Labour and Trident

I would have thought it almost impossible to come up with a Trident policy dafter than the one the Liberal Democrats were saddled with at the last general election, but Jeremy Corbyn and his trade union colleagues seem to have done just that. They are seriously proposing buying the submarines but no warheads. The submarines are to be a job-creation scheme to satisfy unions who care more about their members’ jobs than about the overall national interest. These giant submarines are the main cost of the Trident renewal program, £16bn for the four of them? Who knows exactly?

If Mr Corbyn wanted a sensible non-nuclear defence policy, and one which preserved the jobs of the submarine builders, then the obvious policy would be to abandon the four big ballistic missile submarines and build instead more Astute-class nuclear-powered ‘hunter-killer’ subs and/or a number of conventional subs. How can the leader of the country’s biggest political party be so ill-advised?

Britain is trapped in a binary ‘Trident-or-nothing’ debate which assumes only one of two extreme choices is possible. Either we renew Trident at huge cost, not just in money but in terms of cost to the conventional forces, or we make ourselves vulnerable to the Russians or any other power that might have nuclear weapons. There may be more nuclear weapon states in future than there are now, of course. Russia has threatened little Denmark that they will target Denmark’s missile frigates with nuclear weapons because Denmark has offered her frigates to be part of a European ballistic missile defence screen. How would non-nuclear Britain react to such a threat? Ignore it with fingers crossed?

It is possible for the UK to have a genuinely independent nuclear deterrent, and one that costs a good deal less than Trident. The UK needs to have an honest appraisal of all the options. The government’s own review of 2013 simply ignored a couple of viable options and, frankly, lied to discredit another. It does not have to be Trident as currently proposed.

* Steve Coltman is parliamentary spokesperson for Loughborough and an Executive member of the Association of Liberal Democrat Engineers and Scientists although he writing here in a personal capacity.

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29 Comments

  • I don’t know….The LibDem position of having the subs/missiles but not sending them to sea is pretty close…

    The essence of Trident, as a deterrent, is that, in the case of a ‘sneak’ nuclear attack, the submarine at sea can retaliate against the aggressor….

    Now, I can understand that as an argument (even if I disagree)..I can also understand the argument of scrapping the Trident programme (with which I agree)…

    However, I can’t understand the argument of not having a submarine always at sea….Perhaps those proposing the ‘sneak’ attack should be made to write giving us sufficient warning to allow the subs to go to sea?

  • The article really misses the point. Everyone knows, in their heart of hearts, that Trident is a redundant cold war missile that we no longer need. To commission a new system of submarines with nuclear missiles is a highly expensive vanity project, that will never be used. Yet instead of actually telling people the truth, our party persists in propagating the myth that we can’t give up this weapon that nobody needs or wants, because somehow it protects us. My question to the people who either want a slimmed down post trident system or some other system of nuclear defense is why? Who will it actually protect us from? No-one seriously believes that one of the existing nuclear states will actually start a nuclear war. So the only people who might are those zealots over whom no-one has any control and who would not stop even if threatened with retaliation. The only role of a nuclear strike in those circumstances would be revenge and how many UK Prime Ministers would actually press that button? Against whom would they retaliate?

    The only protection against zealots is to make sure they never get nuclear (or chemical/biological) weapons in the first place. The only way to do that is to stop making those sorts of weapons and decommission those already in existence, not to build more.

    A truly radical Liberal Democrat Party would stand up for peace and look for alternatives to the arms industry to protect the jobs of those currently building weapons. Jeremy Corbyn’s policy of non-nuclear submarines would be a step in the direction of De-escalation, but being in hock to the trades unions he cannot take the truly radical step of getting out of the bomb business altogether

  • It all depends how you regard deterrance. It’s all very well saying that `no one will start a nuclear war`. We may never know as the act of deterrance may have stopped one until now.

    It’s a bit like saying `no one wants insurance as no one’s going to set fire or burgle my house`. The very act of deterrance is non-quantifiable the efficacy of which can’t be evidenced so in other words getting rid of Trident is itself a leap in the dark.

    Given that a Russian leader probably has caused a minor nuclear incident in London – I think a rethink of `scrap Trident` is required much along the lines of the above article.

  • Eddie Sammon 21st Jan '16 - 1:26pm

    Not renewing Trident is fine as long as the savings are ploughed into defence. People say Trident is a deterrent, but it could also provoke an attack.

