I have been a bit rough over the last few days with one of those chest infections which renders sleep out of reach. Lots of quality time with the wee small hours of the morning. Lots of dead time to kill. So it was that a couple of nights ago I rummaged though the nether regions of Netflix until I landed on ‘Dr Strangelove.’
Well? Why the hell not?
Christ. 1964. Fifty two years old and counting. And yet it took less than five minutes to see the thing had aged as well as Jane Fonda. If Stanley Kubrick had wanted to make it in colour, he could have done. But he chose black and white and was he ever right to do so. The movie is a ninety minute study in genius. The genius of Kubrick as he creates a haunting, terrible beauty out of lovingly crafted shots of a lonely B52 bomber gliding over the dead of night wilderness of Northern Russia. The genius of Peter Sellars who plays three parts and could have won an Oscar of any of them. More than anything else, the genius of laying bare the utter, abject lunacy of mankind’s fascination with pouring resources into achieving the means to destroy the world we live in.
Once Vera Lynn sang the movie out over a montage of exploding hydrogen bombs, it seemed to me the nuclear lunacy of 2016 is several times more lunatic than it was back in 1964. At least back then the nukes were aimed at an enemy who could be clearly identified. The tough guys at the helm of Soviet Russia made no kind of secret about their desire to come get us one day. The many thousands of T62 battle tanks they had stationed in East Germany kind of rubber stamped the point.
There was a kind of horrendous method to the nuclear madness back then. Their army outnumbers ours by at least five to one. And they really do fancy rolling west to come get us. Well, at least they say they do. So we need to keep them in their communist box by threatening them with a nuclear holocaust. The fact that any kind of nuclear exchange would leave us every bit as irradiated and generally screwed as the Soviets was deemed to be neither here nor there.
And I guess it is hard in a way not to accept that the lunacy of mutually assured destruction probably worked.
In a way.
In a completely warped way. For the first time in hundreds of years the regimes of Europe managed to hate each other without going the extra mile and killing each other by the million.
In the end, the threat of having a stream of Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles raining down on their heads seemed to be enough to reign in the war like instincts of the leaders on both sides of the Iron Curtain. If Saddam Hussein had owned the ability to nuke the White House and Downing St, I wonder if Bush and Blair would have been quite so keen to play the part of tough guys? Something tells me they might have given the weapons inspectors a bit more time.
The bottom line is that when both sides are nuked up to the eyeballs, it means the leaders are effectively right there on the front line. Sure, in the event of buttons being pressed they will be rushed down to the very deepest of the deep bunkers, but when is all said and done not many fancy the idea of spending the rest of their natural lives eating corned beef and biscuits that come out of tins. Instead they much prefer to pick fights with the miserably under motivated and ill equipped armies of the likes of Iraq and Argentina. Lots of glory in the tabloid press and not a snowball in hell’s chance of the bad guys having a go at them personally.
So Kubrick's 1964 was then. Now the world is a very different place. The pro nuke brigade never tires of telling us all about how unpredictable and dangerous it is, but they never seem keen to put any meat on the bones.
They tell us that Vladimir Putin is a bad guy. Fair enough. He is a bad guy. But he holds a very different hand of cards to the one the likes of Leonid Brezhnev were accustomed to holding.
Does he have a vast tank army parked up on the German Border? No he doesn’t. Does he have the money to even think of building that kind of tank army? No he doesn’t. In fact, is the Red Army so completely hollowed out that it took them a whole week to complete the invasion of Georgia which was supposed to be done and dusted in a matter of hours? Yup. It sure is. Recent botched adventures in Georgia, Chechyna and Ukraine have demonstrated the Red Army is still light years away from solving it's age old problem of the lads drinking all the brake fluid in the trucks and tanks.
So the truth of the matter is that Putin has no ability whatsoever to threaten Western Europe with soldiers and tanks and planes. But fair enough, he could still nuke us. But why would he? What could he possibly gain? Nuking someone is a whole different ball game to invading them and stealing all their stuff. If we had nuked Iraq, then BP would have had no chance of getting a hold of all that lovely oil.
