What next on Trident?

The previous Labour government had a habit of taking as gospel views from senior members of select professions. Whilst many professions were instinctively seen as self-interested dinosaurs when speaking up for their professions, both senior police and senior military were however often treated as if unimpeachable experts.

It’s been a welcome sign from both the Conservative and Liberal Democrat members of the new government that senior military are seen as they should be – often expert, certainly experienced but by no means infallible and often to be questioned. That’s the right attitude, but it’s one that is clearly ruffling some feathers in the military given the little dig reported last week in the Daily Telegraph at Armed Forces minister Nick Harvey (see third paragraph).

That followed a speech he gave to the Royal United Services Institute in which, after talking about his Liberal predecessor, Nick Harvey also went on to talk about the future of Trident:

The last Liberal Minster to be closely involved in reforming the Armed Forces was the Minister for War, Richard Haldane, who greatly reformed the Army for the challenges that lay ahead of it in the 20th century.

He also made the famously poor prediction in 1907, four years after the Wright Brothers took to the skies, that “the aeroplane will never fly”.

So I am pleased that as we undertake a fundamental look at our Armed Forces to ensure that they are fit for the 21st century, we have Liberals in Government once again – we’ll help to drive the change we know is needed, but we will be careful not to predict the future with absolute confidence…

The current policy of maintaining the UK’s essential minimum nuclear deterrent remains unchanged.

The Trident Value for Money Review is looking at whether this policy can be met while reducing the cost of successor submarine and ballistic missile systems, including by shifting the balance between financial savings and operational risk.

The work will cover: the programme timetable; submarine numbers; numbers of missiles, missile tubes and warheads; infrastructure and other support costs; and the industrial supply chain.

But we do ourselves a disservice if we confine the concept of deterrence to nuclear weapons alone.

After all, deterrence is about applying power to influence potential adversaries, mitigate risks, and address threats without recourse to war.

In pursuing our national interest and protecting our national security, we must also remember the powerful deterrent effect of our conventional forces, particularly in the context of our military alliances.

In other words, the future of Trident is still up in the air – but there’s also a welcome emphasis on the reality that non-nuclear forces need to be able to fulfil their role, particularly in the many areas where using nuclear missiles are never going to be a credible deterrent whether or not you believe they are in matters of major inter-governmental relations between nuclear states.

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21 Comments

  • Marquis Holmstreau 11th Jul '10 - 11:16pm

    Trident is something we can no longer afford. It must go.

  • David Morton 11th Jul '10 - 11:51pm

    The narrative that is killing us is that right wing Tories are running amok culling projects that they would never have dared do if we hadn’t been in the coalition. If we want to regain momentum then going after right wing shiboliths thats were previously off the table is the way to do it. It’ll show we aren’t push overs, throw a googly at the Labour party and challenge the view that spending cuts are all about shrinking a certain sort of state.

    Trident is the way back if it can be realised this early in that a way back is needed which I fear that it is.

  • The day the tories scrap trident will be the same day that the RAF takes on its first cohort of pigs as pilots. I think your starting to believe the coalitions propaganda a little too much if you think the financial situation is so bad that we must abandon nukes.

  • Andrew Suffield 12th Jul '10 - 7:04am

    Nuclear disarmament as a general policy is fine, as is reducing the maintenance costs on the current Vanguard fleet, but the Trident replacement is something due to happen after 2020. It is not a budget issue within the time of this parliament.

  • Trident should not be replaced.

    It should be included in the defence review, despite its exclusion in the coalition agreement, and the reason for doing so is that,as they have said, Dave and Nick, found the fiscal situation to be worse than they had been led to believe by the outgoing government. (Whether Dave and Nick should have been innocent enough to be taken in by the last lot is a potential subject for another thread.)

    Meanwhile, now, to reduce costs in this Parliament we should do as Baroness Williams suggests and reduce the amount of time each Trident submarine is at sea.

  • The Coalition must be able to justify the billions being spent on Trident and its replacement whilst freezing or reducing benefits and allowing run down schools to continue. This could well be of priority interest at the coming Liverpool Conference.

  • Andrea Gill 12th Jul '10 - 9:40am

    @Richard A – Trident already has its own review due to report at the end of this month, no need to review it twice surely?

  • @Richard A – The operating costs op keeping the boats at sea are pretty marginal as the kettle and systems all operate 24/7. The only way the cost drivers would open an opportunity would be if the hull numbers ould be reduced, but in terms of the operational cycle that would mean being without a deterrent capability for periods.