    I don’t see the value in wiping out another state if they wipe out us. What do we want humanity to wipe itself out for? It’s why I sometimes think of the second strike as “the spite strike”.

    We should have more of a debate with our nuclear specialists. As far as I know the only nuclear weapons we have are very big ones that would cause damage on a scale that the world has never seen before.

  • Geoffrey Payne 21st Jan '16 - 1:36pm

    Denmark is part of NATO so it is not down to the UK alone with it’s so called Independent Nuclear Deterrent to defend Denmark.
    The reality is that there is no country that presents a nuclear threat to the UK in which our Independent Nuclear Deterrent would actually be a deterrent. The situation today is different to the 1980s when the Soviet Union wanted to spread communism around the world.
    There are far more important risks we should be attending to if there happens to be a spare £100Billion knocking around. The recent floods show once again the threat of global warming. Isn’t it amazing how austerity prevents us from taking the issue seriously – that is in proportion to the risk and the dangers – whilst when it comes to replacing Trident then austerity is no problem.

  • I agree in part with Eddie Sammon.If a country wanted to do a first strike option against the West,those with nuclear weapons would be prime targets.

    Are armed forces are being run down under the Tories.They made this mistake before and it was mainly this that caused the Falklands war.We need a decent high tech military,but not a nuclear one.

    We have spent a enormous amount of money on weapons we are never likely to need.Lets face it,if a nuclear war does start on this planet we are all screwed in one way or another.Without us tossing a few bombs in.

    But conventional forces will always be needed.

  • Not too bothered what Jezza and his pals do – more bothered what Lib Dems do….. it’s been shuffled off the stage at the moment to keep the grandees sweet..

    Given that the Germans/Belgians/Dutch/Danes/Norwegians/Swedes/Italians/Spaniards/ Portuguese et al and a few more seem to manage perfectly well without an “Independent” nuclear weapon it’s odd that we look like spending £ 165 billion on replacing one. It’s some weird kind of hangover from the good old Imperial days of Dreadnoughts…. like Asquith and Lloyd George, those may have been the days my friend… but they’ve long gone.

    1. It won’t stop polonium.
    2. It won’t stop terrorists…. it didn’t in Paris & they’ve got a bomb.
    3. It’s MAD – mutually assured destruction if we use it.
    4. It’s horribly expensive and inhibits sensible defence expenditure/reducing the deficit/proper social and infrastructure spending.

    Time to face up to reality in the modern world.

  • Can anyone in favour of renewing Trident spell out any reasons why the UK needs them, that can’t also be advanced by any other country (e.g. Denmark, Germany, Canada, Iran, North Korea etc.)?

    Apart from the subs possibly acting as a phallic membership card for the UN Security Council.

  • “Given that the Germans/Belgians/Dutch/Danes/Norwegians/Swedes/Italians/Spaniards/ Portuguese et al and a few more seem to manage perfectly well without an “Independent” nuclear weapon it’s odd that we look like spending £ 165 billion on replacing one.”

    This viewpoint omits the fact that the UK and France are NPT designated states and through Nato they contribute these weapons to the protection of ‘Europe’ ie. Germans/Belgians/Dutch/Danes/Norwegians/Swedes/Italians/Spaniards/ Portuguese et al.

    So for the UK to scrap it’s nuclear weapons, it really needs to get the okay from its Nato partners.

    “They are seriously proposing buying the submarines but no warheads. “
    The Successor programme does not concern the replacement of the Trident missiles themselves, it is all about the renewal of the delivery system. The missiles themselves are intended to remain in service until 2042…

    So Jeremy is actually being factually correct and very precise in what he is saying.

    I suspect the government will be paying for the maintenance of the missiles until at least 2042 regardless of our ability to use them. Hence the choice becomes do we invest in a new delivery system that creates jobs etc. and keeps these nuclear materials ‘safe’ or do we scrape the submarines and incur the costs of keeping these missiles in some purpose built storage facility?

  • @ Roland : “This viewpoint omits the fact that the UK and France are NPT designated states and through Nato they contribute these weapons to the protection of ‘Europe’ ie. Germans/Belgians/Dutch/Danes/Norwegians/Swedes/Italians/Spaniards/ Portuguese et al.”

