Baroness Shirley Williams writes… Trident review is a remarkable accomplishment for the Liberal Democrats

The Trident Alternatives Review is a highly informed and detailed study of the effectiveness, sustainability and cost of this country’s nuclear deterrent. Trident has been based on a rota of four submarines which between them ensure that there is always one nuclear-armed submarine at sea every hour of the day and every day of the year, a deterrent that is undoubtedly expensive but also, as the Review points out, ”as close as each system can get to an assured second strike capacity”.  Trident was developed in close co-operation with the United States and in that sense is not, unlike the French nuclear deterrent, wholly independent. It assumes a very close relationship to the United States, and the UK is of course also protected by NATO.

The review examined the most feasible alternatives to the current deterrent system, including those not based on submarinesas the main delivery system. It then looked at alternatives among those based on submarines. In its second part, it considers the costs and risks, as well as the credibility of  each option.  Much of the detail is technical but the review sets out the options with admirable clarity, and includes much more information than do most Government White Papers.

While it makes no recommendation, the Review provides the basis for a serious national debate on one of the most critical issues this coalition Government and the Government that succeeds this one after the next general election will have to make. Nuclear weapons are capable of wiping out a small crowded country like the United Kingdom, and can so compromise the climate that millions beyond our shores could be affected too.  So it is right, but also bold, to invite an informed debate on the subject.  When I was a member of the Cabinet in the 1970s, most of us knew very little about  decisions on the development and deployment of nuclear weapons, and certainly did not take part in those decisions. For the Liberal Democrats, the Review has been a remarkable accomplishment, an act of faith in the capacity of an informed democracy to share in responsible policy-making.

There are however two big issues that affect the context in which this debate will take place.  The world of 2013 is very remote from the world of the 1970s and 1980s, the decades of the Cold War. In those years, the Soviet Union was the great threat, armed with hundreds of nuclear weapons, some targeted on London and the other big cities and industrial heartlands of the United Kingdom, others on those of the United States. Many of them were on hair-trigger alert. And the threat was real – twice in the lifetimes of those of us born after the Second World War, the world has come to the very brink of catastrophe, the blockade of Berlin in 1948 and the Cuba missile crisis of 1962. It is something of a miracle that all of us have survived them.

In 2013  the sheer number of nuclear weapons has been reduced by half or more, as a result of Salt 2 and the Moscow treaty, disarmament pacts agreed between Russia and the United States.  Russian nuclear weapons are no longer targeted on British and American cities.  Even now, the US President is trying to get agreement to a further substantial mutual reduction in nuclear arsenals, while Russia is trying to get a common understanding on the deployment of ballistic missiles which it fears could nullify Russia’s own nuclear deterrents. The world we live in has changed out of recognition.

The second issue is whether there are now new threats which make Trident obsolete, directed like France’s Maginot Line in the Second World War at a threat that is disappearing. Cyber-warfare is largely directed today at economic targets like the stealing of intellectual property, or at sophisticated computerised systems. In the last few years we have seen Estonia made overnight  non-operational  by Russian use of cyber attacks, and Iran’s nuclear refineries damaged by controlled computer viruses. Technology has largely moved on and our defence capabilities have not moved on with it.

Defence is a central concern of any modern state, but disarmament should be too.  Moving down the rungs of the nuclear ladder could inspire other nuclear-armed countries to move down too, to much safer international systems of communication, warning and mutual transparency, to reductions in nuclear arsenals, to a safer and more secure world.  I hope that in the great debate the Review should inspire, among citizens and experts alike, this aspiration is not forgotten.

* Baroness Shirley Williams is a Liberal Democrat member of the House of Lords, a founder member of the SDP and the Liberal Democrats and author of several books including her autobiography, Climbing the Bookshelves.

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21 Comments

  • It’s totally and utterly pointless. Hard to find any further words I’m afraid.

  • “Moving down the rungs of the nuclear ladder could inspire other nuclear-armed countries to move down too, to much safer international systems of communication, warning and mutual transparency, to reductions in nuclear arsenals, to a safer and more secure world.”

    The main virtue of the review seems to be that it demonstrates that there isn’t a feasible way of “moving down the rungs of the nuclear ladder” – realistically, the choice is between staying at the top or jumping off the ladder altogether.

