Danny Alexander tells Guardian: Like for like Trident replacement “not financially realistic”

HMS Ambush, Astute class - Some rights reserved by Royal Navy Media Archive In an interview with the Guardian, Liberal Democrat Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander has said that it’s neither financially possible nor strategically necessary to replace the Trident nuclear missile system with a similar set up. He added that any new deterrent would have to be paid for out of the existing Ministry of Defence budget as there was no “magic pot of money” in the treasury to pay for it.

He questioned whether the current set up met Britain’s needs in a world that’s changed since it was first introduced:

I am not a unilateralist, I don’t think that we should not have a deterrent. But I think when budgets are under pressure, and when the assumptions that our current approach are based on are very much cold war assumptions, and we are in the 21st century and the world is changing, that this is absolutely the right time to have a serious, considered, objective look at the way in which this policy is constructed.

We need to see if there are different ways of doing this that are more cost effective. This is the first time for a very long time these questions have been asked. We do need to ask fundamental questions about our posture.

Is it right in the 21st century that we still need to have submarines at sea, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 12 months of the year? All those things are ripe for being reviewed and considered, and alternatives presented.

He was also quick to point out that the Liberal Democrats had been way ahead of the game on this issue:

If anything, the fact that I have taken on the leadership of this review as a member of the ‘quad’ just demonstrates the level of importance and seriousness with which we are continuing to treat this review. The circumstances the country are facing reinforces that policy. It does not diminish it. The economic and financial circumstances reinforce the wisdom of [the Liberal Democrats’] policy

It’s clear to me that both Labour and Conservative parties would have sleepwalked into blowing up to £100 billion on a fancy new nuclear weapons system if the Liberal Democrats had not successfully argued for the postponement of the decision until 2016. All three main political parties will have to do some serious thinking on the issue. The Conservatives will be naturally inclined to want to replace the system, but can they justify the expense given the state of the economy? What will Labour do? And there is still a sizeable element within the Liberal Democrats who see no reason to spend any money on nuclear weapons at all. We’ve fudged our way through the last few years, but the last Conference debate we had on the issue was both incredibly high quality and quite close. There were only 40 votes in it and that was after the courageous intervention of the leader.

Danny Alexander has made it clear that he favours a nuclear deterrent of some sort. Will the party agree with him when Conference inevitably debates this matter again?

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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  • Over the same period that we spend £100bn on Trident we’ll spend £1.4tn on the rest of the defence budget. Why not review that instead?

    I’m pretty confident that if we try to build our own “British” nuclear deterrent rather than using a tried, tested and cheap American one like Trident that we’ll end up spending considerably more per year.

  • coldcomfort 23rd Jan '13 - 3:42pm

    The issue is not about having a nuclear deterrent. We have an arsenal of warheads and the means to deliver them. Not long since it was LibDem policy to reduce the size of that arsenal. That would still leave more than enough. Indeed, if one applies a little joined up thinking, we should be investing in thorium based nuclear power generation which has much to recommend it over uranium based except that you can’t make bombs out of thorium – bombs we don’t need. Danny asks: “Is it right in the 21st century that we still need to have submarines at sea, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 12 months of the year? “. A most excellent question.

    In April 2010 I wrote: ” If we look at ‘defence’ only the USA, Russia and France have the capacity to drop a nuclear bomb on the UK. Is this ever really likely? China and Israel have the weapon in substantial numbers. Are they likely to develop the means of delivery to bomb us? Are they likely to bomb us even if they did develop such a capability? India, Pakistan (North Korea?) have a bomb. It is believed that Iran is trying to develop a bomb. None of these can deliver their bombs to the UK, nor are they likely to be able to do so in any foreseeable time frame. In any case there is no defence – only retaliation. President Obama & his Russian equivalent have realised this & have agreed to reduce their nuclear weapons stockpile. This is symbolically very significant even though what is left could still destroy the world many times over. It is reasonable to conclude that there is no British military need for Trident, or a successor. Senior military officers agree with this view. This does not mean that the UK ceases to be a nuclear power. As far as one can see into the future our military are going to engaged in Iraq, Afghanistan, Kosovo type activities. This involves foot soldiers and money needs to be spent on their equipment, personal needs and aftercare which is currently a disgrace”
    What has the Tory driven MoD done – cut the soldiers & propose more redundancies. Mad.

