Nick Harvey MP writes… Updating you on Trident

Today’s announcement that design contracts for the Trident successor submarines have been signed is being portrayed as the Coalition Government moving a step closer to a full Trident replacement.

In reality the final decision for Trident replacement is still years away. Until 2016’s Main Gate decision, the ‘point of no return’ at which contracts are finalised and billions of pounds committed, there are still important questions to be asked about the future of the UK’s nuclear deterrent.

And if it wasn’t for Liberal Democrat influence in this Government, this simply would not be the case. It is because we are in this Government that Trident is being properly scrutinised to see if it is the right and most responsible deterrent the UK should have.

The Coalition Agreement set out the joint position: that the nuclear deterrent will be maintained, but at the same time the process of renewing Trident would be scrutinised for value for money. The Value for Money study of the Trident system took place in the summer of 2010, identifying changes to the programme by reducing the number of warheads on each submarine from 48 to 40 – as well as substantial savings to the tune of £3.2bn over 10 years.

Crucially, the Value for Money study scrutinised the timing of the Main Gate decision, the ‘point of no return’, and identified 2016 – rather than late 2014 or early 2015 – as the point at which a decision would be needed. Extending the timetable for the final decision in this way has opened the space for a rational debate on the future of Trident before the next election.

The Coalition Agreement also stated that the Lib Dems would continue to advocate alternatives to like-for-like replacement. The ongoing Trident Alternatives review, which I am overseeing, is doing just that, while asking searching questions about the relevance and cost-effectiveness of the posture of Continuous At Sea Deterrence (CASD). This is the long-sought after and non-prejudiced study necessary to inform the full and proper debate that Tony Blair promised and failed to deliver in 2006 and 2007. The study’s timescales are still on track and it will report to the PM and DPM at the end of this year.

For the time being, the Government’s assumption is to move ahead with like-for-like replacement of Trident. This is what the Coalition Agreement commits us to. However, the contracts announced today – the first Assessment Phase Design contracts and Collaborative Agreement – are part of the package of work announced last May at the Initial Gate decision. While the announcement will be seen by some commentators as the Government pressing ahead with NEW financial and contractual commitments to the Trident successor despite Lib Dem pressure to the contrary, this is just not the case. Out of everything announced today, there is nothing new.

So though these design phase contracts are being signed, the final decision as to whether to proceed with the new generation of Trident submarines – the Main Gate decision – will not take place until 2016 after the next General Election.

* 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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  • By the time the main gate arrives Scotland will be independent and the UK will have nowhere to put its grotesque toys anyway.

  • jenny barnes 23rd May '12 - 8:53am

    Spend 5 minutes watching this, Nick.

    Who, exactly, is this nuclear deterrent designed to deter? If it’s a relatively unsophisticated middle east country – say Iran (or Israel) even though there is no evidence that Iran has WMD do we need this particular kind of deterrent? Nuclear tipped cruise might very well be sufficient. …North Korea????

  • Kevin White 23rd May '12 - 8:53am

    Let’s commit ourselves to a policy of scrapping and not replacing Trident. It’s a pointless, costly, willy waver.

  • I don’t think we are achieving much of a brake here, if 350Million is being spent on designs for something that is potentially 40+ years obsolete.

    These days we have asymmetric warfare, terrorist specials, even when wars are state vs state the head of one state is often not a rational actor. Mutually assured destruction doesn’t work in any of these scenarios.

    Assuming the democratic will of the HoC is to retain some nuclear capaity, why can’t we avoid this waste of money and make a decision now to replace trident with a cheaper less capable alternative like sub capable – nuclear tipped cruise missiles. Even if the money saved stays on military spending, there are better places to put it equipping our troops better for when we put them in harms way.

  • Our MPs should seek a parliamentary debate on the principle of replacement of Trident then if the Labour Party back the Tories then it is fair enough for the Government to spend this money. If there is a majority in Parliament against then we can start saving money now. We could mothball the existing Tridents (it is clear that there in nothing that they are deterring at the moment) and start really saving money.

    I wonder how the SNP would vote as they are against the Nuclear deterrent but I believe they would oppose shutting the bases as it would hit the local economy.

  • I am afraid that I do not see any meaningful constraint here at all.

    However, if people want to put a stop to this nonsense, then they can ask their MP to sign EDM 96 which urges the government to abandon any idea of replacing Trident at all.

    Many thanks to those 5 Liberal Democrat MPs who have signed it so far.

  • coldcomfort 23rd May '12 - 1:36pm

    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 [who deny it] have the weapon in substantial numbers. Are they likely to develop the means of delivery to bomb us? Are they likely to do so 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. Terrorists might try to place a bomb. Can anyone explain how Trident is any use in combating that?

    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 any kind of successor. Senior military officers agree with this view. This does not mean that the UK ceases to be a nuclear power. We have a significant number of nuclear warheads and the means of delivery. Some years ago it was Liberal Democrat policy to cut our existing nuclear arsenal in half and prolong the life of Trident. There is no reason to change that.

    Let us accept (although it is arguable) that, as a leading member of the international community Britain needs the nuclear deterrent, that goal is fulfilled, as are much better military and political ones, by the Lib Dem policy, especially in the current economic climate. As far as one can see into the future our military are going to be engaged in Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, Kosovo type activities. This involves mainly foot soldiers and money needs to be spent on their equipment, personal needs and aftercare which is currently a disgrace.

    Finally 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]. So it’s not even ‘independent’

  • Mike Falchikov 20th Aug '12 - 12:12pm

    We don’t need nuclear weaponry – this isn’t the cold war any longer, so against whom would our nukes be aimed?
    This is just silly posturing as though we were still a great power. Canada, Australia, Norway and many other
    countries don’t seem to feel the need but can play and important and respected role in international conflict
    resolution. Instead of nukes, let’s use the money to equip our forces properly for the job they can do – and
    do with distinction.

  • What on earth are you going on about, jbt?

  • Clive Peaple 22nd Nov '14 - 1:06pm

    don’t believe that this is a good time to weaken defence. Recent £2million recruitment drive for ‘boots on ground’ yielded….20 recruits. Reserves being topped up by elderly ex-soldiers. Plaudits for LD cost effect studies – vitally needed. But situation is changing. Baltic States potentially threatened. Whether or not it’s Trident, it ought to be Successor class – Trident may be obsolete, but sub based alternatives worth a look!

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