  • Julian Critchley 18th Jul '13 - 1:06am

    An accomplishment is something which is actually achieved. This is a report which tried to find a third way in a binary debate. As a result, it is rightly attacked from both sides. An appalling fudge. There’s a logical argument for retaining a nuclear deterrent (I think it’s rubbish, but it has a logic). There’s a logical argument for getting rid of a nuclear deterrent. There is absolutely no logic behind having a part-time nuclear deterrent which doesn’t work every other Tuesday.

    Dear God. Shirley Williams was always one of my political heroes. Along with Roy Jenkins, my admiration knew few bounds. But if this awful, mealy-mouthed, laughable and doomed report is a “remarkable accomplishment”, then I wonder where my hero’s judgement went.

  • A Social Liberal 18th Jul '13 - 1:37am

    The whole point of having a sub at sea all the time is so that any nation planning a first strike on our nuclear capability will be foiled because they do not know where the sub is. Keeping all subs in port means thata first strike on our capability is possible.

    As Graeme Cowie said, it is all or nothing. In my opinion it should be nothing, simply because we cannot afford it. Any alternative to the present system is strategically a non starter.

  • Richard Shaw 18th Jul '13 - 8:30am

    I don’t know if this was considered in the report as I have not yet read it, but why don’t we keep all the subs but with fewer missiles per sub? Afterall, how many millions or billions do we need the capability of murdering to be a deterrent? I presume the financial cost wouldn’t be much different, but we could credibly claim we were reducing our stockpile.

  • “I don’t understand the all or nothing argument for something we won’t use. Something is surely quite enough.”

    Obviously the argument is that you have to have the capability of using it in order for it to function as a deterrent. If there are periods of time when you can’t use it, then it can’t function as a deterrent during those periods.

    If you’re really sure it will never be used, then ‘nothing’ is just as good as ‘all’, and a damn sight cheaper!

  • Are the Lib Dems now considering reviewing things ‘remarkable accomplishment’.

    Radical.

  • If you oppose Trident replacement, then please click on the following link:

    http://act.cnduk.org/lobby/70

    Thank you.

  • Trident alternatives are certainly worth a look, but it does seem a hard task convincing anyone across the fence.
    The big gripe here comes “Cyber-warfare is largely directed today at economic targets…” — the Snowden affair shows this sham for what it is. Our governments and our allies are the real cyber terrorists. And this is not just hyperbole.
    “Iran’s nuclear refineries damaged by controlled computer viruses.” Unfortunately Shirley, Stuxnet was written by the NSA. http://rt.com/news/snowden-nsa-interview-surveillance-831/
    For some reason ever since the Snowden case has broken the Lib Dems have gone silent about Liberty. Just a new months before you were confidently talking about stopping the snoopers charter! Why so quiet now. No other party really stands up for individual liberty, please don’t lose that!

  • Paul E G Cope 20th Jul '13 - 6:18pm

    What is the meaning of the word “deterrent” to a suicide bomber who happens to gain access to a nuclear weapon (as the Taliban might in Pakistan any day). We need to keep questioning the belief in a Life Beyond, Where is a single shred of proof? This is the only life you get. Don’t throw it away.

  • Two questions –
    1. What are our current Trident-based nuclear weapons targeted on? If not on any specific location there can be no question of there being used without considerable delays.

    2. Given that the only sane reason for retaining nuclear weapons is deterrence does anyone think that those countries in the nuclear club but without the “continuous at sea” capability are in effect without deterrence?

  • “Dear God. Shirley Williams was always one of my political heroes. Along with Roy Jenkins, my admiration knew few bounds. But if this awful, mealy-mouthed, laughable and doomed report is a “remarkable accomplishment”, then I wonder where my hero’s judgement went.”

    That’s how I feel, but I would also like to know where my hero wants the debate to go next.

    One possibility is that the three-boat idea exists solely to give the Lib Dems something to say at the next election, something which does not explicitly commit us to four boats and hence something which will minimise the number of activists walking out. Then, when the election has delivered a result, we can “happily” knuckle under to the Tories and agree that in our next coalition, they have won this one, and four boats it will be.

    The other possibility – less likely I fear – is that we use this option of “moving down the rungs of the nuclear ladder” in a more intelligent way, and we are prepared to insist on it, but only provided the Americans and Russians also agree to move down the rungs. In principle, that’s how intelligent multilateral disarmament can work. It’s how Gorbachev, to his eternal credit, kick-started the process. But are we in any position to do likewise?

  • Can anyone come up with a plausible scenario in which we would use the trident system? Who could be a target?

  • We will all be victims in a future nuclear conflict. Trident is no doubt very impressive technology, and it is served by very brave and skilled sea crew and land based support staff. I suspect we can all be taken up in the emotion of this debate.