    Well, if you’re that keen to keep them…. how about passing round the hat for the £ 165 billion ? Still won’t stop polonium/cyber technology attacks/terrorists though. Still waiting for France to drop their deterrent on a certain Brussels suburb. Perhaps it would be a more useful fate for Paddy’s hat.

  • Richard Underhill 21st Jan '16 - 5:19pm

    “how many UK Prime Ministers would actually press that button?”
    This appears to be a misunderstanding about how the system works. We have been repeatedly told that after the excitement of a general election victory the incoming PM is asked to decide what s/he would do in the event of a nuclear attack. The decision/s are encoded and passed to the submarines, who do not open them.
    Each PM is part of the command and control system.
    We have not seen a British Prime Minister murdered recently, but in living memory US President John Kennedy was murdered, as was his brother Robert. Ronald Reagan survived an attack. Downing Street was attacked with short-range missiles in John Major’s time.
    If the command and control system is destroyed in a nuclear or non-nuclear attack, the submarines will, presumably, still exist and look to their instructions.
    We had a Minister at Defence. He told conference that the decision on the timing of the financing of the renewal of Trident is called the “Main Gate”. It did not happen during the coalition but may happen soon. This is a huge contract for four new submarines.
    What the current Labour leader said on the Andrew Marr Show may have been misunderstood, or distorted for political purposes. The current Tory government intend to contract to pay to renew the submarines. The next general election is scheduled for 7 May 2020 because of the Fixed Term Parliament Act.
    Therefore JC is in a position in which the submarines will have been renewed, or contracted to be renewed, but he cannot realistically expect to be in power until, at least, 2020. His statement focussed mainly on the nuclear weapons, less on the missiles. In a subsequent BBC tv programme Andrew Neil asked whether it is correct that the detection systems that most countries have assume that incoming ballistic missiles have nuclear weapons on them. If so, firing missiles equipped with non-nuclear weapons could trigger a response with nuclear weapons and start World War 3. Andrew Neil did not get an answer at the time, but may ask again.
    Russia is firing non-nuclear armaments into Syria from ships in the Caspian Sea.

  • Leekliberal 21st Jan '16 - 7:29pm

    Steve Coltman says ‘I would have thought it almost impossible to come up with a Trident policy dafter than the one the Liberal Democrats were saddled with at the last general election, but Jeremy Corbyn and his trade union colleagues seem to have done just that. They are seriously proposing buying the submarines but no warheads.’
    How true! In the past always a multilateralist, I can see no justification for the huge expenditure when I cannot identify a scenario when we would use it and we cannot properly fund our Health Service! Let use use the savings to ensue our inadequate conventional forces are sufficiently resourced and spend the rest on socially desirable objectives.
    I am deeply sceptical when Steve says ‘It is possible for the UK to have a genuinely independent nuclear deterrent, and one that costs a good deal less than Trident.’ Even the existing one is not in truth ‘independent’ as it depends on the USA for targetting.

  • @David Raw “Well, if you’re that keen to keep them…. how about passing round the hat for the £ 165 billion ? “

    You’ve obviously missed the significance of what I was saying. Nato membership has a price (note not a cost) associated with it for each member, which is agreed between the members. So the £165 billion is part of the UK’s payment for membership, which Nato has agreed the UK can spend on a nuclear deterrent. There is no reason to suppose that Nato would simply allow the UK to axe £165 billion from it’s contribution (and remain a member) without their agreement; in fact I would expect them to demand that the UK pay those monies to the French, so that they can build and operate the submarines needed to carry the UK’s Trident missiles…

    So for the UK to gain access to this money for non-Nato purposes, they need to get Nato to agree to both the decommissioning of the nuclear deterrent and that the new order requires a lower of expenditure by it’s members to satisfy their security needs…

    I’m not saying it’s impossible, just that there is more to this than the unilateralists would like us to believe…

  • If Labour and the LibDems go into a general election with a policy of scrapping Trident, without a suitable nuclear alternative, the Tories will get 400 plus seats. I bet the Tory party can’t believe their luck, Corbyn as the main opposition leader and all the other main parties – except UKIP – are talking about giving up our nuclear deterrent. If you want to scrap Trident make sure you have a realistic alternative in place, because no matter how daft it might seem to you guys most people like having Trident.

  • There are a number of voices saying that Trident is no deterrent at all and instead increases the risk the UK faces. In it’s current form it’s not at all “independent”. Whatever the answer, the prime minister who uses trident will have faced challenges no other PM has faced and will have failed as leader of a democratic, peaceful nation.

