Is Trident’s successor a white elephant?

On Saturday afternoon Spring Conference debates motion F11 “Towards a World Free of Nuclear Weapons” which actually endorses the government’s plans to replace Trident with Successor at a cost of £200 billion, twice the original estimate.  The motion also talks about developing multilateral negotiations and ending Continuous-at-sea Deterrence (CASD) but in essence it supports a like-for-like deterrent, which we opposed through the coalition years.

I was on the working group which drafted the report which this motion approves, but I don’t agree. I’m tabling an amendment which agrees with most of the motion’s analysis and call for beefing up negotiations but also calls for Trident to be phased out and NOT replaced.

Many party members have long supported ending the UK’s nuclear weapons but others have placed their faith in nuclear deterrence on balance.  People may feel the global security situation inclines them more than ever to support replacing Trident with the Successor programme.  The argument can be summarised as “Oh my God, Putin !, Oh my God, Trump !  We better have our own nukes”.  I originally felt that the party’s latest working group on the subject was a waste of time.  Nothing had changed.  But I was wrong.  

New technological developments cast doubt upon the effectiveness and reliability of the deterrent.  The MoD sees no role for our nukes in meeting the first tier of security threats to the country, but people respond, “Ah yes, but the future is uncertain”.  Now it is becoming clear that the deterrent itself is uncertain.  When the new Dreadnought submarines come into use in the 2030s, “Will they remain undetectable and safe ?” asks Des Browne, former Secretary of State for Defence.  Cyber warfare poses the threat that an enemy could prevent missiles from firing or change their intended targets.  Underwater drones, already being developed by China and the USA, increase the chances of finding a submarine. Both these developments undermine the basic concept of the new Dreadnought fleet. How far will they have advanced by 2030 ? It seems foolish to commit a huge proportion of our defence budget on a system which may be out of date before it even comes into service.

The other growing issue is the opportunity cost of the Successor Programme for our conventional forces. Centre Forum says it will be 10% of the annual defence budget, but 35% of the procurement budget.  Today we have the smallest army since Napoleon, poorly equipped (Chilcot reported on poor footwear and inadequate vehicles in the Iraq War) and with fewer main battle tanks than Switzerland, a tiny navy which cannot operate continuously in warm waters and could not mount the Falklands campaign and a long-range strike force of only six bombers.  Military and naval bases are badly maintained and out-of-date. Yes, the world is dangerous but we need conventional forces which can defend us. Isn’t it time we lived up to our oft-proclaimed commitment to evidence-based policy ?   We can’t afford effective conventional forces AND the nukes. We must choose !

If you agree and would like to support the amendment, email me at [email protected] with your name, membership number and local party or fill in the form where you can also find the full text of the amendment.  Any party member can sign whether or not they are going to conference  BUT DO IT BEFORE 11 am TOMORROW, Tuesday, 14th 

* David Grace is a Lib Dem living in Cambridge and a long standing campaigner for nuclear disarmament. He is the Head of Office for the Social Liberal Forum,

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  • Simon McGrath 13th Mar '17 - 6:40pm

    “Underwater drones, already being developed by China and the USA, increase the chances of finding a submarine”
    Possibly – but they also mean we could deploy many drones mimicking the sounds of our SSBNs so doesnt really make much difference

  • Catherine Jane Crosland 13th Mar '17 - 8:03pm

    I have signed. I do hope the amendment is accepted for debate at Conference.

  • Eddie Sammon 13th Mar '17 - 8:20pm

    The motion is good. Get rid of nukes and strengthen conventional forces. We need to focus on precision robotic armoury and regulate its use. Wiping out whole populations and possibly getting ourselves wiped out too via nukes is not attractive for me.


  • It is a bit of a white elephant, but I’m less sold on unilateral disarmament than I was even a few years ago. One of the problems with having a President like Trump is a lack of interest in wider concerns, plus out of the EU we still have to show a willingness to stay militarily committed to cooperation. Having said that, I’m not convinced Russia is the big problem it’s made out to be.

  • Thanks David, some liberties taken here with numbers and costs which doesn’t help the case. For anyone wanting to get a better idea of those this link will help. The truth is that If the money planned to be spent on the new subs over the next 30 years were spent on other conventional forces the impact wouldn’t be transformational in terms of force numbers but rather marginal.

  • Ps if the lib Dems want to argue for a transformational level of defence spending it would probably need to sustain around 4% of GDP for around 10-15 years. That’s twice the current level of defence spending.

    Scrapping trident would be a drop in the ocean. We would have to decommission the current system, and Faslane and Aldermaston, and if we wanted to maintain submarine building skills and facilities we would probably need to run the astute programme on. This means that no ‘savings’ from trident would be realised for around a decade at best.

    David’s proposition may sound seductive, but it has all the hallmarks of a certain brexit campaign bus.

  • Curious comment by Greg. I only quote 3 figures. The £200 billion can be checked on CND website. The percentages of defence budget come from Centre Forum, as quoted. If anyone dislikes those sources, I suggest taking a look at Public Accounts Committee which reports that defence projects usually exceed estimates by up to 40%. Here also the words of a senior MOD officer, Jon Thompson, who confessed to the PAC that the Successor programme keeps him awake at night as it is the “single biggest financial risk we face”. No brexit bus there, just what the experts say. Brexit didn’t like experts. Finally, can we really accept that £100 or £200 billion would not be of use to our conventional forces ?

  • Hi David,

    Sorry for the delay in responding.

    The side of your bus says:

    Scrap Trident and give UK Armed Forces £200bn

    What it doesn’t say is:

    It could be £100bn or less, we can’t tell you, and it will be over 30-40 years, and we don’t know what we will spend it on or what the armed forces will get, and we won’t be able to start giving it to them for around 10 years, and it won’t change an awful lot.

    Love and Peace my friend.


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