996 and would amount to a “war crime”, he argued. They could result in submarine commanders being asked to obey illegal orders and “placed in legal jeopardy”.
Forsyth pointed out that the UK government had attempted to stay within the law by adding riders exempting nuclear weapons from the international Geneva Conventions preventing the use of weapons of mass destruction. “This deeply shocked me,” he said.
“Trident is no longer a weapon of last resort to be used in extreme circumstances such as defence of the homeland. Present policy includes potential first use against rogue states if they ever used chemical or biological weapons against troops in the field. The general public are not aware of this.”
Forsyth pointed out that Trident was very dependent on shared US facilities. “I cannot conceive Britain would ever fire its Trident missiles without the Americans’ political support and, if they so wished, I am fully confident they would find a way to frustrate the UK,” he said.
“The government assertion that the UK operates an independent deterrent is no more than national hubris.”
Some £2 billion a year is spent on ensuring that one of the four Trident submarines based at Faslane on Gareloch was always on patrol to ensure a Continuous at Sea Deterrent (CASD), he said. Plus it was going to cost at least £40 billion to replace them with four new Dreadnought submarines.
“The UK’s conventional war-fighting capability is being sacrificed to preserve its nuclear one,” he said. “Some serious questions need to be asked and answered by the national political and military leadership about not only the affordability of CASD, but also its necessity at all and/or – if it is retained – the moral context of its use.”
Forsyth urged the UK government to say it would not use nuclear weapons first “under any circumstances”, revoke its rider to the Geneva Conventions and recognise the authority of the International Court of Justice. Such actions would “re-establish the moral standing of the UK in world affairs”, he argued.
He called for CASD to be abandoned because “there is no threat that justifies such an aggressive posture at present”. The UK “should offer to cancel the Dreadnought submarine programme as a significant bargaining tool in multilateral negotiations.”
Forsyth also argued that the UK should stop ignoring the United Nations Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons agreed by 122 countries in July 2017. “This would demonstrate to the rest of the world that UK is taking multilateral disarmament seriously – for the first time in more than two decades,” he said.
He criticised Prime Minister Theresa May for suggesting in 2016 that anyone who failed to support Trident was a traitor. “I would suggest that is far from being the case,” he said.
“This patriot – who has served at the coal face of the at-sea deterrent – is merely asking the UK’s leaders to start thinking hard about the nation’s strategic choices and introduce some bold moves. The UK would be showing true global leadership at a time when the whole of humanity could so easily topple over the edge into a nuclear annihilation abyss.”
Forsyth told the The Ferret how he had come to change his mind about nuclear weapons. “Since commanding a nuclear missile capable submarine the 1970s I have thought hard and learnt much about Britain’s role today as a nuclear-armed nation,” he said.
“What I have found out has convinced me that we now ought to rethink whether we need a nuclear deterrent. We should make clear we will not fire first, take Trident submarines off continuous patrol and be prepared to trade in our nuclear weapons as our contribution to multilateral disarmament.”
Forsyth’s intervention was welcomed by nuclear disarmament campaigners. The Westminster government was accused of performing a “dance macabre” and “holding the world to ransom at the threat of nuclear annihilation” by SNP MSP, Bill Kidd, co-president of Parliamentarians for Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament.
“Rob Forsyth is one of a growing number of former generals and commanders of the UK’s nuclear arsenal who are calling for an end to Trident and CASD as they are inherently dangerous, wasteful of huge sums of public money and completely useless in military terms.”
The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), which won the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize for its work on the UN nuclear ban, thought that Forsyth was right. “He shows bravery in speaking openly what many in our defence services say privately,” said ICAN founding president, Dr Rebecca Johnson.
“Replacing Trident is an expensive vanity project that does nothing for UK security, while stealing resources from the equipment and jobs that are needed for security and deterrence in today’s real and complex world.”
Arthur West, chair of the Scottish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, said: “Mr Forsyth is to be commended for pointing out the importance of the global ban treaty in moving towards a world free of the dangers and hazards of nuclear weapons.”
Last week more than 40 campaigners under the banner of Trident Ploughshares chained themselves to the railings outside the Houses of Parliament in London. They demanded that the UK government sign the nuclear ban treaty to to get rid of “these horrific weapons” and “denuclearise the world”.
The Ministry of Defence (MoD) stressed that it was committed to creating conditions where nuclear weapons would no longer be necessary to guarantee security. The UK has benefited greatly from the long-standing collaboration on nuclear deterrence and nuclear propulsion with the US, it said.
“Our nuclear deterrent is fully compliant and compatible with our international treaty and legal obligations. The use of nuclear weapons – like all weapons – would be subject to the requirements of international humanitarian law,” said an MoD spokeswoman.
It was “naïve to imagine that unilateral disarmament by the UK would change the calculations of nuclear states, or those regimes seeking to acquire nuclear weapons,” she argued.
“The UK’s independent nuclear deterrent will remain essential to our security today, and for as long as the global security situation demands. It is designed to deter against the most extreme threats to our national security and has deterred these threats for nearly 50 years.”
She added: “The Defence Secretary has launched the modernising defence programme to strengthen our armed forces in the face of intensifying threats and the UK maintains the biggest defence budget in Europe.”