(How many SSBNs in this picture?!)
Ok, so if there were any regular readers of this blog, I suspect that they'd be getting bored of the current Trident focus. But see it through, as LibDem conference is next week, and Tuesday sees the first time in a generation that a major British political party is seriously debating scrapping the UK's weapons of mass destruction (WMDs).
There, I said it. WMD.
Enough of the euphemisms of "independent nuclear deterrent"; we're talking about 100kt thermonuclear warheads mounted on long-range, highly accurate rockets; truly, a WMD. And "deterrent" implies a positive value judgement - a good thing if it keeps the "bad people" (or, if you're George W. Bush, "evil doers") away. But unless it deters something or someone, it can't be a deterrent. Who is UK Trident deterring?
So, cross-posted from LibDemVoice. Happy to discuss, as ever.
Amid general agreement on the thrust of Julie Smith’s Committee’s excellent paper, and gratitude that Nick Harvey and Danny Alexander have delivered unprecedented transparency on the UK’s nuclear options, next Tuesday’s debate on defence offers two sharply differing views of the future of Britain’s nuclear future.
On the one hand, there is Nick Harvey’s proposal to retain the Trident missiles, their warheads and associated infrastructure, but reducing our purchase of new Trident submarines from four to two. This means that from the early 2030s, the UK will no longer be able to mount the standing patrols of Continuous At-Sea Deterrence (CASD) for the first time since 1968. Styled as a step “down the nuclear ladder” it was endorsed by Julian Huppert on Lib Dem Voice this week, though the Trident Alternatives Review dismisses Julian’s notion of new dual-role submarines.
The alternative view is being put forward by George Potter, and would see the UK withdraw Trident from service, reinvest the £30bn in capital investment that the new submarines would require in the UK’s conventional forces, whilst retaining the capacity to build nuclear weapons if future scenarios require it, and putting the UK’s scientific expertise to address the technical challenges of verifying nuclear disarmament.
Having written Dropping the bomb: a post Trident future for CentreForum and a primer for BASIC, I have strong preference for the second of these two positions. There are three reasons for this:
First, as there is no territorial threat to the UK or its dependencies in which Trident would be relevant, the case for an independent decision making pole that was the Cold War justification for the UK and French nuclear programmes is removed.
Second, after 20 years of close to continuous operations in the Balkans, Afghanistan and Iraq, Britain’s conventional forces are in need of major reinvestment. Between 2018 and 2032, this includes new armoured vehicles for the Army, frigates for the Navy and fighter-bomber and maritime patrol aircraft for the RAF. Additionally, there will be costs for achieving full operating capability out of the new army structures, the new aircraft carriers and the ambitious integration of the reservists outlined at the last defence review. This currently looks unaffordable.
Yet according to our analysis at CentreForum, replacing the Trident submarines will absorb between 25% and 33% of the defence procurement budget in these years, meaning that we are mortgaging the useful, conventional forces’ future in favour of a political weapon that we don’t need.
Third, I remain to be convinced that Nick Harvey’s proposal is strategically, politically and financially viable.
Strategically, two submarines instead of four will provide rather less than half the capability, and does mean that there will be periods when both vessels would be in port. A short notice crisis could require the UK to sail a missile submarine in a period of profound tension, increasing it just as we would be looking to de-escalate – a position avoided by CASD. The argument that sailing a submarine in a crisis would be a "demonstration of British resolve" is neither convincing nor comforting.
Politically, this proposal makes the Lib Dems appear as a caricature – sitting on the fence, without the courage of their convictions either to back like-for-like replacement on a strategic basis, or to present the British people with a clear narrative about why Trident is unnecessary.
Financially, the proposal saves almost no money. Launching the Trident Alternatives Review, Danny Alexander estimated the savings of three submarines instead of four at £4bn out of the £110bn through-life cost; the savings for going to two submarines will be proportionately smaller as the research, development, basing and engineering support will merely be amortized over a smaller fleet. Worse, the savings are backloaded, meaning that a compromised Trident force will still mortgage the future of the conventional forces re-equipment plan. Far better to reject Trident, reinvest the savings and then challenge the other two parties to explain how they will be able to fund the conventional forces’ as well as Trident.
Given the choice, the party should back George’s amendment because it is more strategically, politically and financially coherent than the motion’s text.