Nick Harvey MP writes… Robert Gates poses stark defence question to UK: Do we want to be a real military partner or a nuclear power and nothing else?

Former US Defence Secretary Robert Gates was on Radio 4’s Today programme this morning decrying the UK’s defence cuts. He said the squeeze meant the UK could no longer be a ‘full spectrum’ military partner of the US, acknowledging that our relationship with the US has been fundamentally altered.

A sceptic would quickly dismiss the comments of a man currently promoting his memoirs, but Gates makes a wider point about what exactly we want to be doing with a smaller defence capability.

Both Labour and the Tories continue to cling to the idea that we should maintain a full-scale Cold War nuclear deterrent – pointing at precisely no one – ready to fire at a moment’s notice.

But there seems to be very little acknowledgement that we would have £4bn at the very least to contribute to Navy platforms and our other conventional capabilities if we came down the nuclear ladder. On a shrinking budget, the Successor programme to replace Trident will, in time, account for around 10% of the MoD’s budget. When the programme began in 1980, it took up just 1.5% of defence spend.

We are at a crossroads where the ideological reasons for maintaining Trident propagated by the other parties no longer fit with our direction of travel. While our armed forces are undergoing a massive reconfiguration, our nuclear posture remains unchanged.

A quick look at the figures shows just what a huge commitment the Government proposes to make. Spending £25-30 billion renewing Trident and around £3 billion a year for about 40 years operating it, about £150 billion in total at 2013 prices – could come at a truly shocking “opportunity cost” to the rest of our defence and security. Indeed, Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander has confirmed that there is no separate ‘magic pot of money’ for Trident – all its replacement costs will come from the defence equipment budget and not from the Treasury.

The Tories and Labour are failing to grasp the financial reality of our defence commitments. Just at the point when capital expenditure on the Successor programme reaches its height (roughly 2017-30), many other vast defence projects will compete for very limited funds: the new aircraft carriers need Joint Strike Fighter planes; the Type 26 frigate is to be built; the Army’s equipment crisis must be resolved, not least after the FRES project largely disintegrating; a new generation of remotely piloted aircraft, new amphibious shipping, more helicopters, and enhanced ISTAR and cyber security assets are all needed.

Something will have to give. A new nuclear deterrent must surely be put on the table and debated alongside everything else, rather than automatically prevailing come what may.

The Lib Dems have called for a step down the nuclear ladder, proportionate with today’s threats. Building two or three rather than four submarines could trim roughly £4-8 billion off the procurement cost; and crewing and operating fewer could trim £500 million or more off the annual running cost – beginning as soon as the change of posture is effected, which could certainly be during the 2015-2020 Parliament.

While our other conventional capabilities are strained by the squeezed defence budget, how can we justify this drain on the MOD’s finances?

Robert Gates’ comments are a stark reminder of how much the defence picture is changing here in the UK. The question is, are we going to be a real military partner or a nuclear power and nothing else? It’s time the other parties realised we can’t do both.

* Sir Nick Harvey was the Liberal Democrat MP for North Devon from 1992 until 2015 and Minister of State for the Armed Forces from 2010 to 2012

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31 Comments

  • We desperately need to stop being a military ‘partner’ for the US. We’ve got involved in too many pointless colonial wars on their behalf. It needs to stop.

    We should stop the sabre rattling and work with our EU partners to build a European defence system, designed to defend us, not kill civilians in far away places because US defence contractors want someone to try the latest drone out on.

  • jenny barnes 16th Jan '14 - 4:44pm

    Trident, HS2, Aircraft carriers with no planes, wars of choice… There’s always money for the fun stuff, isn’t there. This government has got a cheek demonising the unemployed for having large TVs, when they’re blowing billions on nonsenses.

  • Stephen Lloyd MP 16th Jan '14 - 5:13pm

    Gates may have been doing the UK a favour and Nicks article is absolutely spot on.

    We put on the table a few months ago the first rational step in serious multilateralism by any of the main party’s ever , and as expected both the Tory’s and Labour dismissed it out of hand.

    But now………?

  • Not electoral poison for me. I would be classed by most people as a sympathiser on the right of the liberal democrats. The militarism in the Tory party is one of those things that keeps me supporting the Lib Dems and not the Tories – this is an important area for differentiation as the jargon currently calls it.

  • Nick Harvey has provided a succinct statement of the realities. Now even people like Michael Portillo speak out in public for an end to Trident. Forget about any other reasons for a moment and re-read what Nick Harvey has just written about the costs. —–

    A quick look at the figures shows just what a huge commitment the Government proposes to make. Spending £25-30 billion renewing Trident and around £3 billion a year for about 40 years operating it, about £150 billion in total at 2013 prices – could come at a truly shocking “opportunity cost” to the rest of our defence and security. Indeed, Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander has confirmed that there is no separate ‘magic pot of money’ for Trident – all its replacement costs will come from the defence equipment budget and not from the Treasury.