Basically there is no gain whatsoever for Vladimir Putin should he choose to nuke Britain. And just imagine how pissed off all his best mates would be at one of his ICBM’s turning their Mayfair mansions into a heap of irradiated rubble. And what of all that lovely loot Vladimir and his mates have safely tucked away in the shiny towers of the City of London? Freshly laundered money is no use if the computer that holds the records has been vapourised.
But what about North Korea!!!! Oh my God!!! NORTH KOREA!! The place is run by a raving lunatic and they are so bad out there that they even tortured Jack Bauer and James Bond. Oh yeah. That’s how bad these people are. Real bad. But no matter how bad they might be, I cannot see why in a million years they would ever have the slightest interest in nuking us. Why would they? If they are going to nuke anyone it will be South Korea first and then America and then Japan. But not us. They don’t give a shit about us. They never have.
But what about ISIS and Al Queda and Al Shabab and Boko Haram!!!!! OH MY GOD!!!!!!
For Christ’s sake.
But then we are told that having nukes is all about forward planning. Fair enough, right now we really don’t have any enemies where having a submarine at sea 24/7 will keep us safe, but that doesn’t mean that these kinds of enemies will not emerge in the future. What about China? What about Iran?
The future is scary, scary……..
And we would be irresponsible and crazy to give up our treasured nuclear safety blanket when the years to come might well be filled with dire threat.
And so the whole issue has become an accepted norm. The future is an unpredictable nightmare. OH MY GOD!!!!!!!!! Let's keep our nukes and stay safe and who gives a stuff about how much it all costs. Because of course like the men in the serious suits say, you simply cannot put a price on staying safe.
To argue against this paper thin logic born out of the same methods parents use to frighten young children with tales of hobgoblins and bogeymen has become strangely unacceptable. Saying nukes are a useless waste of money is right up there with saying communism is a good idea and Donald Trump is well cool. People who usually have reasonably sane ideas about spending public money go all demented when it comes to splashing the cash on four submarines to carry the wherewithal to wipe the world clean of fifty million or so bad guys.
Oh the cost. The civil servant in charge recently described the Trident submarine programme as a 'monster'. Five years ago, our four new submarines were going to cost us £25 billion. During those five years there has been near zero inflation. Well, zero inflation in the real world. In the nuke world there must have been raging inflation because the new quote has popped up to £31 billion. And just to be safe, the civil servant in charge has recommended adding on an extra £10 billion just in case.
Oddly enough this particular price hike isn't actually all that bad in the nuclear world beyond the looking glass. Five years ago the bill for shutting down and cleaning up Sellafield was going to be £6 billion. Now it has risen to £53 billion and we are still very much counting.
This is maybe worth getting straight. It is going to cost every man, woman and child in Britain two thousand quid each to clean up the festering irradiated mess that lurks underneath a few acres of West Cumbria. At the same time we are all required to cough up a further fifteen hundred quid each for a team of four nuclear submarines.
When will we see a return on our investments? Well nobody is willing to give a date for cleaning up Sellafield, but they reckon we might well have the subs by 2031. So that's good. Isn't it? I mean, it looks like we can look forward to ruling the waves again. Or does it?
As the country who once upon had a navy capable of controlling the oceans of the world, we can have no excuse for ignoring the lessons of our maritime history. There is painful truth here. When it comes to wasting vast amounts of public money on warships which are completely obsolete by the time the Queen smashes a bottle on them we have lots and lots of history. In 1920 battleships looked like a really good idea. They were the undisputed heavyweight champions of the oceans. And so Parliament ordered a whole bunch of them. They were supposed to be ready to sail out to the high seas in the 1930's. But you know how it is... These things take time. As it was, most of them were not ready until the late forties. And by the late forties everything had changed. By the late forties there was a new kid on the block. Fighter bombers. And World War Two had provided ample proof that a fight between a bunch of fighter bombers and a battleship was only ever going to end one way and it was always the flyboys who were acknowledging the cheers of the crowd.
Every one of the battleships which were built at such huge cost were completely useless by the time they were ready to launch. We sailed them around for a while for the sake of appearances and then we quietly scrapped them.
