Conference Countdown 2015: Trident debate: the fourth way

Current Liberal Democrat policy is that we reduce our fleet of nuclear missile submarines from four to three – but reducing the cost of our nuclear programme by less than a quarter. Most of the time we intend to have a nuclear missile submarine at sea but not armed with nuclear missiles. However at times of international tension we would sortie a submarine armed with nuclear weapons.

Trident and its successors are designed to penetrate sophisticated air defence systems such as those developed by Russia. I can think of no occasion when it would be rational for the United Kingdom to launch missiles at such a foe without the support of other major powers. [As I am not seeking to be prime minister I believe I can also safely say, as an aside, that I have also failed to imagine a scenario when it would be rational for us to launch missiles at such a foe with the support of our NATO allies.] No scenario in which an independent launch against such a major foe would be a sensible option has been put forward in the current debate.

Delegates to conference who think the three submarine strategy is a sensible use of £100bn can keep this policy by voting down the motion before conference.

Baroness Jolly’s amendment keeps the three submarine strategy but holds out the distant prospect that in eighteen months time, and after the United Kingdom has taken its main decision on procuring a Trident replacement, the Liberal Democrats might produce a better policy.

The motion before conference is a better policy than either of these options. It is clear – the UK should scrap all its nuclear weapons. It is principled. Some delegates and certainly a substantial slice of the public may regard it as too principled.

However there is a better option than any of these three and that is to vote for the Rugby amendment. The Rugby amendment recognises the folly of spending £100bn to provide the United Kingdom with the capacity to breach the air defences of a foe which it would never be in our national interest to strike independently.

However unlike the main motion the Rugby amendment does spell out what we regard as a sensible objective for Liberal Democrats.  Rugby wishes to see the pursuit of international agreements to halt nuclear arms proliferation and to reduce the stocks of nuclear weapons held around the globe with the overall objective of a comprehensive ban on the possession of nuclear weapons. It may well be that an interim step along that way is for the United Kingdom to forgo its nuclear weapons capability. The Rugby amendment holds the possibility of keeping the United Kingdom’s nuclear capability as a bargaining card to be used in achieving progress in international arms reduction talks.

Delegates to conference thus have the possibility to choose one of four options: first our current part time nuclear deterrent policy; secondly the part-time nuclear deterrent policy with the possibility at some future stage it will be replaced with a more sensible policy; thirdly the pure unilateral policy of the main motion and fourthly the more pragmatic approach of the Rugby amendment aimed fairly and squarely at reducing global stockpiles of nuclear weapons.

* Richard Allanach is a vote less Scot living in England who has been campaigning with Better Together in Aberdeenshire.

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31 Comments

  • Eddie Sammon 16th Sep '15 - 8:13pm

    Could we not just get rid of Trident and plough pretty much the whole lot back into the defence budget? It could be a way of pleasing everyone.

    The short motion I’ve seen of nine lines doesn’t mention anything about increasing military spending in other areas to compensate, or even military aid for other countries who rely on us.

  • We are really struggling to be heard and need some sort of platform or policy that will catch the eye or the attention of the media, whatever that may be. Going unilateral would ceratinly do that. I do not support it but it might benefit us in the short term to get back into third place, pick off some left votes and get us off the floor, sorry out of the grave in Scotland. All the other options will just drift into the atmosphere and probably be unoticed. We can always revise it in the years ahead, and in any case we do not matter at the moment and the election is almost 5 years away. WE NEED SOMETHING DRAMATIC NOT PRAGMATIC.

  • Conor McGovern 16th Sep '15 - 9:48pm

    Eddie, I agree. A big problem with this ‘fourth way’ is its reliance on the will of other powers to give up their weapons. It would certainly be a better policy than our current fudge, but ditching Trident and beefing up our conventional forces could be decisive, principled and popular all at once.

  • Eddie Sammon 16th Sep '15 - 10:28pm

    Conor, I agree, I think there is also a “prisoner’s dilemma” problem of states agreeing to give up their nuclear weapons and then not doing so and saying “ah ha, we’ve still got our nuclear weapons, so now you have to listen to us”. Plus, we all know that this big great anti nuclear conference is so far down the political agenda it probably isn’t going to happen for a long time.

    One final thing: I think our allies opinion’s and the defence chief’s opinions are very important on this. So it is also why for now I am inclined to not to “rock the boat”, no matter how little, when it comes to UK defence matters.

  • @ theakes

    I think the public have had enough of politicians saying they support policies [which in fact they secretly oppose] just to get a few headlines.

    @ Conor & Eddie

    The main motion is totally compatible with what you want.

  • Eddie Sammon 16th Sep '15 - 11:22pm

    Stuff it, I’m doubling down. Get rid of Trident and boost convention weapons, with a provision that the leader has the power to change the policy if it becomes clear it would damage the UK’s national interest.