    TRIDENT is a Lockheed Martin missile. In the UK it is launched from a Vanguard Submarine. The warheads are made at Aldermaston. The current UK system is due to end in 2024. The authority for a ‘real’ launch has to come directly from the Prime Minister. In theory this can be done WITHOUT United States approval. In reality it is difficult to conceive that that would ever happen. The repercussions in our relationship with the US are too serious to contemplate [ this comes from an official Parliamentary document]. It is therefore not even a British controlled deterrent.

    The only point of Trident is to let the Tory Right puff out it’schest & continue to delude itself that we a re a world power whilst at the same time cutting savagely back on the resources that being a world player on the military stage actually needs.

  • Liberal Neil 23rd Jan '13 - 5:27pm

    The rest of the defence budget has been reviewed quite recently and a lot of changes are being made as a result.

  • Richard Dean 23rd Jan '13 - 6:00pm

    Who are we deterring? It seems highly unlikely we will go to war with Europe or the US, so there must be an opportunity there to share both costs and any technology benefits to a deterrent. Are we likely to use it against China during its lifetime, or against the Argies, or even against Iran, or really against anyone?

  • Martin Lowe 23rd Jan '13 - 9:47pm


    So whilst you disagree with Britain’s membership of the EU, you have no issue with Britain belonging to a supranational body that demands we have defence spending 2% over GDP???


  • Richard Dean 24th Jan '13 - 12:46am

    Is that supranational body that demands 2% defence spending democratic?

  • Richard Dean 24th Jan '13 - 8:22am

    No, thanks, I was there, though rather youngly!

  • Paul McKeown 25th Jan '13 - 1:23pm

    It’s about time the Trident replacement project was killed off.

    We can’t afford it. Our military capacity has been seriously eroded by Labour’s past incompetent procurement and the financial realities that the present government faces and future governments will continue to face for many years to come.

    Our conventional military capacity is of vital interest to our nation: starving it of funding in order to fund the Trident replacement would be a catastrophic misjudgement.

    Do retain a small deterrent using cruise missiles which can be launched from Astute. Twenty or thirty missiles should deter any potential enemy with a newly emergent, low capacity, nuclear capability, from Iran or the like. Retain the warheads, the special nuclear material, the staff and the technological capability, but don’t deploy a major Cold War style deterrent force.

    We cannot predict the future. It is possible that in decades to come, we may need to return to deploying a massive deterrent capability. However, there is simply no credible threat which requires us to have such a system over the coming twenty five years. Should we ever actually need such a system in some far distant future, any system we might now procure would be obsolete and entirely unfit.

  • Old Codger Chris 26th Jan '13 - 9:11pm

    If we need nuclear weapons for the security of the country we MUST afford them. End of.

    I agree with Richard Dean that we don’t need them, not least because no UK government will unleash them against US wishes. So our deterrent cannot be independent.

    Wasting money on a Nuclear-Lite policy as suggested by Danny Alexander would be even more pointless as this couldn’t be deployed quickly.

  • Paul McKeown 27th Jan '13 - 7:08pm


    “If we need nuclear weapons for the security of the country we MUST afford them.”

    However, it is not clear that a Cold War system meeting the Moscow Criterion is needed. A much smaller system capable of deterring newly emergent nuclear states should suffice in the absence of a superpower enemy. And a much smaller system ought to come at a dramatically lower price point, despite what Trident lobbyists might aver.

  • Old Codger Chris 28th Jan '13 - 10:53am

    Paul McKeown – I might agree with you about the desirability of a much smaller nuclear deterrent except I can’t see any British government unleashing nukes unilaterally (I certainly hope they wouldn’t). In which case, why spend anything on a so-called independent deterrent?

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