Monday, November 21, 2011

Strategic Thinking on Trident Part I - Why?

(RNAD Coulport - where the UK's nuclear weapons are stored before being mated to Trident missiles)

What should the UK's future policy be on replacing of Trident? And how should the IAEA's November 2011 report on Iran affect the UK's position?

These aren't easy questions, going as they do to the core of what the UK's role in the world is / should be over the next 30 years, and what the British people are prepared to pay for this role. Indeed, if the last 30 years are any guide to the next 30, then UK politicians will find it far too easy to ignore the cost of their global ambitions, and in effect hoping that their unfunded strategic bluff will never get called.

Indeed, this was British policy in the 1920s under the so-called "10-year Rule", which postulated in Professor Vernon Bogdanor's words, "that they should plan on the assumption there would not be a war for the next 10 years because the view was that large armaments led to war - this was only abandoned in 1932." Helpfully, the 10-year rule was also much cheaper than rearmament. And arguably, (Afghanistan aside), the UK's 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) has in effect attempted to reinstitute the 10-year rule with a strong focus on what it calls "Future Force 2020", in which painful cuts today will, in the words of the RAF PR machine lead to:

"The longer-term vision for the make up of our military – Future Force 2020 – will be secured by this one-per-cent-a-year real terms increase in the planned equipment and equipment support programme."

Except that there is little confidence that the money required is available, given that at the beginning of the SDSR process there was at least a £42bn hole in MoD's procurement finances in the period to 2020. Helpfully, much of the capital spending on the Trident spending would occur just beyond this horizon, and is thus helpfully excluded. Hence, a more realistic assessment of the position is that it is even more unhealthy than this looks.

The time for such a muddled "strategy" - if it ever existed - is well and truly over. Instead, what is required is a careful assessment of the what role the UK wants to play internationally, and how it should go about getting there from here - accepting that "here" is not an optimal starting point. Moreover, given that it will cost at least £25 - £30bn in capital spend between now and 2025, the replacement for Trident has a central role to play in any such discussion - something that Dr. Liam Fox MP as the Secretary of State for Defence at the time of SDSR explicitly overruled by insisting that Trident would be replaced (and implicitly, whatever other cuts were required would be borne to protect the Trident programme.) As we've seen, the required cuts were deep, wide-ranging and rushed: it is therefore of little surprise that in the next decade Britain's conventional forces will become dangerously unbalanced (e.g., an RN capable of deployed a carrier battle group sans aircraft, but only if they stopped doing almost anything else; no fixed-wing maritime patrol assets to support maritime ops; 14 extremely expensive PFI air-refuelling tankers and down to 8 squadrons of fast jets. And this is before we get to the Army...).

So what? And more importantly, so what about Trident?

Well, it's difficult. We'll come to that in Part II. But here's a teaser....

(USS Ohio SSBN-726 undergoing SSGN conversion. 
Note the former Trident tubes open behind the sail)

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