Nick Harvey writes…Trident: The real gamble with the nation’s security is making a currently purpose-less weapon a financial priority

TridentFor some, there is no greater symbol of the United Kingdom’s enduring role on the world stage and continued military relevance than the Trident nuclear weapons system. For others, Trident is the last unreformed bastion of Cold War thinking. It is a symbol of a bygone era of fear, instability and sky-high defence spending to hedge against an unpredictable Soviet threat.

Despite the Cold War ending; Russia and the UK de-targeting one another; multiple treaties the UK has signed up to committing to a reduction in nuclear weapon stockpiles; and a £100bn price tag which will in time account for 10% of the MoD’s budget while our Armed Forces are in desperate need of updated kit; the Tories and Labour both refuse even to entertain the notion that the status quo might reasonably be questioned.

As evidenced by yesterday’s news, they instead choose to scaremonger and point-score over what might be traded in a future coalition. Top military chiefs have also expressed their disdain at the recent headlines. The two parties are prioritising the impressive feat of kicking around the country’s most expensive political football, rather than participating in a rational conversation about whether the assumptions upon which like-for-like replacement rests are logical or relevant to the threats Britain faces today.

These threats, as identified by 2010’s National Security Strategy, are international terrorism, climate change, cyber-attacks and pandemics. An increasingly bullish Putin, and events in Ukraine, are frequently cited as justification for a new generation of nuclear weapons and continued 24/7 patrols. But becoming a nuclear adversary takes a combination of capability and intent. And while Russia has the capability to strike us with a nuclear weapon, dropping a bomb on us tomorrow would be way wide of Putin’s strategic intent and would have utterly catastrophic consequences for Russia itself. Measured up against all the official criteria, we have not faced a direct nuclear or other major military threat for nearly two decades.

Waving Cold War-era warheads around on the high seas is illogical and incoherent when it comes to terrorist groups like ISIS, who pose far more of a threat to our present-day security than anyone else. Stepping down the nuclear ladder, reducing the number of submarines and ending nuclear patrols would free up cash for conventional capabilities like army equipment or intelligence-gathering that would frankly be far more useful in protecting the UK.

Apologists for full like-for-like replacement of Trident condemn this as ‘gambling with the nation’s security’ and removing the ‘ultimate guarantee’ of our safety. But the opportunity cost of renewing Trident in its current form is staggering. The defence budget is shrinking: in 1980-81 the nuclear deterrent comprised 1.5% of the MoD budget, but today Trident replacement might account for as much as 10%.

A ‘perfect storm’ of bills for major protects coming down the track will compete with expenditure on Trident’s Successor programme for very limited funds: jets for the new aircraft carriers, Type 26 Frigates, and a resolution to the army’s equipment crisis. New remotely piloted aircraft, amphibious shipping, helicopters and enhanced cyber security and intelligence-gathering capacities will all need major investment. We simply can’t afford to do it all, all the while ruling out any more cuts to army numbers. The real gamble with the nation’s security is making a currently purpose-less weapon a financial priority.

No one else will contemplate a future defence policy without full like-for-like Trident renewal apart from the Liberal Democrats. We believe – a view backed up by the assessment of the independent Trident Alternatives Review – that we can come down the nuclear ladder of escalation by ending nuclear patrols of the high seas, procuring fewer Trident replacement submarines and thereby make significant and much needed savings.

* 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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26 Comments

  • £100bn price tag is too high – OK and fair enough.

    So just what IS a justifiable price tag? Lib Dem Trident replacement policy seems an awful lot about what is not OK and very little about what they will actually be proposing.

  • In addition to the UK there are only two governments belonging to NATO which have nuclear weaponry.

    It is time for the UK to come into line with the vast majority of NATO countries.

  • I think that the article is shortsighted and short-termist regards the global threats that the UK face and will come to face.

    I am not a war-monger, we have been very comfortable in the western liberal world that we have forgotten that areas and philosophies in the world would like to destroy our civilization and societies as we live them.