    The current policy fudge doesn’t inspire confidence in our defences. I’d much rather a better conventional force or the full blown nuclear deterrent.

  • Conor McGovern 16th Sep '15 - 11:34pm

    I’d back the unilateral option over the others on offer, but if we spent the Trident budget on our forces we could support the men and women who have fought often without sufficient equipment in wars that weren’t their fault. I’m anti-war and want to focus on the causes of and response to unjust wars, but let’s do the decent thing for the people on the frontline first.

  • @ Eddie

    “The current policy fudge doesn’t inspire confidence in our defences. I’d much rather a better conventional force or the full blown nuclear deterrent”.

    Tim Farron has come out against a continuous at sea deterrent and none of the four options available to delegates is proposing this.

    If you do not like the “current policy fudge” then you should either vote for the motion before conference as it stands or after it has incorporated the Rugby amendment. There is no place for the “current policy fudge” in either the main motion or the main motion with the Rugby amendment. Both of those two positions is compatible with your proposal of stronger conventional forces.

    The Baroness Jolly amendment leaves us stuck with the “current policy fudge” for at least 18 months and voting against the motion just leaves the full blown “current policy fudge”. Resist all temptations to vote for either of these two positions.

  • John Minard 17th Sep '15 - 9:15am

    Or we could accept that this is bigger than the Lib Dems or one parliament! That having and maintaining a viable nuclear deterrent should be subject to a national referendum (to be held at the same time as the next general election). And, that the cost of such a weapon system should be covered by an hypothecated tax in order to protect spending on conventional forces and so underpinning the armed forces covenant, ensuring suitably equipped modern forces, and avoiding the situation of nuclear weapons being the only viable national defence.

    As a maritime national, twice almost defeated by submarines, it is glaringly obvious that current defence spending is inadequate with an absence of dedicated maritime patrol aircraft as one example.

  • You do know that we cannot use these weapons without US approval? We do not have an independent nuclear deterrent. Any consideration of trident renewal should reflect this but doesn’t. Ignorance or wilful blindness?

  • Steve Coltman 17th Sep '15 - 9:49am

    Richard – if a deterrent ever has to be fired it will have failed! the whole point of a deterrent is to deter – to neutralise a threat with a counter- threat. why is this so hard to understand, or are you and Nicola Surgeon and others being wilfully ignorant?
    I agree that we should put a firewall between the deterrent budget and that of the conventional forces because any big overrun of Trident costs could have dire effect on budgeting for everything else. one more thing to consider is a declared no first use policy.

  • Katerina Porter 17th Sep '15 - 9:52am

    Because there was mounting international worry about a possible increase in nuclear armed countries the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty was signed in 1968 and came into force in 1970. Over the years by 189 countries. joined. N. Korea withdrew, after signing, S. Africa gave up its bombs but other nuclear states have not. Pre Putin the US and Russia were reducing their stockpiles and the Americans were helping the Russians make their stockpiles secure. The British position presumably is not only that Trident is a deterrent but it also gives us a seat at the table when nuclear issues are discussed.

  • @ Steve

    “… we cannot use these weapons without US approval …” Trident and its successor programme rely on US co-operation because we buy the missiles from the States. It is a contested manner whether or not we could use these missiles without the US’s assistance. However in the post above I have deliberately taken the proponents’ presumption that they could be used independently to see how far it takes their case and I conclude that even if they can be fired independently it does not advance our national interest. There was an interesting post on Slugger O’Toole recently which, amongst other things, explored how “independent” our “independent nuclear deterrent is” – see http://sluggerotoole.com/2015/09/12/britains-dependent-independent-nuclear-deterrent/

  • Katerina Porter 17th Sep '15 - 9:57am

    PS Ukraine gave up theirs but presumably it was part of the USSR set up, not fully independent like S. Africa’s.

  • MAD isn’t hard to understand. It’s simply not the main issue for many of us. Any motions put forward should reflect the reality and not be based on the mistaken belief that we have an independant nulear deterrent. And try to elevate the discussion above suggesting people are incapable of understanding and the increasingly tiresome SNP bad.

  • Neil Sandison 17th Sep '15 - 10:13am

    Richards analysis is correct .Or to put it more bluntly motion is rejected or referenced back no progress in policy no policy on not renewing Trident. Motion is passed new leader faces first conference defeat ,does the ego of the activist a power of good but leaves us with a policy that raises more questions which he and other party spokespersons will find difficult to defend. Rugby amendment motion remains mostly intact but clearly sets down a marker that the Liberal Democrats are committed to halt nuclear proliferation ,reduce stock piles of nuclear weapons ,and with the ultimate goal of a comprehensive ban of nuclear weapons putting it up there with chemical and biological warfare.

