John Humphrys - After D-Day whither our defences?

June 07, 2024, 12:48 PM GMT+0

I was still just in my teens when the world was last poised on the brink of nuclear Armageddon. The Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev had reached a secret agreement with the Cuban dictator Fidel Castro – sworn enemy of the United States – to base nuclear missiles on Cuban soil. From there it would take less than five minutes for them to reach almost every major city on the American mainland. The site was under construction. The missiles were on their way by sea and the threat to the United States was clear.

On October 22nd 1962 the American President John F Kennedy ordered a naval “quarantine” of Cuba. That same day, he sent a letter to Khrushchev declaring that the United States would not permit offensive weapons to be delivered to Cuba, and demanded that the Soviets dismantle the Cuban missile bases and return all offensive weapons to the U.S.S.R. He said: “It shall be the policy of this nation to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States.”

Even as he spoke American warships were preparing to attack the Soviet ships bearing their lethal cargo. How would Khrushchev respond to such a threat? With an attack of its own on American bases in range of its own nuclear missiles?

The world held its breath until, in the phrase that made headlines across the continent, “the other guy blinked”. The Soviet ships were ordered back to their homeland. Nuclear Armageddon had been averted.

You may have noticed that at the top of this column I wrote: “when the world was last poised on the brink of nuclear Armageddon.” Does that suggest we are facing that unthinkable scenario again as I write? The obvious answer is no. There is no direct parallel. In the history of world-changing events there seldom is.

Apart from anything else the technology of nuclear weaponry has changed beyond recognition. A nuclear state with hostile intentions has no need any longer for a base only a few miles from its enemy’s borders from which it can unleash its missiles. An unseen submarine can do that at the press of a button.

But something else has changed and it is something you may think should worry us all. It is the growing acceptance by many of the world’s most well-informed experts and, indeed, political leaders, that we are no longer living in a post-war world but a pre-war world.

This past week has been a time for us all to reflect on the horrors of war. We have, surely, been united in our respect and admiration for the dignity of those few brave men who survived the horrors of the D-Day landings. So many of their comrades did not. It was their ultimate sacrifice that helped defeat Nazi Germany. But it was to be only a few short years before we faced a different enemy in a different war. The Cold War.

That, too, ended in victory for the west. But a generation has passed since the Soviet Union collapsed and any dreams we may have cherished of a friendly Russia emerging from its wreckage have long since collapsed. The countless innocent victims of Russian bombs and missiles in Ukraine will testify to that.

And now a phrase seems to be gaining common usage that carries even more menace than the worst horrors of the past century.

“As the world creeps ever closer to a Third World War, it is timely to reflect on what took place 80 years ago.”

That frightening sentence was written by no less a figure than General Sir Nick Carter, the former chief of the defence staff.

Too frightening? It’s obviously true that the world is a dangerous place. Probably more dangerous than at any time since those American warships confronted Khrushchev in the Atlantic.

We cannot discount the danger that a desperate and possibly deranged Putin might launch an attack on a bordering NATO country and let’s not forget that an attack on a single member of Nato is deemed to be an attack on every member. But some would argue that the greatest threat to the integrity of Nato comes not from Moscow but from the man who stands a very good chance of becoming the next President of the United States. For the second time.

It's only a few months ago that Donald Trump made an announcement that, even by his eccentric standards, was truly bizarre. He said he had told a Nato leader he would not protect a nation behind on its payments and would "encourage" the aggressors to "do whatever the hell they want". The White House called the comments "appalling and unhinged". The Nato chief Jens Stoltenberg said any suggestion that "allies will not defend each other undermines all of our security".

Beyond Nato, there is what many observers see as the inevitability that China will finally make good on its threat to invade and occupy Taiwan – a country that produces more than 90 per cent of the most advanced semi-conductors on the planet. Would Washington stand idly by and watch as its greatest rival for global economic dominance threatened their very lifeblood?

And what of our own country and our ability to defend ourselves? There’s scarcely a senior retired military officer in the land who has not described the state of our armed forces as woefully inadequate. Not just on the battlefield or at sea but in the air as well. And only a few weeks ago we learned that we cannot expect even to defend ourselves against a missile attack. One example: the Royal Navy's six Type 45 destroyers are equipped with the country's sole ballistic missile defence systems. But a navy spokesperson said only are currently “available for operations". including one currently on deployment on in the Middle East. On land, six Sky Sabre ground-based air defence systems are each able to shoot down multiple missiles - but at least two, and probably more, are deployed overseas. Those in the UK have only a limited range.

General Carter is “in no doubt that the world is more unstable now than it has been at any time since then. Threats to our way of life and our interests are intensifying rapidly. We have war in Europe, war in the Middle East and the potential for war in the Indo-Pacific.

“We must use this anniversary to remind ourselves that the best way to prevent war is to be prepared for it. As the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky observed: “You may not be interested in war, but war may be interested in you. After more than a decade of declining defence expenditure, our forces are so hollowed out I doubt we could sustain hostilities for more than a fortnight. All three of our services are now at the smallest and most stretched they have ever been.

“We urgently need to rebuild them to fight a modern war or we shall be as vulnerable to aggression as we were in 1939. We need to have a debate during this election campaign on the importance of defence and national security and a genuine commitment to increased investment in our armed forces.”

But soon – if YouGov and every other respected polling organisation has got it right – we shall have another government and, presumably, another defence policy. The Times describes Starmer’s aim thus: “To banish any lingering doubt about Labour’s commitment to defending the country. It is a beast that must be slain by every Labour leader: the fear that the party harbours within its ranks those who would hobble the armed forces and leave the nation ­naked in the face of armed aggression.

“In fact, Labour has a reasonably hawkish record on defence. Attlee authorised the atom bomb and Tony Blair was an enthusiastic proponent of expeditionary warfare. It was Jeremy Corbyn’s virtual renunciation of nuclear weapons in the 2017 election that revived fears of Labour pacifism. Sir Keir’s bullish rhetoric, especially in the nuclear realm, has dispelled most of that concern. But something is missing: the money.”

Labour’s critics point out that something else missing is the unanimous endorsement of senior Labour figures for Trident, Britain’s own nuclear deterrent. Angela Rayner, the deputy leader, has said that she still wants to scrap nuclear weapons “in combination with other countries”. She is not alone. There were 47 Labour MPs who voted against renewing Trident in 2016. Twelve were front-benchers. David Lammy, the shadow foreign secretary, was one of them.

John Healey, the shadow defence secretary, said those frontbenchers who opposed renewal had changed their minds and that “every frontbencher for Labour now knows this, accepts this and fully supports this”.

But Rayner, for one, says she has not changed her mind since the vote. She told the BBC: “The vote that we had some years ago mentioned nothing about multilateral disarmament, and that’s what I feel is really important for the long term is that globally we should be looking at disarmament of nuclear weapons, but that has to be done in combination with other countries.”

So where do you stand? Do you accept the notion that we are now in a pre-war state? And if you do, how does that influence your attitude towards our nuclear deterrent?

Let us know.

Explore more data & articles