Belmont Club

Schrodinger's Missile

When the track of a test Trident D5 SLBM  hovered over the Southern California coast this week it came like a ghost from the Cold War past.  The track’s sudden appearance, according to  CNN, startled a population for whom “Duck and Cover” was a dim memory. “Panic and speculation spread Saturday night when a bright white light shot through the night skies in Southern California. Residents posted a flurry of videos on social media, together with theories of aliens or meteors. Others made panicked calls to law enforcement officials.”

Although the public was quickly told not to worry, being only a “planned missile test”, their first instincts were correct. Strategic nuclear missiles are like Gozer the Destructor, things to be feared, only real.  They come not from the familiar world of social media and the Kardashians, but from another dimension,  another plane of reasoning.

The D5 is a bona fide ghost and  we should treat it with all the respect due to a real demon.  The 80’s have been calling to us lately and it may be best to recall all we have forgotten about the universe that the ancients once spoke of.

The philosophical essence of the D5 is perhaps best captured by the British Navy, the only other force on the planet armed with it,  in a quaint instrument called the letters of last resort, which are kept in a safe in each of the 4 British Vanguard class boomers.  They are to be opened only in the event the British government is no more. If they are ever read, each represents what is effectively the last will and testament of what was once the United Kingdom.

The letters of last resort are four identically-worded handwritten letters written by the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom to the commanding officers of the four British ballistic missile submarines. They contain orders on what action to take in the event that an enemy nuclear strike has destroyed the British government and has killed or otherwise incapacitated both the Prime Minister and the “second person” (normally a high-ranking member of the Cabinet) whom the Prime Minister has designated to make a decision on how to act in the event of the Prime Minister’s death. In the event that the orders were to be carried out, the action taken could be the last official act of Her Majesty’s Government.

The letters are stored inside two safes in the control room of each submarine. The letters are destroyed unopened after a Prime Minister leaves office, so their content remains known to only them. …

According to the December 2008 BBC Radio 4 documentary The Human Button, there were four known options given to the Prime Minister to include in the letters. The Prime Minister instructs the submarine commander to:

  1. retaliate with nuclear weapons;
  2. not retaliate;
  3. use his own judgement; or
  4. place the submarine under an allied country’s command, if possible. The documentary mentions Australia and the United States.

Nobody knows what’s in them.  Theoretically a British prime minister could write something like this.  “If you are reading this letter it can only mean there is no one left alive in the United Kingdom to give you orders.  Since all you lads can do is add a 140 million odd Russians to the casualty list, which is rather pointless, I hereby order you to implement option 4.  Good luck boys.  When you get to Bondi, pop a cold one and don’t forget to use the sunscreen.”

The current leader of the British Labor Party, Jeremy Corbyn, has created a mini-political crisis in the UK  by threatening to write something like that.  Corbyn indicated he would order the Vanguards not to retaliate even if the UK were destroyed.

The fact he would not use nuclear weapons is unlikely to come as a shock – he is Vice Chair on the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament’s 2014-15 council – but it is still remarkable to hear such a forthright response on a matter most leaders have declined to comment on.

Corbyn would not be the first prominent Briton to advocate this point of view. The slogan “better Red than Dead”  is after all the rallying cry of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, of which he is a leading official.  They had it from Bertrand Russell, who coined the phrase.

The first phrase, “better red than dead”, is often credited to British philosopher Bertrand Russell, but in his 1961 Has Man a Future? he attributes it to “West German friends of peace.” In any event, Russell agreed with the sentiment, having written in 1958 that if “no alternative remains except communist domination of the human race, the former alternative is the lesser of two evils,” and the slogan was adopted by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, which he helped found.

Last Sunday the issue of whether a Prime Minister might give the annihilator of the UK a pass made the news again after Chief of the Defence Staff General Sir Nicholas Houghton expressed worry that Corbyn might actually instruct the British deterrent force to sit on its hands.  The Labor leader retorted that it was entirely his prerogative.

Jeremy Corbyn has warned the head of the armed forces not to meddle in politics after he criticised his views on Trident and the Government’s stance on intervention in Syria.

Mr Corbyn also said he would be writing to the Defence Secretary to request “the neutrality of the Armed Forces is upheld”.

The Labour leader told Sky’s Sophy Ridge: “He (Sir Nicholas) has plenty of opportunity to brief and influence politicians – the Prime Minister, the Secretary of State for Defence, myself as Leader of the Opposition … he has that opportunity, he has that responsibility.

“I don’t think it’s appropriate for him to start discussing on national television what he think should be happening when ultimately in a democracy it’s elected politicians who must take that decision – and the responsibility for that decision.”

Yours not to reason why. Yours is but to do or die.

Which means its contents are not only unknown but unknowable before the captain opens the missive.  “Slate reports that unused letters are destroyed without being read: the weightiness of the decision, perhaps, being offset by the fact that no-one will ever know what one chose except in the most desperate circumstances.” Thus the content of these letters has the existence-nonexistence property of Schrodinger’s Cat. It’s in a state of superposition that will only be resolved if the 3rd world war starts.

If that happens all the bets are off.  Perhaps the British captain reading the letters of last resort will act as he thinks fit whatever the Prime Minister wrote, since there will be no one left to court-martial him.

If this all sounds a little bizarre, it is because it is. That is the trouble. The hard part about explaining deterrence to the public is to convince them its real in the first place. The intellectual mechanics which kept the world from incineration during the long Cold War sound so odd and appear  so far removed from ordinary experience that it takes an effort to accept that, like the subatomic particles which actually make up reality, it is they and not our comforting world of commonplaces that is real.

That’s probably why Corbyn will have nothing to do with deterrence.  He can’t believe it’s real.

That was the philosophical freight which the missile track briefly carried with it through the California Sky. If the Third World War ever comes, those tracks are what it will look like in the first minutes.   Shooting stars in the sky.  Yet the D5  was real.  But what of us? You decide.

In the meantime, find your safe zone.

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