  • It’s this kind of Marxist lunacy from Corbyn that will doom him to losing the popular vote:

    Newington (Thanet) result:
    LAB: 37.7% (+1.3)
    UKIP: 30.0% (-14.2)
    CON: 20.4% (+0.9)
    IND: 6.4% (+6.4)
    GRN: 2.6% (+2.6)
    LDEM: 1.6%
    IND: 1.3%

  • Bolano
    One at a time. UKIP lunacy first.

  • Conor Clarke 22nd Jan '16 - 10:26am

    @ Mick Taylor
    “The article really misses the point. Everyone knows, in their heart of hearts, that Trident is a redundant cold war missile that we no longer need.”

    I certainly don’t know that.

    The utility of nuclear weapons is not dependent on them ever actually being used. Their mere existence changes the equation of force between countries in significant ways. Arguing we don’t need them because we haven’t/don’t use them is as nonsensical as arguing that we don’t need an expensive standing army because we’re not involved in a ground war with anyone at the moment and don’t intend to get involved in one.

    @ Nick Baird
    “Can anyone in favour of renewing Trident spell out any reasons why the UK needs them, that can’t also be advanced by any other country (e.g. Denmark, Germany, Canada, Iran, North Korea etc.)?”

    Of course not, nuclear weapons are an extremely useful policy instrument for any country. That’s why India, Pakistan, and Israel never signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation treaty, and why Iran and N. Korea would quite like to have them.

    Is the implication here that we should only do things as a country that we’d be happy to see other countries do as well? The world is not so kind that we can surrender every advantage over others in the name of being fair.

  • This is one of those subjects on which far too many people “know” that those who disagree with them are crazy. It is lunacy to abandon our vital deterrent and leave Britain defenceless against Putin. Or else, it is lunacy to risk genocidal war. Let’s consider a third alternative. It is lunacy to take a dogmatic stance, elevate a snap judgment into a point of unassailable principle, and then close your mind to any possibility of changing the judgment.

    Actually – The Tories are planning to but Trident’s replacement with a fifteen-year lead time, on the basis that Trident may (but may not) become unserviceable by 2030. If we deferred any decision for five more years, we might possibly have a temporary period without a full deterrent capability, if Trident had to be withdrawn before its replacement was ready. How much does that matter?

    Meanwhile, the rapid development of drone technology raises a threat to the whole concept of at-sea deterrence. Perhaps, in five years time, we shall know that Russia can track our submarines everywhere, and so need no longer be scared that we will be fully free to retaliate against any first strike which they might make? If so, we shall certainly not want to waste money on a non-deterrent!

    Let’s be pragmatic. It is just not necessary to spend this money now. It would be wasteful, even if one believes in deterrence. Let’s wait five years and see how drone development progresses.

  • This thread contains an awful lot of misunderstandings and misconceptions. Let me deal with a few of them.

    1) A CASD deterrent is not a weapon of first strike. It is there so that a first strike is deterred by the knowledge that there would be retaliation

    2) A CASD deterrent works if the potential aggressor does not know where the boat is and cannot take it out with a pre-emptive strike

    3) Barrow shipyards need to build one nuclear-powered submarine every year in order to keep the skills required. If Trident is cancelled, the Navy needs to order other nuclear-powered submarines that would replace the Vanguard-class replacement Trident boats and their refit.

    4) Trident is part of the NATO complete defence posture. Germany’s large army protects our flank, our nuclear umbrella protects theirs. That frees us up to do the stuff we’re good at – expeditionary warfare – without the need to have a large standing army.

  • AC Trussell 22nd Jan '16 - 4:23pm

    Sorry, don’t have time to read all of the above.
    I am quiet sure that nuclear weapons are a complete waste of money and are costing many thousands of live NOW! , as that money could be spent on health and peaceful acts.
    It will not be long ;- if it doesn’t exist already- that through under-water drones or ultra sensitive satellites, that other nuclear states know exactly where the Trident is!

  • Simon Banks 22nd Jan '16 - 5:14pm

    I agree with Eddie. Trident seems pretty irrelevant to current defence needs and to needs that can reasonably be predicted in the near future. There are, though, real and pressing defence needs. We missed an opportunity at Bournemouth to vote in not just a review of Trident (alias, kicking a difficult issue into the long grass to go searching for it later), but to put Trident renewal in the context of a complete review of defence needs, which would, I think, indicate that the money could be better spent elsewhere.

