Journal of Cold War Studies 6.2 (2004) 94-96
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Maggie Mort, Building the Trident Network: A Study of the Enrollment of People, Knowledge, and Machines. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002. x 1 217 pp. $32.95.
American readers can be forgiven for missing the point of this very interesting book. They will think of Trident as a weapon system, and of the "Trident network" as a combination of contractors and subcontractors and individuals who created the submarine and the missile and the system connecting the two. But, they will read, instead, about the effect of the Trident project on some British companies, particularly Vickers Barrow, and about arguments raised by opponents of the project who created the "network" to which the title of the book refers. Trident was a large project in the United States, but the Trident project in Britain was far larger as a percentage of overall defense effort. It is by no means true, as Maggie Mort claims, that Trident was the largest moving thing ever created by human beings (think of an aircraft carrier or a supertanker), but it was certainly among the most expensive.
The book makes three major points. One is that the British government had to persuade many workers, who were at best ambivalent about Trident, to participate in the project. This ambivalence was partly a consequence of the way the Cold War played out. Nuclear deterrence imposed a kind of peace, so that workers who were perfectly happy to build missiles could feel reasonably certain that the weapons would never be used and hence that no moral issues attached to them. That was probably far truer in Western Europe than in the United States, which used its conventional forces on many occasions throughout the Cold War. Mort makes the very interesting claim that for British submarine construction workers this comfortable situation was shattered when HMS Conqueror sank the Argentine cruiser Belgrano during the opening phase of the Falklands War in 1982. Suddenly war was real, and building a submarine to carry large numbers of nuclear warheads entailed the possibility that those warheads might someday be used. Through the 1980s the Labour Party argued strongly against any British nuclear role, on the ground that nuclear weapons were inherently immoral. Margaret Thatcher's government, which decided to build Trident, thus had [End Page 94] to convince fairly large numbers of British workers that deterrence was an appropriate defense stance, that Trident would help maintain deterrence, and that the missiles would not be used in war. This episode helps explain why post-Cold War events, such as the recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, have generally been far more wrenching for Europeans, who enjoyed effective peace during the Cold War, than for Americans, who by and large did not.
A second key issue was the fate of the submarines' builder, Vickers. Vickers had long been a general-purpose engineering firm, constructing warships but also many other pieces of heavy equipment. The effect of the Trident contract was to convince the company's management to specialize in nuclear submarines. The four Trident submarines were manufactured in an elaborate new facility, which was far too large and too specialized to build anything other than nuclear submarines. That made good sense if the Cold War was to last forever. But the final Trident submarines were completed after the collapse of the Soviet Union. By that time, Vickers's non-military capability had largely been abandoned. The Royal Navy continues to buy nuclear submarines, but on a limited scale, probably below what it takes to keep the yard economical. Moreover, the British Ministry of Defence has adopted "smart procurement," which in effect should open future programs to competition (though competition is meaningless unless there is a real alternative to Vickers Barrow). What happens to the specialized company if its market evaporates?
This is a two-sided question, and it affects the United States. Governments need the ability to make weapons, even if some of the time they do not want...