A Canadian response to the Trident: ‘No incineration without representation’

William Epstein May 3 1976

A Canadian response to the Trident: ‘No incineration without representation’

William Epstein May 3 1976

A Canadian response to the Trident: ‘No incineration without representation’

William Epstein

In all the current nattering over Soviet-American détente, not much attention has been paid—certainly not enough—to Trident, the most devastating instrument of mass destruction ever developed by mankind. From those wonderful folks at the Pentagon who already gave us Polaris and Poseidon, the Trident generation of nuclear missile firing submarines (the first is due out of the shipyards in 1978-79) will make all antecedents seem primitive by comparison. Some people derive comfort from such weaponry. But many others, including a growing number of Canadians, view the Trident program as the most extravagant and potentially most deadly round in the arms race to date. And in the gathering anti-Trident protest movement, the Canadian voice is especially relevant: Trident will be built—and based—at Bangor, Washington, some 60 miles south of Victoria and less than 100 from Vancouver. Both cities would be prime victims in any nuclear war.

To appreciate just how destructive Trident will be, it ought to be remembered that its nuclear predecessors were not exactly debilitated when it came to firepower. The first generation Polaris subs of the early Sixties carried 16 missiles with hydrogen warheads—20 or 30 times the killing power of the bombs that razed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The second generation Poseidon missiles carried MIRVSmultiple independently targetable reentry vehicles; up to 14 warheads fitted to each missile could be aimed at separate targets (range: 2,800 miles) and were accurate enough to land within 500 yards. One Polaris submarine refitted with Poseidon missiles could easily destroy any nation on earth. Indeed, in 1974 the United States claimed enough strategic nuclear weapons (as distinct from tactical nuclear weapons) to level all (218) Russian cities with populations of 100,000 or more—36 times. (The Russians, poor fellows, could destroy equivalent-sized American cities only 12 times.)

Once upon a time, there was method in this madness. Overkill capacity is a direct result of the policy of nuclear deterrence, which is based on the quaint notion that each side can be deterred from attacking the other only by a balance of terror. Since the side possessing a first-strike capability—the ability to wipe out the enemy’s arsenal in one surprise attack—obviously wins any war, the doctrine of deterrence posits the existence of an invulnerable bank of retaliatory weapons to destroy the attacker. Hence, in any nuclear con-

frontation, both sides lose—and millions die—regardless of who strikes first. One especially ominous aspect of Trident is that it might create a perceived first-strike threat and thus upset the stability of deterrence. The Pentagon’s initial plan is to build 10 Trident Is (the name refers to the three-pronged sceptre of Neptune, Roman God of the Sea), each carrying 24 missiles (equipped with up to 20 nuclear warheads), with a range of 4,600 miles. steered to within 100 yards of target. Cost estimates per sub range between $1.5 and $1.8 billion—or $15 and $18 billion for the first stage. But military estimates generally triple before completion; by the time all 10 units are operational in 1985, the figure could run to more than $30 billion.

The arguments of Trident supporters cannot stand up to even the most cursory analysis. For example, they contend Trident will help the States keep nuclear pace with Russia. The plain fact is the United States is already far ahead of the Soviets. Alternatively, it is suggested that Trident provides a hedge against possible Soviet breakthroughs in antisubmarine warfare. This, too, is pure myth. The United States spends billions annually on ASW research and is nowhere near acquiring any effective capability. A third argument is that Trident becomes a bargaining chip in arms talks with the Russians. But such bargaining chips tend to lead to arms escalation

rather than arms control, MIRVS and MARVS were once considered bargaining chips, too; in response the Soviets insisted on playing catch-up with the United States. In fact, it was former President Richard Nixon who hustled the Trident program (originally not slated to.begin until the 1980s) into a new timetable, hoping to gain leverage in the SALT talks.Typically,Nixon used the same speedup to assure the navy and knee-jerk conservatives in Congress that there would be no risk in accepting the SALT agreements.

The reasons for building in Bangor—a safe harbor in Puget Sound with easy access—are equally shallow. Most important Soviet nuclear bases lie in western Russia and would be better reached from the Atlantic than the Pacific. In any case, Poseidon subs are already operating from both Puget Sound and Guam; any benefits obtained from being able to hide in the Pacific’s additional ocean spaces—as a result of the Trident missile’s increased range—will be equally well obtained by the American decision to fit the missile into 10 Poseidon subs and using other bases.

If the arguments in defense of Trident are underwhelming, those against it are not. What does it add to world peace to be able to annihilate Soviet cities 70 times, instead of 36 times? The Trident missiles are useless; there are not enough targets for the 4,000 to 5,000 warheads. As it did with ICBMS, SLBMS, and MIRVS, the Soviet Union will inevitably follow the American lead and build its own version of Trident, thus providing new impetus to the arms race, weakening detente, and encouraging the spread of nuclear weapons to smaller nonnuclear countries.

It is obviously in the world’s interest to stop Trident now. Under international law, of course, the United States could claim a sovereign right to build whatever bases it likes anywhere in its own territory. But Americans have no moral or political right to imperil Canadian or any other lives. Unfortunately, Ottawa is complacent, apathetic, inert. Indeed, it has even defended Trident on the same specious grounds once used by the Pentagon. Earlier this year, in Vancouver, Defense Minister James Richardson told a protest group that Trident is a deterrent to war, and said the Canadian government planned no protest over the location of the base. Trident is no deterrent; it’s a catalyst, a game of roulette that has no winners.

William Epstein, visiting professorat the University of Victoria. was from 1950 to 1973 director of the UN disarmament division.