    Creating a successor nuclear deterrent isn’t something that can be done overnight or even in the lifetime of one parliament. This is something that will take 15 to 20 years to develop and the decisions need to be made now. Trident is good for another 15-20 years but we cannot have a situation where once trident is too old to maintain we have nothing to replace it.

    Frankly such long term projects should not be affected or be subject to the present/near future events and considerations. We have had hard times in recent years we might still have tough time for the next 3 or 4… but to allow those factors to effect long term decisions is madness.

    The reason we need an independent nuclear deterrent is because we simply do not know who or what will be genuine threats to the UK in 30 years time, We have no idea what threats will exist in 2045. who could have predicted the rise and threat of fundamental Islam in 1980? who could have predicted the collapse of the USSR? who could have predicted the rise of authoritarian Russia in the last 7 years (when everyone thought Russia was now a part of the global democratic system)

    Huge changes happen over these times scales and it is not right to say, make short term decisions based on events of the day.

    With regards to whether a nuclear weapons system is needed… We in my book it is simple unless you can persuade every nuclear armed nation to destroy their nuclear weapons and information on how to build them in one go then you are putting the UK at an almighty dis-advantage.

    The first priority of any government/executive has to be the safety and the defense of the country. Because if you cannot defend yourselves then there are plenty of others who would like to dictate to us how to live our lives. And they will not be as liberal as we currently are.

    cancelling our nuclear deterrent simply because it costs a lot of money and you can’t see why you would use if in the next 10 years is willful neglect and short-termism in the extreme.

  • John Minard 10th Apr '15 - 6:15pm

    on so many levels, this is not the time to experiment with the first Tory government since 1997!

  • Bill le Breton 10th Apr '15 - 6:44pm

    It is truly a very high price to pay for retaining a seat on the Security Council – because that is all it is really supposed to safeguard.

  • Who is to say what the situation will be in 10, 20, 30 years time? Which states will have nuclear weapons and who will be running them?

  • Denis Mollison 10th Apr '15 - 7:11pm
  • Trident is too important and too expensive to be decided in a general election. Contrary to claims by the Lib Dems, voters do not vote for coalition Governments or any other unforeseen or unexpected consequences of where they place their cross on the ballot paper.

    Trident should be the subject of an all party debate involving appropriate experts and advisors. I have doubts about the Lib Dem cut price proposals. Having one or more armed submarines at sea, anywhere in the world, is an important part of the deterrent. Are the Lib Dems suggesting the active submarine should be berthed at Faslane until needed in an emergency? (Assuming that the SNP do not gain control of the decision to use Faslane as a base.)

  • Peter this is the current LD position (taken from the pre-Manifesto)
    “Retain our Trident independent nuclear deterrent through a Contingency Posture of regular patrols, enabling a ‘surge’ to armed patrols when the international security context makes this appropriate. This would enable us to reduce the UK warhead stockpile and procure fewer Vanguard successor submarines, and would help the UK to fulfil our nuclear non-proliferation treaty commitments.”

  • @ Hywel
    What on earth does that mean? It sounds like wait for an emergency to me.

  • @Peter – I was only responsible for copy and pasting!

    I think it means subs but not continual-at-sea. So when tensions are rising in Ukraine the UK would be putting the nuclear subs to sea – and then a few weeks later when tensions are still high be having to withdraw them from patrols because there wasn’t the cover to keep 24/7/365 at sea patrols.

    Nick says Trident is purposeless. He doesn’t explain why a cut down Trident will be purposeful.

  • Jane Ann Liston 10th Apr '15 - 10:11pm

    I recall that the catalyst to the Falklands invasion was the withdrawal of the ice-breaker (Endurance?) which patrolled the area. This appeared to give the green light to Galtieri, that the UK was looking for ways to withdraw from the Falklands (which was true) and wouldn’t bother if he invaded (which wasn’t). He was not deterred by the UK’s possession of nuclear weapons, it should be noted, and neither was Saddam when he invaded Kuwait. (Nor was the USA when it invaded Grenada, it has to be said.)