  • Those who suggest that the main motion is unilateralist seem to ignore the fact that Britain has other, more practical ways of delivering nuclear warheads of varying sizes than Trident’s solution to Cold War threat.
    Sadly, I cannot be at Conference but I made clear in an op-ed pice recently that my own position is anti-Trident but not anti-nuclear.. Rather than opting for the Rugby ‘fourth way’ amendment, supporters of not replacing the Trident system need to stress that the disarmament debate is a separate issue and should not be allowed to contaminate this debate.

  • RichardcI take your point. It is a contested matter but my understanding is that we do not have a wholly independent deterrent and if we reached the point of having to use these weapons, we would need US approval and technical assistance to actually fire them. Debate and motions should reflect that.

  • @ Steve Coltman

    “Richard – if a deterrent ever has to be fired it will have failed! the whole point of a deterrent is to deter – to neutralise a threat with a counter- threat. why is this so hard to understand, or are you and Nicola Surgeon and others being wilfully ignorant?”

    One of the problems of a 500 word article is that you cannot cover all arguments in advance.

    Do you have any young children Steve? Have you ever found yourself drawn into a conversation along the lines “If you do X I will do Y”. For this type of conversation to have any chance of success the “Y” has to be a credible course of action. I have thought about the foreign policy interventions President Putin is involving himself in in the Ukraine, Georgia, Syria and the Baltic States and I have concluded that none of his actions and none of his strategic plans seriously considers the possibility that his actions might lead to the UK independently launching our nuclear missiles at Russian territory. To be a credible deterrent then the deterrent has to have a possibility of being used and I do not see an independent UK deterrent as acting as constraint on Russia’s foreign policy choices.

    You start by saying “… if a deterrent ever has to be fired it will have failed …”. Now in the film Dr Strangelove they did indeed explore the possibility of a Doomsday bomb that would be triggered in the event of a nuclear attack independently of any human command. However as far as know this was just a fantasy and no nuclear state has ever constructed an autonomously triggered Doomsday bomb and that all nuclear weapons still require a human instruction to be fired. So currently we are in a situation where no deterrent has to be fired. It may be fired if humans so will it but it is not inevitable.

  • @ Ian Hurdley

    The parts of the main motion which the Rugby amendment would delete state “Conference believes that British possession of nuclear weapons is inappropriate and unhelpful to today’s needs” and calls for “the earliest decommissioning of the existing Trident forces”.

    I think it is fairly difficult to for the main motion to argue that it is not unilateralist and indeed amongst those who support the main motion one of the arguments they use is that their motion is good because it is unilateralist.

    It is a great shame you are not coming to conference Ian because I think we could convince you that the Rugby amendment is closest to your own way of thinking and we could do with your vote.

  • my understanding is that we do not have a wholly independent deterrent and if we reached the point of having to use these weapons, we would need US approval and technical assistance to actually fire them

    Why is that your understanding? My understanding is that Trident system are dependant on the US for ongoing maintenance, but that while at sea they can be fired totally independently; that’s certainly, as far as I know, the position of the Ministry of Defence, and if you have other information I’d be interested to know what it is and where it came from.

    (The one complication is that if the US switched off the GPS system the MIRVs would have greater difficulty hitting their precise targets, but they could still be launched)

    I have thought about the foreign policy interventions President Putin is involving himself in in the Ukraine, Georgia, Syria and the Baltic States and I have concluded that none of his actions and none of his strategic plans seriously considers the possibility that his actions might lead to the UK independently launching our nuclear missiles at Russian territory

    Isn’t the point of Trident, when it comes down to it, to have guaranteed second-strike capability in the case of a nuclear (or similarly devestating) attack on the UK, and thereby to deter an enemy from making such an attack because they know it would lead to their own destruction as well?

    Do you think an enemy can be absolutely sure that, in the event of them destroying the UK, no submarine Captain will use the missiles at their disposa lto launch a devastating counter-attack on behalf of the millions of British dead?

    I don’t think that threat is incredible, to be honest. Certainly it has never been tested — and the point of Trident is to ensure it never needs to be tested.

  • David Evershed 17th Sep '15 - 3:39pm

    Conventional armaments are not a deterent to any potential attacking nuclear power.

    The suggestion to spend the money saved on a nuclear deterent on conventional arms is not logical because the conventional arms would not deter a potential attack from a nuclear power.

  • The info is from a House of Commons Official report into the efficacy of the U K nuclear deterrent. I’m not able to cut and paste a link from this tablet, sorry about that. If the House of Commons report says that is the case I think it’s safe to take that as an accurate statement of the position.