  • A Social Liberal 16th Jan '14 - 10:29pm

    This

    ” the Army’s equipment crisis must be resolved, not least after the FRES project largely disintegrating; a new generation of remotely piloted aircraft, new amphibious shipping, more helicopters, and enhanced ISTAR and cyber security assets are all needed. “

  • jedibeeftrix 16th Jan '14 - 10:33pm

    i will be more interested in lib-dem’s counting the pennies over trident if it commits to spend the pounds by affirming the NATO standard of 2.0% of GDP…

  • I just don’t get how spending a fraction less by only building two or three subs and operating them less often makes sense. If it is all such a waste of colossal amounts of money we should have the guts to come out in favour of scrapping it completely. And spend SOME of the savings on modern conventional capabilities for humanitarian interventions but NOT fancy kit for taking on China!

  • Eddie Sammon 17th Jan '14 - 8:52am

    I don’t see how non-interventionism is taking the moral high-ground. I was against Syria because I thought it was the wrong kind of interventionism, but it doesn’t mean all-interventionism is bad.

    I thank Nick for the article, but I don’t agree with being a “full military partner” or a “nuclear power and nothing else”. I just believe in having an independent or European defence policy.

    War is so horrifically bad, I think our leaders who take us into action should do a little bit of work on the front-line. The interests of our leaders and our soldiers need to be aligned.

  • Paul Reynolds 17th Jan '14 - 3:33pm

    Nick Harvey is in effect summarizing Lib Dems policy debated at Party Conference. Nick is 100% correct that there is a defence budget crisis looming. What is curious is that despite widespread expert support for a lesser nuclear deterrent, the Conservative Party leadership have stuck with a like for like replacement of Trident. There are other commitments that the UK has made as Nick outlined, the most controversial of which is the F35 fighter so strongly promoted by Gates. I believe a key question for parliamentary scrutiny is what mechanisms are being deployed ‘transatlantically’ to resolve matters given UK budget constraints. By the way I look forward with some trepidation to the return match – ie Geoff Hoon appearing in Washington DC’s Fox News studio with his views and recommendations on the US defence budget.

  • peter tyzack 17th Jan '14 - 3:36pm

    Mark, we have no reason to even contemplate ‘taking on China’ when they want to trade with and work with us. If Putin seriously wants to create a joint free-trade zone, and China are trying hard to work with all their neighbours to build trading relationships, then I can’t see who we might need to defend ourselves against.
    If we work with our European partners towards a European Defence Policy that will make us the second largest global bloc… and that is what the US are petrified of (-they will then become the third, or even fourth when Africa gets it act together). The only countries I worry about making trouble in the world are North Korea and the US, and they are trying hard to stir the pot in SE Asia, whilst funding our Eurosceptic press to generate divisive stories here.
    The world is becoming a better and safer place, by virtue of global communications, travel and trade, so lets work to make it so by starting the process, leading the way to nuclear disarmament and using the money saved for humanitarian work, such as basic health education and housing for all.. We can do it if we try, and if Britain is really respected on the global stage, lets use that respect for a good purpose.

  • jedibeeftrix 17th Jan '14 - 8:12pm

    “If we work with our European partners towards a European Defence Policy that will make us the second largest global bloc”

    we would need a common foreign policy first, built on common aims and expectations on the utility of force.

    “a European Defence Policy that will make us the second largest global bloc… and that is what the US are petrified of”

    don’t be ridiculous, america would love a common European armed capability backed by a common European policy of intervention.

    the us has always wanted a reliable partner, which is why they need us in it. this because, without us:
    1. there will be little capabily
    2. and little interest in using it

  • Jonathan Brown 17th Jan '14 - 9:17pm

    Nick makes many good points, which is why I think it’s such a shame that we flunked it at the conference. Going door to door telling people that we were the one party committed to properly funding the military services we need and use – by scrapping a ghastly nuclear deterrent that deters no one and costs us a fortune – would have been a controversial and pretty popular.

    It’s the same electoral principle as with supporting EU membership. It may not be popular with everyone – or even the majority, but it’s popular with an awful lot more people than currently support us, and plenty more would respect our willingness to take the lead on something unpopular.

  • I agree with Mark and Jonathan Brown. Indeed I agree with the thrust of Nick Harvey’s article, except that I believe he understates the case and I lament that we as a party could have done better,

    We passed an awful defence policy in Glasgow. The decision on a Trident replacement completely undermined our ability to adequately fund the rest of our military. Indeed our position, 2 (or is it 3?) part -time subs sometimes carrying warheads, sometimes not, was at best obtuse … difficult to explain to an electorate, confusing at best to an adversary, saving only a small percentage of the costs, and not addressing any meaningful security threat , yet undermining our capacity to finance modern full spectrum military forces to counter the panoply of diverse real threats we encounter in the C21.

    Although not perfectly worded, I was distressed that we failed to pass an amendment to the defence policy motion in Glasgow. We have ended up with a policy that is radically flawed and not fit for purpose.

