Martin Horwood MP: Trident – A Different Path

Dr StrangeloveFew aspects of British policy have remained so undisturbed for so long as the UK’s attitude to nuclear deterrence. As we bring home our troops from Germany, tying up one of the last loose ends in a Cold War conflict that Britons under the age of 40 can probably barely remember, it would be wise for our nuclear policy to finally catch up.

This is not a new idea for us. In opposition, Liberal Democrats opposed Tony Blair’s plan for early like-for-like replacement of Trident nuclear weapons and we did so on the basis that a system designed to counter the existential threat from the twentieth century Soviet Union is not sensible in the early twenty-first century.

Now Liberal Democrats in government have finally forced open the debate within Whitehall. The recently published review into alternatives to Trident is the most thorough to date and indicates that, for the first time, the possibility of real and effective reform of our nuclear policy has been seriously explored in the upper echelons of the MoD. This review proves that we were right in 2006: credible alternatives exist and 24 hour patrols can and should end.

The difficulty is no longer convincing the Government that credible alternatives exist, but rather moving from the planned Trident upgrade to one of these viable alternatives smoothly and without incurring undue costs. Simply procuring fewer successor submarines and breaking Continuous At Sea Deterrence will make a significant contribution to international disarmament by starting to bring the UK down the nuclear ladder. It would be the single biggest step down that the UK has ever taken in nuclear capability, sending a strong signal to a world increasingly threatened by nuclear proliferation, but without abandoning a nuclear deterrent that could still be important and appropriate for 21st century Britain.

We have the chance to lead the world away from the nuclear arms race.

But it might be a faltering, one-step-forwards-two-steps back kind of process. The international security situation could worsen at times over the next 50 years. That’s why the precautionary principle should tell us not to abandon our deterrent altogether, right now. We will retain a nuclear capability and the ability to step up our strategic posture if world events develop in more dangerous directions.

Continuous at sea deterrence was designed for a situation when Soviet ICBMs were trained on our major cities and global Armageddon seemed terrifyingly close. In the profoundly different world of the 21st century it is just not necessary. No other part of our Armed Forces is now kept at high readiness 24/7 in case of attack. They maintain the ability to surge and respond to threats and challenges as they arise. Why should our nuclear deterrent be different?

There is an added benefit to stepping back from Continuous At Sea Deterrence. The Conservative and Labour parties want full-scale Trident upgrade – costing a cool £100 billion over its lifetime – on top of new Type 26 destroyers, fast jets, armoured vehicles, more helicopters and enhanced cyber security too.

To have this debate at all is ground breaking enough when you consider how any suggestion of reform has been dismissed in the recent past. It is still a challenge to get our Conservative colleagues to engage intelligently with what their own government review is telling them. Liberal Democrats must take the lead, and start to move Britain clearly but carefully down the path towards nuclear disarmament.

* Martin Horwood is Liberal Democrat Member of the European Parliament for the South West of England & Gibraltar. He is a member of the European Parliament’s Iran delegation. He is Borough & parish councillor for Leckhampton, Gloucestershire.

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  • Good article.

  • “We will retain a nuclear capability and the ability to step up our strategic posture if world events develop in more dangerous directions.”

    But how long would it take to “step back up” to continuous patrols? Years or decades? If you believe in the philosophy of deterrence, doesn’t that put the country at a tremendous risk in the meantime?

    And how much of that £100bn would you save by doing so? 10%?

    It seems to me that this halfway house idea neither saves significant amounts of money nor provides a proper deterrent – and that the real choice is between all or nothing.

  • jedibeeftrix 13th Sep '13 - 5:20pm

    “There is an added benefit to stepping back from Continuous At Sea Deterrence. The Conservative and Labour parties want full-scale Trident upgrade – costing a cool £100 billion over its lifetime”

    But Martin, but chosen alternative of “procuring fewer successor submarines” would cost a cool £95 billion over its lifetime.

    Given that this would be less 50% of the capability for more than 90% of the cost, I’m not at all convinced this represents a sound investment of public money!

  • Toby Fenwick 13th Sep '13 - 5:52pm

    Martin, good afternoon

    I’m still not clear why you and Julian think that spending >90% of the cost of four boat CASD on two boat non-CASD is either strategically, politically or economically sensible. I do hope that you come to Saturday’s fringe meeting to have this discussion. See here:

    One technical point: CASD itself has not been on an immediate retaliation “Quick Reaction Alert” (QRA) since they boats were dealerted in 1999. However, the RAF maintain QRA fighters at RAF Leuchars and Conningsby – 24/7/365.

  • Toby Fenwick 13th Sep '13 - 6:04pm

    @Joe Otten

    Precisely, as I argued yesterday ( I hope you will vote in favour of George Potter’s amendment on Tuesday.

    Kind regards,


  • A Social Liberal 13th Sep '13 - 8:45pm

    Sorry Joe, but there is no viable alternative to CASD. The choice is between CASD and losing our nuclear capability altogether.

    For financial reasons I feel we have to take the latter route.

  • Toby Fenwick 13th Sep '13 - 9:57pm


    I think that it’s getting clearer that the choice is like-for-like, four SSBN CASD, some minimal free-fall weapon – either deployed or not, or nothing at all. The increased strategic danger of non-CASD Trident, the minimal savings in cost, and the difficulty in explaining it to voters (believe me, I’ve tried), makes it a non-starter.

    Kind regards to all,


  • Jonathan Brown 15th Sep '13 - 1:58am

    I thought our policy at the last election was right. Explore the options. We’ve done that. And are now being offered a policy that fails the only two tests that matter:

    – is it something that anyone will vote for? (90% of the costs for 50% of the detterant? Er.. no.)
    – is it a policy, an end goal, of which we Lib Dems can be proud? (We’re already conceding that this policy is a half-way house, so the answer has to be no.)

    The opportunity cost of keeping Trident is just massive. Let’s make an argument that will be popular with a great many voters (disarmament), makes economic sense (saves vast amounts of money) and makes military sense too (put the money into conventional forces that are otherwise going to be broken beyond repair by years of financial and manpower cuts).

    Let’s support the amendment and let the Tories defend sacrificing our armed forces to pay for a deterant that Brazil, Germany, Turkey, Japan, South Korea, etc., etc. all manage without.

    And if they won’t give up Trident in a future coalition agreement, then let’s swap aquiesence in exchange for a stonking great Lib Dem priority.

  • Liberal Neil 15th Sep '13 - 2:53am

    As I’ve said before: We don’t need them and we can’t afford them so let’s just ditch them.

  • You either have CASD or you don’t bother.

    I don’t think abandoning CASD is politically acceptable in the UK. Partnering with the French to produce an EU CASD system would be an option (especially of we could get the Germans to pay something towards it).

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