Right now the clever scientists in California and Shanghai are working away night and day on designing clever little underwater drones. I gather there will be two types. First there will be diddy little things that float underwater and sense when a big nuclear sub is sailing by. And then there are slightly larger things that can silently tail a nuclear sub around the silent emptiness of the oceans. So here's how it will almost certainly play out in a few years time. Let's for a minute imagine the Chinese government are not greatly amused at us Brits having multiple nukes targeted at their cities. So what do? Well, they might well send a few lads over to Scotland carrying big golf bags as a cunning cover. The lads might enjoy a touring holiday around the coast. The lads might stop on the edge of Gare Loch to take lots of pictures for their Facebook pages. The lads might quietly drop hundreds on the diddy drones into the water. Then they might go and get nine holes in before it gets too dark.
Meanwhile some other golfing Chinese lads might stroll along ta beach in Ayshire and pop a few of the larger drones into the sea.
What happens next? It is pretty simple really. The diddy drones in Gare Loch let the bigger drones hanging out in the Clyde Estuary know when on of our shiny new nuke subs is making its secret way out to sea. The bigger drones quietly fall in behind the not so secret sub and duly keep the brass in Beijing up to speed about its whereabouts. If at any stage the Chinese decide to teach us a lesson, all they need to do is to drop a nuke in the general vicinity of our sub and it will be game over for a hundred billion quid's worth of safety blanket.
Just like all those quietly scrapped battleships back in the day. The only way this outcome doesn't come to pass is if the clever lads in California and Shanghai fail to do their stuff with the drones. From where I am sitting, that outcome doesn't look all that hopeful. They have at least fifteen years when all is said and done. I rather fancy their chances.
But what do I know? So let's for a moment imagine all the clever lads in the world fail to come up with their dastardly mini drones, and when our first new sub sails out of the Clyde Estuary in 2031 it is still capable of staying invisible and therefore viable.
What can it actually do? Well on this point the rules are very, very clear. Under no circumstances whatsoever is any British Prime Minister allowed to use our nukes as a means of attack. That is a complete no go area. All our PM is allowed to do is to fire back once someone else has fired their nukes at us. We are allowed to retaliate, not initiate.
It goes something like this. Bad guys launch a massive nuclear strike on Britain. Loads of bombs hit London and everything and everyone is completely totaled. This is when the Prime Minister has a decision to make. Do I stick or twist? We are already completely screwed. However there is still the option of killing fifty million or so of the bad guys' civilians in revenge. Even though none of the the aforesaid fifty million civilians was in any way responsible for nuking Britain. And then of course there is another ticklish problem. What if the Prime Minister of the day has been reduced to a molecular state by the bad guys' first strike. With the best will in the world even the greatest of leaders struggle to make decisions once they have been well and truly atomised.
Well there is no need to worry. This eventuality has been covered. There has been plenty of pre-planning. I heard all about it from an expert from the United Services Institute who the BBC promised was a genuine expert in his field. Well that figured. The United Services Institute is made up of ex generals and admirals and head spooks. Been there, done that guys. So this is is how things play out.
Bad guys nuke London. Completely. Utterly. Everyone is dead. At this point, the commander of the submarine hidden away under the grey waters of the Atlantic has an inkling that something isn't right. He keeps calling London, but every phone just rings out. So how does he check if there is anyone or anything left? Simple. He instructs his radio officer to tune into Radio Four. If there is no Radio Four any more, he is to assume there is no Britain any more. At this point he goes to his safe and takes out a pre-written letter for the Prime Minister. It's a pretty heavy letter to be frank. The letter explains what the sub captain is to do in the event of Britain being nuked.
Should he stick or should he twist?
Every Prime Minister since Harold McMillan has written their doomsday letter. And you know what? Every single one of them said 'don't do it'. What is the point? The game is already over. Why would I want to become a posthumous war criminal by slaughtering fifty million entirely innocent civilians out of pure spite?
Remember, the guy who explained this was a guy who knew all about this kind of stuff. So for the last fifty years our so called nuclear deterrent hasn't actually been any kind of deterrent at all. Not in practice. And yet we are still planning to spend another hundred and something billion on a bunch of of soon to be obsolete submarines which will be a major radioactive headache when we scrap them in 2040.
Like I said, there really is no lunacy like nuclear lunacy.