Clearly I’m having an off week, because I’m having trouble seeing the logic which justifies a couple of recently announced, grandiose projects:
- The maintenance and eventual replacement of Trident. It seems that the UK government is convinced of the worth of our ‘independent’ nuclear deterrent (the White Paper can be found here ), which (a) relies on us renting missiles from the US, (b) at best weasels around, and at worst flagrantly breaches, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (either way, we look like hypocrites), and (c) seems unlikely to deter (in the government’s own words) fanatical terrorist groups hell-bent on destroying western civilisation; even if they have state sponsors, are we really going to nuke an entire city of people in retaliation for the secret acts of some members of their government? Ye gods, according to Wikipedia, we are. Ulp.
In terms of unforeseen “conventional” threats to deter, when asked point blank on Channel 4 News last night about exactly which countries might pose a strategic nuclear threat in the future, Defence Minister Des Browne replied (being mercifully succinct by his normal standards) that “we all know who they are.” Colour me unenlightened, then, because I can’t see North Korea or Iran wasting what capability they may eventually develop on us when there are much closer and more obvious targets. Likewise, amongst the present nuclear powers, for India, Pakistan and Israel. This leaves Russia and China (who seem unlikely to want to bomb major export customers back into the Stone Age), France, and the US.
This is beside the point anyway: if we don’t want other people threatening us with nuclear weapons, isn’t saying “erm, actually maybe we should hang on to ours”, rather than working towards disarmament, more likely to produce a world where this becomes a danger? The only true advantage that I can see (beyond keeping our shipyards busy) is that it keeps us on the UN Security Council; but has that exalted position garnered us any real benefit in the last 30 years, beyond being able to fool ourselves into thinking we are still a major mover and shaker in world affairs?
- NASA’s moonbase. NASA has announced plans to set up a permanent base on the moon. Leaving aside the question is whether the vast sums being diverted to the Moon, Mars, and Beyond Program is worth losing lots of cool robotic missions (which believe, it or not, is a tough one for me - what breathing geologist would not want the opportunity to swing their hammer on Mars?), what is building a lunar base meant to achieve? Technology testing? I’m not sure that the Moon is such a close match to Martian conditions that it is worth the expense and difficulty. To increase the chances of novel scientific output? We could always do with some more lunar rocks, and the astronomers would also be tempted, but forgive me for being cynical. As part of a long-term strategy of establishing a permanent human presence beyond low Earth orbit? Stop laughing. I fear that this will go the way of the ISS: huge amounts of money in, very little tangible out other than the fact that it exists. You can read more commentary on this at Cosmic Variance.
So what is it with government and their agencies? I doubt I could get one of the funding councils to give me a teeny fraction of the billions these projects are going to eat up without being a lot more specific about exactly why it’s worth it.