    I would also argue that a significant portion of the deterrent effect is the ”Continuous At Sea” element, so that having the current deterrent hull tied up alongside would have a diminishing effect on the capability. also in a period of diplomatic tension actually sailing the boat would be seen as an escalationary act and would probably drive a response, proportionate or not.

    @Andrea – I happen toa gree that the deterrent should be included in the review. Considering the shape and size of the Navy and the maritime elements of the Air Farce in isolation from the deterrent force create a very much weaker argument in comparison to the army. There are several very important strategic questions that I won’t go into in the public domain that will not be asked given the structure of the SDSR. The Secretary of State for the Infantry has been vocally hostile to the RN for most of his parliamentary career and he seems to be putting in place a defence review that isolates some very significant issues for the RN and disenfranchises a significant component of the force.

  • @Alistair – my point was it already HAS its own review.

  • @Andrea – I have significant concerns about that review, for the reasons I highlighted above. The deterrent is intimately intertwined with many other capabilities of both the RN and the RAF, for example the Fleet Protection Group is a Commando strength force protection element included in the Trident review (I hope). FPGRM is about 20% of the Royal Marines strength, and the future of the rest of the RM can’t really be appropriately considered without including it in the SDSR.

    The positioning of the Trident review seems very cost focused, not military capability focused, and in my opinion it’s far too narrow.

  • John Emerson 12th Jul '10 - 12:45pm

    “In other words, the future of Trident is still up in the air”

    Actually this is the one thing that is not up in the air and which given the financial situation almost certainly should be. The coalition is going ahead with building/designing the new submarine class. The ‘review’ will look at whether there should be 3 or 4 SSBNs/number of warhead each of them hold and the size of the support fleet. Logically incoherent but there you are.

  • @Alistair – I do believe some of the projects shelved until the Autumn Spending review were put on hold precisely so that the outcome of the Trident review can be taken into consideration. But I see your point it is interconnected and the effect on other areas should be considered too, at the same time.

  • mike cobley 12th Jul '10 - 2:22pm

    Quotes from Nick Harvey: “The last Liberal Minster to be closely involved in reforming the Armed Forces was the Minister for War, Richard Haldane … as we undertake a fundamental look at our Armed Forces to ensure that they are fit for the 21st century, we have Liberals in Government once again…”

    Right. So we’re the ‘Liberal’ party, then.

    I am getting weary of the party leadership blithely blabbing on about Liberals and Liberalism. A reminder – this party brought together the old Liberal party and the Social Democrat party. Where are the mentions of Social Democrats in government again?

    As for Trident – well, the only practical reason for holding onto the thing is to retain clout re the Security Council, and if that really is what its for, then we should at least have full control over it and its maintenance and the necessary replacement components. I mean, isnt that what an independent nuke deterrent would actually be?

  • Andrew Wimble 12th Jul '10 - 2:36pm

    Trident is a hugely expensive system designed as a detterant in the face of the Soviet Union. If we do need a nucelar deterant, the threat we need it to deter is very different to what Trident was designed to counter, so there is every reason to believe that a different solution may be appropriate. If the Deterrent is designed for small states that may gain a nuclear capability, such as Iran, then it seems to me that a much cheaper solution could still do the job quite well enough.

  • Andrew Suffield 13th Jul '10 - 8:40am

    Trident submarine

    *twitch*

    Trident 2 ballistic missile

    Vanguard submarine

  • There are key questions to be asked about any weapon system. 1) For the forseeable future what is the nature of the threat? Answer: extremely unlikely to be nuclear of the kind we feared during the cold war. 2) Where does the threat arise? Answer: The US seems to think (I believe correctly) that it arises from terrorism. Physical terrorism largely from home grown disaffecteds & international cyberterrorism. 3) Does the proposed system deter if you believe the answers to Q1 & 2? Answer: for the Trident system clearly NO. And so on. Additionally the Trident missile is American & it is inconceivable that we would use it without Washington’s approval so it is not ‘independent’ in any meaningful sense. Would it ever be used as a first strike rather than as a retaliation? Only if we envisage going to war with USA. By any rational analysis the Trident system is now a nonsense & we should not be afraid to continue to vigorously urge this view upon the Coalition.

  • Andrew Suffield 14th Jul '10 - 8:23am

    cyberterrorism

    It doesn’t exist. Pure Hollywood fiction.

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