(Fall in the beloved mountains...)
This year, LibDems are in Glasgow - a hop, skip and a jump from HM Naval Base Clyde, the home of the UK Trident fleet - and will be discussing the future of Trident for the LibDem's next manifesto. I have written a primer for BASIC on the choices, which will be published next week. As you would expect, it draws heavily on the Trident Alternatives Review and on the work CentreForum did last year.
My thoughts are relatively simple, and are based on a three point premise:
- That the UK is not currently, and is unlikely to become in the foreseeable future, short-notice direct nuclear threat;
- That there is unlikely to be a significant increase in the UK defence budget, or a substantial reduction in the UK's national ambition abroad;
- That NATO will continue to offer the level of nuclear deterrence the UK requires.
Taken together, this means that the UK faces a choice on the sort of military capability it would like to have from now until the the late 2030s, and therefore, what a key component of the UK's "Hard Power" looks like over the same period. Against this backdrop, the question is one of choices: does the UK want to revamp the conventional forces, or does it want to have Trident (and very much smaller / equipped with older kit) conventional forces?
It is important not to obscure this question within an argument about Trident with or without Continuous At-Sea Deterrence (CASD). The reality is that removing CASD as a readiness requirement and going over to two or three SSBNs instead of four saves £4 - 8bn over 30 years, or about 3.5 - 7% of the total budget to the 2050s, with the costs in the early years similar (they reflect R&D and the early builds). This means that the opportunity costs to the conventional forces are essentially identical, making the choice relatively binary in financial terms.
Strategically, non-CASD Trident there are also major problems; the question of crisis instability (what happens if you don't have CASD and need to sail an SSBN at a time of tension.... raising tensions!) will only be definitively answered when someone tries it in a crisis.
Similarly, the unspoken proposal to share deterrent patrols with the French (who could then reduce their number of submarines, too) is also ridiculous. Would a British Government really consent to Paris firing a British Trident at a target of France's choosing when our national interests were not engaged? And in the unlikely event that a British Government would, what are the chances of an adversary having enough fear that this could happen to be deterred? (I strongly doubt that the French would be up for the reverse situation, either....)
So, do we want to spend the money on Trident or on the conventional forces? I will vote for the conventional forces everytime, and in the debate on the 17th of September.