  • I agree with John Innes 17th Jan ’14 – 9:54pm

    We passed an awful defence policy in Glasgow. The decision on a Trident replacement completely undermined our ability to adequately fund the rest of our military. Indeed our position, 2 (or is it 3?) part -time subs sometimes carrying warheads, sometimes not, was at best obtuse … difficult to explain to an electorate,

  • Disastrous policy on Trident successor. What are our policy ‘gurus’ thinking. How can we suggest paying 90% of the cost of a continuously at sea patrolling fleet of submarines and then not have enough to do so? The idea of sending them to sea without nuclear missiles is completely batty. I do despair of our party sometimes. Whatever happened to common sense?

    If our party wants unilateral disarmament then we should be honest enough to put it in the manifesto. If we have to have such principles of course then it would indicate to the electorate that we have zero credibility as a serious party of government, even in a coalition. We would be on a par with the Green party, at least they are consistent about disarmament. We would then expect our polling rating to fall to that of the Greens too of course, however at least our principles would be intact.

  • jedibeeftrix, unfortunately time is not on our side. It will take too long to do the 180 degree turn, too many people will lose face. It would have to be done in the next month or two if we are to turn around the looming disaster of the Euro elections. Unfortunately I have been trying these last couple of weeks on this forum to wake our party out of our stupor. Now my comments are being moderated. I will give up and join a party that gives me freedom of expression if this daftness continues. I am beginning to think that we are not being serious, we are just playing at politics.

  • jedibeeftrix 19th Jan '14 - 2:19pm

    “I am beginning to think that we are not being serious, we are just playing at politics.”

    I have long suspected that of some lib-dem members; far more interested in the purity of a liberal ‘position’ than adopting a policy platform that appeals across the country and political spectrum, with the intention of winning elections.

  • Steve Coltman 20th Jan '14 - 1:37pm

    Nick’s points are pretty valid and echo a quote from a French General recently who said (in response to Pres. Hollande’s recent cut in France’s rapid reaction force) that France will be just all gendarmes and atom bombs. The case for a nuclear deterrent has never been weaker but it is not zero. But we cannot spend such a disproportionate amount on nuclear weapons as to leave our conventional forces under-funded and incapable of doing what they need to do. Getting Parliament to vote for unilateral nuclear disarmament just seems unrealistic, so that is why I promoted cruise missiles as a cheaper alternative to Trident. Unfortunately the Review of Alternatives to Trident scotched that idea. Or did it? The idea that cruise missiles would not be an acceptable alternative rests on the claim that existing Trident warheads could not be used in cruise missiles because they are too fragile (they did not use that word but that was the gist of it). But what if that was not true? (and I am pretty sure it is not). If Trident warheads can be used in cruise missiles then we can avoid the massive cost of four giant Trident submarines and we can also avoid the cost of developing a new warhead (which Aldermaston may have difficulty doing anyway). There is a way out of this dilemma but it looks instead as if we are blundering towards an expensive form of military impotence.
    This country is in an intellectual mess where defence is concerned, and so is this party. No-one is responsible for our defence and security except ourselves. We should not be America’s poodle – we have very little high-level influence over US Strategy. The EU does not and is unlikely ever to command the political and moral authority to handle defence (however much the Euro-fanatics may delude themselves otherwise). We should cooperate with others but ultimately stand on our own two feet.

  • Now I know why the MOD cannot afford Trident.
    Thanks to Pam Tilson for drawing my attention to this from the Belfast Telegraph —

    21 January 2014

    Nearly £6,000 worth of viagra stolen from the Ministry of Defence.

    Figures released by the MoD show alleged thefts have totalled more than £7 million over the last seven years.

    The figures were made public by the MoD in response to a written parliamentary question from Tory MP Nick de Bois.

    The Times reported that the stolen items include £5,800 worth of anti-impotence Viagra pills, also used for conditions including blood pressure, and equipment from nuclear submarines from RAF Marham in Norfolk.

    In the past year 100 bayonets, thousands of rounds of live and blank ammunition, a Bedford truck and an industrial washing machine have all been taken from MoD sites.

    Metal thieves have also stolen lead flashing and roofing, copper piping, electrical cables and radiators, as well a £25,000 silver statue from the Household Cavalry barracks in Knightsbridge and £7,000 worth of silver cutlery from Redford Cavalry and Infantry Barracks near Edinburgh.

    Defence minister Dr Andrew Murrison said: “The Ministry of Defence takes detecting and deterring fraud and theft seriously and set up a new counter fraud and loss department last year to improve the way fraud and theft is managed across defence, the aim being to minimise the losses from the defence budget from fraud, misappropriation and theft and thereby maximise the amount spent on our armed forces.

    “The focus of this new department’s work is to secure reduced losses caused by fraud, theft and loss, increased recovery through civil and internal procedures and the improved protection of assets through increased target hardening.”

    In 2009-2010 nearly £2.5 million worth of equipment was stolen compared to £816,906 in 2012-2013.

    Since April 2013, £572,549 of MoD property is believed to have been lost to thieves.

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