Opinion: Looking forward to a post-Trident future

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 would 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.

* Toby Fenwick is a member of the party in Putney, and is former research associate with CentreForum, specialising in international affairs. He holds an LLM from University College London in international law, with a specialisation in use of force questions, and an MSc in international relations from the LSE.

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17 Comments

  • I have been on the fence myself on Trident. I’m pretty sure that the Huppert / Harvey approach won’t work. We either have a nuclear deterrent or we don’t, and this talk of “coming down the nuclear ladder” sounds a daft soundbite for such a crucial defence decision. If we are to replace, then it should be like for like, and CASD should be maintained, as that is where the deterrent comes from. As the article says the benefits in the grand scheme of things are small for a partial renewal.

    However I find this a persuasive article, and am leaning towards us supporting non-renewal, possibly with half the savings earmarked for the armed forces, and the other half into priority capital areas such as housing or broadband, If we want to be distinct as Lib Dems we can’t be afraid to make the case, because no-one else will do it for us. It also provides a useful negotiating chip in any coalition agreements next time if we go for non-renewal; neither party would likely countenance this, but we may get a win in exchange.

  • coldcomfort 12th Sep '13 - 4:11pm

    Having worked on ‘defence’ projects on & off between 1961 & 1998 & had dialogue with Nick Harvey in more recent times my conviction is that a submarine based nuclear deterrent is a strategic military nonsense and complete waste of money. Back in the 1950s when the concept was conceived & ‘Polaris’ was built it made good strategic sense. In those days it would have been possible to wipe out NATOs ability to retaliate to a pre-emptive strike by the USSR & a submarine deterrent was the only solution & for 30yrs or so it worked. But those days are as gone as though they never existed. Modern systems would allow effective retaliation without the huge expense of a submarine system. Trident never was a UK ‘independent’ deterrent. It was inconceivable that we would ever launch it without approval from the USA who built the missile. It doesn’t matter who has nuclear warheads. Delivery in effective numbers is the key and on that scale there is not much point in a rogue state, or a terrorist group, going down that road when the result makes the world uninhabitable. Moreover advanced societies can now be brought to their knees by cyber warfare wrecking their ability to supply vital services such as electricity, water & communications or by biological contamination. A Trident replacement of any kind is now an archaic & irrelevant solution to the threats available in the modern world

  • nuclear cockroach 12th Sep '13 - 6:51pm

    As stated before, jedi, I’m fine with what you demand,. Nukes in the cupboard, 2% on defence and guaranteed military ship building program maintained. At least the money is spent on systems that have a sensible military purpose. If circumstances were to change, the nukes could later be dusted down and a suitable delivery system built. By the way, for me nukes in the cupboard comprises three elements, the nuclear material, the tools to process the material and the blueprints for a workable warhead.

    On that basis, I would be happy for the Lib Dems to pursue a manifesto commitment to nukes in the cupboard, and for it to become government policy.

  • nuclear cockroach 12th Sep '13 - 7:29pm

    @jedi

    Nah. Delivery systems change. By the time world affairs could have changed to the degree that we actually wanted a deterrent again, submarines might well be trackable and long range hypersonic cruise ought to be available – at a fraction of the cost.

  • nuclear cockroach 12th Sep '13 - 7:45pm

    OTOH, jedi, if that’s what it would take to sell the policy, sure. Build dual purpose subs, stick the nukes in the cupboard. You’re still saving money to spend on actual military capability, rather than mere prestige symbols. I don’t see the IBM route as realistic, btw.

  • nuclear cockroach 12th Sep '13 - 7:45pm

    err ICBM not IBM. Damn keyboard. Or its user.

  • Jonathan Brown 12th Sep '13 - 8:39pm

    Excellent article. I’ll be voting for George’s amendment.

    Given the tiny savings involved, I don’t see the benefit of dropping 2 subs, and it’s such a ‘weak, fence-sitting policy’ that it’ll never get past voters or any potential coalition partners – and we won’t be able to ‘cash it in’ for much either.

    Far better to plough the money into conventional military forces where it’s desperately needed and where it will actually contribute to the defence of the country.