    However this debate has a couple of major problems.

    Firstly to assess Trident’s effectiveness as a nuclear deterrent, we need to know who might be deterred by it. Once we have identified such a state or organisation we can start to assess the different options for replacing Trident. For example a well developed state (like our old adversary, Russia) might be deterred because it has a large territory to defend, on the other hand al-Qaeda may not, as it has no territory. Countries with limited nuclear arsenals such as North Korea may be equally fearful of any of the Trident replacement options because of the limitations in numbers , hitting power and accuracy of their own weapons .

    Secondly the need to consider replacement options for Trident, must be effected by the need to save money for alternative projects. At the moment climate change will place a huge load on our forces for disaster relief, search and rescue, international population movements resulting from rising sea level and drinking water wars etc. Having recently seen a restored second world war torpedo boat, and been reminded of the critical importance of the Battle of the Channel in forcing German capital ships to use the Northern routes to the Atlantic, I wondered now important a fleet of modern “little ships” might be to our future border control against the waves of climate change refugees that we can expect during the lifetime of the Trident replacement. They might think that being killed by a nuclear weapon was not much different from dying of starvation. Coming from island states and coastal areas they may be much better sailors then current sea born refugees .

    While defining options is useful, context is everything. As Shirley Williams implied, we do not want to be left with even the most advance Maginot Line! I don’t remember that, nor even the Berlin Airlift, but I do remember the Cuban Missile crisis. I am quite certain that we must do the work to avoid a repeat now. We cannot rely on the hope that new Kennedys and Kruchevs will re-emerge to rescue us at the very last minute again.

  • Michael Berridge 23rd Jul '13 - 1:40pm

    Contributors so far are almost unanimously anti Trident. So am I, but politics is the art of the possible. If a two-subs option can sway enough doubters in the two big parties, it is worth pursuing. Would you tell a smoker on 20 a day that he is wasting his time cutting down to ten?

  • Eddie Sammon 23rd Jul '13 - 2:49pm

    What I really don’t understand is how Trident is so much worse than any other bomb that kills innocent people. I have time for people in the party who think that Trident oversteps the mark, but not for the fundamental pacifists who make electing a Lib Dem majority government a near impossibility and would hand over our country to anyone who threatens violence.

    I think the nuclear review was largely a waste of time, hardly anyone cares about the minute details when the big questions haven’t even been answered. We need to do a Kinnock and get rid of the extremists.

  • Personally, it makes little difference to me whether I get a direct hit from either a nuclear or “conventional ” bomb. However, the indirect affects do make a big difference. If a nuclear bomb lands 50 miles up wind of me , I may still die from blast, radiation, and other forms of pollution, and I will not be able to enter the “nuked” area for many years. Conventional weapons do not have these remote affects, and act over a much shorter term. This is why we are more worried about nuclear weapons.
    In a perfect world all nuclear weapons would be banned.
    What is politically possible depends on how convincing our arguments are. You will not convince an enthusiast for anything to change their views if you have not considered all aspects of your argument. We (especially Liberals from Jo Grimmond’s era) have only stayed the course because we believe that we can persuade by good argument.
    The review has discussed various options for replacement of Trident. We have to match the options to the real world as exists now, and as we expect it to exist at the time of the next review of our deterrent, in perhaps 30 years time.
    The choice of the nuclear “deterrent” we chose depends very much on who we think the enemy is. Most large countries would only be deterred by a full 4 sub fleet, but it is hard to think of a large country that might want to attack us with nuclear weapons. Our historic enemies like France, Germany, or Spain are all firm allies, More recent foes like China or Russia are busily investing in British assets, so although we may disagree about many things it is difficult to imagine them destroying things they own.
    Various rogue states, like Iran or North Korea have limited nuclear capacity, and would probably be deterred from attacking us by any of the lesser alternatives to Trident.
    Al Qaeda and similar organisations have no territory for us to hit, and have a dispersed management structure. They would be more affectively deterred by efficient international policing/intelligence then by any number of bombs.
    However, we need to remember that in war, the enemy does not simply agree to be defeated. Whatever weapons we have, the enemy will find tactics for defeating them. The most important tactic for keeping us all safe is to avoid creating enemies. Diplomacy is probably far more important then Trident, and more important then that is a Government that respects foreign nations and organisations, and sets out to actively persuade potential enemies of the benefits of cooperation. Threatening force is not very likely to reduce friction.

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