    I abhor nuclear weapons, as well as any other weaponry primarily aimed at civilians. However, with Putin rattling his sabre in Ukraine, I have to ask myself, bearing in mind what happened in the Falklands, what message would a complete and unplanned decommissioning of the Trident system send to him? Might he be encouraged to try further annexation, e.g. of the Baltic states?

  • It may be rather wounding to British amour propre to say so, but Putin does not stay up nights thinking about Trident at all, and the absence of Trident would not alter his policy a whit, if he even noticed it. Russia considers the UK only insofar as it is part of NATO.

  • Jonathan Brown 11th Apr '15 - 12:18am

    “These threats, as identified by 2010’s National Security Strategy, are international terrorism, climate change, cyber-attacks and pandemics.”

    Exactly. This is a good article, with the important exception of the conclusion. There IS a huge opportunity cost to renewing Trident. Nukes might be a hedged bet against a resurrgent USSR in 40 years time, but the far more plausible threats. i.e. the ones we ought to prioritise when working out what to spend our money on, are terrorism, climate change, cyber-attacks and pandemics.

    If dropping to 3 subs and deploying them less frequently saved us collosal amounts of money, then our current policy might be a good one. But it saves so little over like for like replacement that it fails on its own terms. Never mind the moral arguments against nukes, or the strategic ones about being ready for a Russian nuclear strike. If our policy doesn’t free up enough money to allow us to meet the threats we know are real, then what’s the point?

  • I agree with Jonathan Brown. I seem to recall that the policy we approved in Glasgow almost 2 years agoonly saved something in the order of £10 billion in life-time costs, out of £100 billion (NB. even on construction, the marginal costs of each submarine decline – as many of the costs are for design and development, setting up the production facilities). We need to move further down the nuclear ladder – not going for submarine replacement at all – but of course we would still have our weapons grade nuclear material, which although requiring R&D expenditures, could still be deployed (within a relatively short time frame). This residual capability would still provide deterrence, but save perhaps £80-90 billion over the lifetime, enabling us to fund the essential broad spectrum defence capabilities that we need.

  • Andrew Purches 11th Apr '15 - 10:21am

    I honestly cannot take on board any rational arguments for keeping the Trident system,other than it is there – and will perhaps have the same symbolic standing as the Brigade of Guards in their peacekeeping duties outside Buck House every day of the week. What does concern me though is that we are about to be fully entrenched in a world wide conflict with the forces of darkness,(ISIS and others), who have started this century’s 100 year war. Without entering into an expensive and immediate campaign to stop these evil bodies in their tracks, the future of our world is doomed, Security Council efforts not withstanding. Nukes will be irrelevant to us all in this coming conflict as ISIS and it’s multiplying supporters,political and financial, already have the upper hand, and here at home not one of our Party Politico have done much more than bury their heads in the desert sands of Arabia

  • Toby Fenwick 11th Apr '15 - 1:26pm

    Forgive me coming late to the debate.

    Jonathan Brown is quite right, the problem with the current policy agreed in the 2013 Glasgow conference is that it doesn’t save any money before about 2027 (construction cost of the fourth submarine) at the cost of a major reduction in capability (and that’s before the strategic and operational incoherence of sailing about unarmed).

    The biggest problem in the Trident debate is that it is presented as a near-binary choice of Trident or unilateralism. The reality, as I outlined in my recent CentreForum paper, is that there are other options that were not fully considered by the Alternatives Review that can meet the Cold War minimum deterrence criteria. This would save £5-13bn for the conventional forces, as well as considerably enhancing their capabilities as part of the nuclear force.

    The paper is here:

  • Toby Fenwick 11th Apr '15 - 1:27pm
  • Ron Stafford 11th Apr '15 - 7:24pm

    John. Concur

  • Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons. That didn’t work out too well for them.

  • Ukraine has changed my mind.

  • I have been a liberal all my life but feel I can longer support any party that will spend money on Trident. We do not have the money to look after ourselves properly. Trident is one gigantic fig leaf allowing our politicians to behave as if we are a world power.

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