    What’s more, we can really go on the political attack with this policy: ‘unilateral disarmament’ sounds alarming to some voters (although fantastic to others). ‘Abolishing our ability to use conventional forces abroad’ (a simplification of the rammifications of current and projected cuts) will sound just as alarming to those concerned about losing Trident.

    What’s more, I have no doubt than our NATO allies would far rather have our ability to project conventional force abroad than the ability to expensively sail nuclear armed subs pointlessly around the seas.

    It even gives us real leverage to persuade others to disarm.

    I do support keeping blueprints, materials etc. in the cupboard, should one day we decide that the world is gradually becoming a more dangerous place and one in which a nuke may be useful. We can at that time make an informed decision as to whether or not it’s worth putting the money into a rapid rearmament programme. For now though, we should bin it.

  • jedibeeftrix 12th Sep '13 - 10:19pm

    “, jedi, if that’s what it would take to sell the policy, sure. Build dual purpose subs, stick the nukes in the cupboard”

    this.

    it needs to be sold.

    pie in the sky, or politics.

  • Excellent article (and Toby thanks for the Dropping the Bomb: A post Trident Future booklet, which should be mandatory reading for anyone voting in the Defence Policy debate … probably not a very liberal view). I remember well the fringe meeting on the last day of Autumn conference in Brighton on the topic – the finest fringe meeting I have ever had the privilege of attending! Indeed Nick Harvey, as I recall, made a strong case for climbing down to the bottom tier of the ladder.

    The Defence Policy paper is excellent, until it comes to the the issue of nuclear forces, where it completely undermines its own logic. The proposed policy is risible … indeed a full replacement of Trident would make more sense! The right policy, however, and one that would mean that our party would bring real value-added to the table, is the one proposed in this article and the George Potter amendment. The paradox is that we are going to have to fight for this amendment at conference. I do ask that everyone who understands the real, wide-ranging and complex threats to the UK, our friends, allies and the world at large, yet seeing the way our armed forces have become ludicrously overstretched, would vote not for nuclear submarines but wise investments of the equivalent funds in our conventional forces – especially developing massively enhanced capabilities to counter cyber, space, piracy, R2P and global calamity/natural disaster threats.

    I will be fully supporting George Potter’s amendment, and would be really happy to speak in support of it either through a 4 minute slot or a 1 minute intervention (I clearly would prefer the former).

    I also agree with everyone of Jonathan Brown’s points!

  • “retaining the capacity to build nuclear weapons if future scenarios require it”
    Unfortunately this omits the small stumbling block of the non-proliferation and test ban treaties. To build NEW nuclear weapons we (who builds them) will need to perform some real world testing – Oops!

    Whilst I can see the need to invest in our conventional forces, the critical date is when the Trident missiles reach end of life on the 2040’s and being in a position BEFORE then (ie. by 2030) to not replace them.

    I strongly recommend planning for then, rather than making a decision in haste …

  • jedibeeftrix 13th Sep '13 - 1:07pm

    @ jonn – “would vote not for nuclear submarines but wise investments of the equivalent funds in our conventional forces”

    what is wrong with nuclear submarines?
    you do realise nuclear subs are not automatically non-conventional capabilities?

  • Toby Fenwick 13th Sep '13 - 1:38pm

    Thanks to all for your comments; please do come and join the SLF fringe on Saturday lunchtime where we will debate all the options. I do hope many of you can come and have a good discussion.

    @Roland
    You wouldn’t necessarily need to test a free fall design, if it is either derived from an existing UK design (eg WE177) or an anglicised clone of the US B61 design that is currently being updated for carriage on JSF as B61 Mark 12.

    @Jedi
    I think a CMC based SSN design is probably not the answer, as it compromises the SSN by making it too large. For me the 2% target is central and the savings should be to rolled into defence. This was the basis of the paper last spring.

  • jedibeeftrix 13th Sep '13 - 5:11pm

    what then would be your proposed delivery mechanism?

    nukes in a box is all very well, but are you royal mail to deliver them too?

  • nuclear cockroach 13th Sep '13 - 5:23pm

    @jedi
    “Royal Mail?”

    No, TNT.

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