Friday, September 20, 2013

Is this the worst nuclear weapons policy ever?

(Actually, pace ConHome, this is one thing that didn't happen)

Despite our leading cartoon (credit: ConservativeHome), the LibDem conference this week didn't actually do anything to contest the policies of the Coalition, with the exception of the Spare Room Subsidy (aka Bedroom Tax). This was especially stark in two areas of nuclear policy - weapons and power, where the LibDems both approved the party leadership's preferred positions.

As a LibDem, I don't have a problem with the nuclear power position. Simply, the UK needs nuclear power to provide low-carbon baseload electricity, though if nuclear is to be subsidised (and it will be), then it makes more sense to me to have this as a publicly owned utility run on market lines. Otherwise, the lights will go out, and that's a problem that would require higher-carbon alternatives to bridge the gap, which is a distinctively bad idea.

But on the issue of LibDem nuclear weapons policy, the situation is rather different. In fact, I'd suggest that the LibDem's new policy position has a solid claim to being the most incoherent - and dangerous - of any party in a democratic nuclear weapons state since the dawn of the nuclear age.

As I understand party policy at this point, LibDems are now committed to:

(Steve Bell isn't entirely wrong.... but we're not saving 10%!)

- Building two or three SSBNs (unclear) at a cost of 93 - 97% of the cost of like-for-like Trident replacement (NPV cost of c. £25-33bn of capital 2018/19 - 2031/32, and running costs of c. £3bn 2030-50)

- Successor SSBNs to be carry 8 SLBM tubes for the Trident II D5LE. Each missile is capable of carrying up to 12 100kt warheads to different targets (MIRV), even if the UK wouldn't normally do so.

- A declaratory policy that the UK would not:
     - Conduct CASD patrols
     - Sail with the missiles
     - Arm the missiles

Let me offer eight grounds on why it is such a poor policy:

First, the UK's conventional forces are in need of very substantial investment in equipment between now and 2030. This is not only because of the bow-wave of procurement costs that has been building up since SDR 1998, but also because the tempo of operations over the last 20 years, combined with an ever shrinking pool of assets means that a significant investment bill is being built up. It is currently unaffordable with Trident in the programme. (See Chapter 4 of "Dropping the Bomb".)

Second, once Successor goes ahead, it will need to receive whatever resources it demands. Nuclear MoD types will smugly tell you that the V-boats came in on budget (true), but only because the budget increased and because of a favourable strengthening of the pound versus the dollar at the end of the programme. Given that two sides of the capability-time-cost triangle are fixed, cost is the only variable, meaning that it can only increase, taking further resources from the conventional forces.

Third, moving away from CASD increases crisis instability. And contra Danny Alexander and Sir Nick Harvey, if I were an aggressor with designs on the UK, I would 

(i) ignore the declaratory policy unless backed up by independent inspections - and therefore assume that the SSBNs were fully armed with max-MIRV Trident (96 100kt warheads), and 

(ii) I would specifically act against the submarines when they were all in port. Faslane / Gareloch is not that hard to get at, and there is only one route out of the Clyde. 

As a result, the non-CASD posture is actually more likely to create a short-notice crisis than to reduce it.

Fourth, the policy of sailing unarmed SSBNs about and having to return for arming speaks for itself. In a three SSBN world, you could knock out two in the Gareloch and ambush the third on its' return to Coulport. 
This assumes, of course, that the missiles were actually in the UK, which under current operations they wouldn't be; easier still in the two SSBN world. If we were to move to this posture, we would need to include the costs of maintaining a missile store and maintenance facility in the UK - the missiles are currently maintained at King's Bay, Georgia. These facilities were not included in the current Trident programme to save money; such construction isn't going to be cheap, and as a result will cut the (already meagre) savings vs. like-for-like further.

Fifth, despite Danny's frequent assertions of the in-depth nature of the Alternatives Review, the thinking in LD HQ is less clear cut. Whereas the Trident Alternatives Review (TAR) rightly frames a two axis chart of readiness and system technical capability, what the party has done is concentrate solely on the readiness element. 

Let's be clear: in technical terms, the notion that "Trident Lite" is "disarmament" is risible; it is nothing of the sort. What the LibDems are actually proposing is the purchase of half or three quarters of a pint of full-fat nuclear deterrent, rather than, to extend the metaphor to a free-fall option, half a pint of skimmed nuclear deterrent. 

With 2 SSBNs we can operate fully armed CASD for a limited period, and with 3 SSBNs fully armed CASD for an extended period. I would expect an aggressor state to see our position in this light, and make no change in their posture as a result of it. And to claim, as the leadership did, that the UK dealerting and Trident vfm study was causal in the US and Russia adopting New START is fatuous in the extreme - I can't believe that they believe it, either.

However, a free fall bomb programme - far from being "from the stone age" as Sir Nick Harvey told Conference on Tuesday - would be a real disarmament option as it is both less capable and at lower readiness than the Trident options the LibDems are now advocating. 

Sixth, consequently from point five, the fiscal savings that would accrue from going down to a free fall capability were not seriously examined. There are two possibilities: either, because the leadership actually just wanted Trident in some form, and think, deep down, that the UK needs that level of technical capability, or (and, I hope more likely) because the wrong question was asked. 

Based on what Danny Alexander said in his Demos fringe last Monday, it seems that the question asked was:

Q: "How much is a new warhead and how long will it take?" 
A: The TAR claims the answers are "14 years" and "£8-10bn". (Which is only plausible if AWE has lost much of its indigenous design expertise.)

However, to accurately cost the free-fall option, the question that should've been asked is

Q: "How much would it cost and how long would it take to build an existing modern design (US B-61 Mod 11, or if built, B-61 Mod 12)?" 
A: The TAR as published is silent on this question. But based on conversations here and in the US, the answers should be "2-3 years, or 12-18 months if you're in a hurry" and "Even if producing 50 bombs at Aldermaston is twice as expensive as it would be in the US, and we allocate £1bn for the infrastructure and capital works for the RAF, you'll have change out of £4bn."

Less than £4bn vs £25-33bn for Successor is all of a sudden a considerable amount of real money. Indeed, saving £2bn a year from 2020/21 to 2031/32 would increase the equipment programme by 45% in those years.

Seventh, in losing the savings from cancelling Successor, LibDems are at once opening ourselves up to looking "weak" by not backing like-for-like, and also failing to have the fiscal ammunition for the 2015 leaders' debate to challenge the Tories and Labour on where they were going to find £25bn+ on supporting the conventional forces, pointing out that we don't need the technical capability of Trident, but that freefall off JSF off the carriers will provide more than enough deterrence against Iran / Pakistan / DPRK. In neatly turning the question back onto the other leaders, the LibDems would also be in tune with the majority of British (and overwhelmingly of Scottish) voters who want Trident gone.

Eighth, politics is not static. If the LibDems were to move away from Trident, it is less problematic for Labour  - whose own policy is not defined yet - to do so as well. Having opted for this fudged Trident based solution, the opportunity and incentive for Labour to provide a non-Trident package at the next election is much reduced.  

(Get ready for some more of this.)

Sadly, the most likely outcome of all of this is that the UK will be stumble into a like-for-like replacement of Trident after the next election, and will end up denuding our conventional forces of the investment that they need in the 2020s and early 2030s to make good our role as a force for good in the world.

In summary, our new policy is not credible in strategic, financial or political terms. And as a party, we are already being lampooned for it - including by MoD ministers.

We deserve nothing less. 

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