  • The info is from a House of Commons Official report into the efficacy of the U K nuclear deterrent

    You don’t mean this, do you?

    http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200506/cmselect/cmdfence/986/98607.htm

    That doesn’t come down on one side or the other, but it notes that most of the concerns are over ‘independence of acquisition’, which Trident does not have, and not ‘independence of operation’, which is what we were discussing and which I understand the Ministry of Defence insists Trident does have unless you are aware of evidence to the contrary.

  • Select Committee on Defence evidence 07/03/2006. An independent nuclear deterrent is one that is in no way, operationally dependent on others. To put it bluntly, if UK attempted to use nuclear weapons against perceived US interests, US can prevent it happening. By no stretch of the imagination can that be seen as an independent deterrent. The UK would only be in position to use the nuclear deterrent if it was in support of US use of such weapons. The US would allow this to share the blame for their use. Ask the really telling question. If UK for whatever reason had to defend itself against attack by USA can it use its independent nuclear deterrent? Hypothetical I know, but a hypothesis underpins the concept of MAD.

  • To put it bluntly, if UK attempted to use nuclear weapons against perceived US interests, US can prevent it happening

    How?

    And ‘what they might do afterwards’ doesn’t count: remember we’re talking about the situation of a retaliatory strike after the UK has been reduced to a smouldering cinder, so any potential diplomatic, economic, or military consequences (of the kind which hampered British operations independence in the Suez crisis, for example) are moot.

    There would have to be a physical block on the missiles being fired which could only be released with US co-operation, and I am not aware there is such a thing. Is there such a thing?

    Ask the really telling question. If UK for whatever reason had to defend itself against attack by USA can it use its independent nuclear deterrent

    If the USA were to destroy Britain in a first nuclear strike, I am not aware of any reason why our deterrent could not destroy at least a few US cities in response; well, at least no reason specific to our deterrent (it is possible they have better submarine tracking technology than they have shared and so could locate and disable whichever sub is on patrol; or that they have anti-missile technology which would protect them; but such things could work equally well against the French or the Russians).

    (I suppose also it’s possible there might be something in the targeting system which would prevent the missiles being aimed at the USA; but if they could still be aimed elsewhere and fired without referring to the USA they would still be operationally independent, just limited.)

  • Sorry DAV no point in an exercise in semantics, especially when my position is complete opposition to nuclear weapons. We clearly have different ideas of what constitutes independent., operationally or otherwise. My original point remains. Any debate should reflect the reality of the U K’s self titled independent nuclear deterrent. It is not independent.

  • Trident is not an independent nuclear deterrant. The entire system is utterly dependent on the US for maintenance, stockpiling and replacement. They are operated with US software running on US hardware, in vessels built to US specifications. Targeting is taken care of (note, targeting in all aspects not just the GPS navigation) by US software operated onshore. Guidance post-launch, likewise. The simple fact of the matter is that the missiles aren’t even owned by the UK – they are leased from the United States, spend most of their lives stored there and are in every respect that matters, American missiles. We simply purchase the right to operate them under our own national flag.

    Frankly, if anyone here believes that with all this US software, hardware and involvement from lease to launch, they still have no means of interfering with a British decision to launch a nuclear attack on someone they didn’t want to be attacked… well, for those people I own a bridge in central London that I would like to sell.

    Liberal Democrat policy on nuclear weapons should be that while we are in favour of being part of a nuclear defense alliance and that while we favour exploring any and all means of said allied countries co-funding and jointly operating said nuclear defense, we are against the idea that every nation should have its own independent means of triggering nuclear war.

  • @ Steve, Dav, T-J

    I hope when we get to the debate on Monday it will not be on the technical specifications of Trident’s successor and the extent to which [if any] it is independent of the US.

    I would prefer a debate on the principles.

    Clearly if it is not independent then we are merely subsidising the US’s military budget and we should all reject that. But not everyone at conference will accept that it is not independent. I believe you can demonstrate that even if it is independent it is not in Britain’s interests to buy the successor to Trident.

  • They are operated with US software running on US hardware, in vessels built to US specifications

    And my computer is operated with Apple software on Apple hardware built to Apple specifications, but I don’t need Apple’s approval to send an e-mail.

    Targeting is taken care of (note, targeting in all aspects not just the GPS navigation) by US software operated onshore. Guidance post-launch, likewise

    No, that just makes no sense. What would be the point of a second-strike weapon that relied on external, on-shore software for post-launch guidance? The on-shore site would presumably have been obliterated along with everything else by the time it came to use the weapon system. In any case you can’t assume that contact could be maintained: the point of a second-strike weapon is retaliation in the event that nothing but the sub has survived. Ifit had to rely on anything external it simply wouldn’t make sense.

    So no, that simply can’t be the case. It is not logical. The US would not design such a system for themselves, so given we bought their system, ours must work the same way.

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