  • Denis Loretto 22nd Jan '16 - 7:26pm

    I am heavily influenced by a CentreForum paper by Toby Fenwick called “Retiring Trident” published in February 2015 -http://www.centreforum.org/assets/pubs/retiring-trident.pdf . He starts with the premise that in this uncertain world the UK should not “go unilateral” but stay at the negotiating table seeking multilateral nuclear disarmament. At the same time we should start to take action to de-escalate.

    He makes the point quite powerfully that merely cutting the number of Trident Successor submarines and removing the continuous-at-sea requirement (ie current Lib Dem policy) would only reduce costs to a quite limited degree. The much cheaper but still effective option is a land-based weapon intended for air deployment by aircraft. This would also have the great advantage of in effect removing nuclear weapons from Scotland, for which SNP claim a mandate from their electorate.

    Of course the point will be made that land-based weapons will be more vulnerable to surprise attack upon the weapons and delivery systems themselves. I think Toby Fenwick gives credible answers to that criticism in pages 48 – 50 of his paper.

    I hope this option is being considered by the group set up by the Lib Dems to review Trident renewal policy.

  • Eddie Sammon 23rd Jan '16 - 2:23am

    Thanks to those who have highlighted their agreement with me. I agree with Denis Loretto that the CentreForum paper by Toby Fenwick for a non-submarine based nuclear weapons system is very good.

    It is not our nukes that make us very powerful, but the size of our economy. People might risk it with our nukes. At least we use our ships and drones.

    We could also look at getting smaller nuclear weapons, known as “tactical”. These are more likely to be used, so some don’t like them, but at least they don’t have the same potential as the modern ones.

    I didn’t like the recent attempted amendment to scrap Trident because it had no provisions for the savings to be ploughed back into defence, or not enough, and I felt it was just going to lead to a soft-defence policy.

  • Peter Kenny 23rd Jan '16 - 3:49pm

    “The things we’re good at – expeditionary warfare”

    Have you not noticed how the last two went?

    Hopefully last is the right word.

  • J George SMID 25th Jan '16 - 1:55pm

    Steve, as usual spot on: a binary ‘Trident-or-nothing’ debate is wrong. Unfortunately, it reflects our ‘binary’ political environment, either Labour or Tories, either bosses or workers, either capital or income, either market or forceful redistribution, either renewables or nuclear, either leave or remain … the list goes on. Attractive in its simplicities but wrong.
    We need to address not only the ‘technical issues’ (cost and specification) but also the game theory options (Nash equilibrium). Unfortunately, both analysis assume conflict and cooperation between intelligent rational decision-makers (/b). Not much hope then!

  • Steve Coltman 25th Jan '16 - 3:31pm

    Many thanks to Moggy, James, Conor Clarke, David Allen especially, for your comments. It seems incredibly difficult to have a reasoned debate about Trident. We are, as I say, trapped in a binary ‘Trident-or-nothing’ debate with both the pro-Trident and the Anti-nuclear camps both strongly resisting any thought of an alternative policy. Both camps rightly fear their positions could be undermined by a deeper and more thoughtful debate.
    The Anti-nuclear camp needs to face up to the problem of Russia, not just pretend Putin’s nuclear threats to not just Denmark, but Norway and Poland and their conventional aggression in the Ukraine and their cyber-attack on Estonia can all be dismissed as not important. Nuclear weapons can be ‘used’ as instruments of political policy without ever having to actually fire them. They can be used to threaten and intimidate, possession of a suitable deterrent neutralises the threat. Nicola Sturgeon, Simon Jenkins and others who should know better please take note.
    The pro-Trident camp need to face up to the potential weaknesses of the current plans. The most important quality a deterrent must have is invulnerability, or as near to it as you can get. Just one submarine at sea may be almost invulnerable at present but its got to get out to sea undetected in the first place. Technology moves on and submarines may well get easier to find. The three boats not at sea are vulnerable to conventional destruction; there can be no doubt that Russia has the means.
    Space precludes an analysis of the Review of Alternatives to Trident but despite what the Cabinet office and MoD claim, cruise missiles are a viable and cheaper option, a smaller ballistic missile might have been an option (might still be?) also had ‘new Labour’ had the wit to consider it when they were in power – both carried by modified Astute-class boats. There really are other options.

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