Opinion: Where does the Trident debate go from here?

In the Spring of 2011 I submitted a motion to conference. It was not selected for debate:

Conference notes that:

(i) The Coalition agreement states: “We will maintain Britain’s nuclear deterrent and have agreed that the renewal of Trident should be scrutinised to ensure value for money. The Liberal Democrats will continue to make the case for alternatives.”

(ii) Conference in September last year resolved, among other things, to: “Press for the extension of the SDSR to allow a full review of the alternatives to ‘like-for-like replacement of Trident.”

(iii) The final decision on a replacement for the Vanguard-class submarines has been deferred to 2015 or thereabouts.

(iv) At present, there is no properly-researched alternative to Trident-armed Ballistic Missile submarines.

Conference calls on the Ministry of Defence to:

1.            Perform a full analysis of the alternative ways of providing the UK with a nuclear deterrent other than the simple like-for-like replacement of the Vanguard class submarines armed with Trident.

2.            This analysis should include, but not be restricted to, consideration of a fleet of dual-purpose submarines armed with nuclear- and conventional cruise missiles.

3.            To determine what technological, legal, procedural and other obstacles lie in the way of the UK acquiring a dual-purpose fleet of submarines, and what means exist of overcoming those obstacles.

4.            To complete this analysis by the end of 2012 and to publish an edited version of the analysis for parliamentary, public and professional scrutiny.

Fortunately a senior member of the party took note and it became government policy.  My political objective was to determine if there really was a cheaper way of providing the UK with a nuclear deterrent and save the hard-pressed conventional forces from further financial pressure. There is no chance of getting parliament to approve unilateral disarmament any time soon, it’s simply a question of what system do we have. In truth, I was convinced that submarine-based cruise missiles must prove to be a cheaper option. Israel already has such a force and France has the elements of such a force as well as 4 ballistic missile subs. I was disappointed. The two killer facts are that Trident warheads are not suitable for use in cruise missiles and that it would take 24 years or more to develop a suitable warhead. The Vanguard-class submarines cannot remain in service that long and a couple of new ballistic missiles subs would have to be bought as a stop-gap. The huge cost of these subs is precisely what we want to avoid.

So, this battle is lost. This Review closes down the debate; it is not going to shift any Conservative or Labour MPs and it is hard to see the like-for-like replacement of Trident not going ahead. We need now to throw the ball back into our opponent’s court and demand that they explain how they are going to afford Trident without inflicting further cuts on the conventional forces, cuts they cannot withstand without big capability losses.

* Steve Coltman is parliamentary spokesperson for Loughborough and an Executive member of the Association of Liberal Democrat Engineers and Scientists although he writing here in a personal capacity.

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20 Comments

  • Peter Davies 26th Jul '13 - 1:11pm

    “it would take 24 years or more to develop a suitable warhead” doesn’t sound much like a fact to me.

  • jedibeeftrix 26th Jul '13 - 2:56pm

    ah steve, so it was you that was responsible for railroading the review down dual-capable with cruise, rather than simply dual-capable with some form of nuke. How different things could have been.

    as to the last question; easy, if necessary cut welfare further. Although, as things stand it is all funded, provided we continue to meet the nato commitment of 2.0% of gdp.

    we are still committed to that, right?

  • nuclear cockroach 26th Jul '13 - 3:18pm

    @jb

    You always come out with this utterly trite, “if necessary cut welfare further,” but never dare suggest what exactly you would cut from the welfare budget. Help for the blind? Or the old age pension? What?

    How about we just cut Trident altogether and use the two billion annual saving to help plug the budget deficit? At least the deficit is actually a clear danger to our national defenses, unlike the rather fanciful idea that we are going to be held to a nuclear ransom by Russia, when all they really would have to do is cut off the gas supply to Western Europe.

  • Steve Coltman 26th Jul '13 - 4:08pm

    Caractacus: I too was astonished to learn it would take 24 years for the UK to get what Israel & France already have. The Review says worse, 24 years is the time taken to develop the warhead for vertically-launched missile, to get one for a horizontally-launched missile (as would have to be the case with existing subs) a low-radiation warhead is needed due to close proximity to the crew. Even longer to develop. However, the Cleggs, Camerons and Millibands of this world have little choice but to take the Review at face value, the ‘fact’ of 24 years is a fact so far as politics is concerned.
    jedibeeftrix : I did not railroad the Review, I simply insisted they include the cruise missile option among others. I am surprised the “Hotel/Golf” option was not considered (Google “Hotel class submarine” and you will see what I mean). That sort of dual purpose ballistic missile / hunter-killer subs might have been an option. So far as the Defence Policy Working Group is concerned, yes, we are still committed to 2% of GDP.

  • It doesn’t matter what any other party thinks on this one. It matters what we think as Lib Dems.

    It is a perfectly defensible policy to say there is now no threat to which Trident or its replacement are appropriate. We can’t afford it, so we’re going to join the great majority of the world and be a non-nuclear weapons state.

    The money can be far more effectively spent on conventional defense, to obviate the need for further cuts in welfare and to boost the green economy.

    Simples

  • NukedOnTheAve 26th Jul '13 - 5:54pm

    Well, if you don’t get paid by trade unions and you don’t get paid by millionaires, then you should get paid by products considering where they legitimately come from. So its a matter of feasibility and viability. The problem with that is even if a feasible and viable political solution without direct commitment, by definition is a product by design, for Syra has been found, the Coalition are not prepared to even discuss the technical details. Proper discussions have to take place from various sides so that other considerations are accounted in deciding that HS2 etc for instance are products standing on its own merits and reasonable terms. These are implied in the broader range of policies’ power to weight ratio considerations and designs, without which LibDems would be plucking the holes come 2015. So I rest my case cause if LibDems are not going to cover appropriately reasoned issues and people, what are LibDems doing now and how good are your words now and then? It is still legitimate to think and act proper, right? Oh, I forgot about the holy ‘grail’ of dinosours that ate frozen bits in Russia. Which is why you actually need a comprehensive solution, not the past kick it down the road.

  • nuclear cockroach 26th Jul '13 - 11:43pm

    @jb

    “little lib-dem group think exercise” vs. “remove the ring-fence from the NHS and subject it to a little creative destruction”

    Typical Tory who doesn’t realise that he’s contradicting his own party’s official policy! The NHS ring-fence is Tory policy; the Lib Dem policy is that all departments should find efficiencies, rather than butchering some, whilst featherbedding others. Mind you, with a rapidly aging population, the idea that one could pay for Trident by efficiencies in the NHS budget is naive (at best).

  • nigel quinton 27th Jul '13 - 12:04pm

    How about we stop worrying about what others think, and campaign for what we believe in. There is no compelling reason for the UK to maintain the myth of an independent nuclear deterrent. It is no deterrent to the threats we now face, and it has never been independent of the US. So there is no defence argument for us not to join the rest of Western Europe (other than France) in relying on NATO for nuclear protection without any weapons of our own.

    I was a multi-lateralist during the cold war and whilst I still believed that we could achieve some degree of overall reduction in warheads by trading our capability down; but I am now convinced we would be safer without our own nuclear arsenal. I suspect that a significant number, possibly even a substantial majority, of our members think likewise. And I do not believe it s a vote loser, not in today’s much changed world, certainly not from the conversations I had on the doorstep and at hustings in the 2010 campaign. So lets push for unilateral disarmament now and get back to being a bold party rather than the timid clots that our ‘leadership’ are trying to turn us into.

  • Mike Falchikov 27th Jul '13 - 12:37pm

    Nigel Quinton, Peter Tyzack and others – agree with you a bsolutley. What’s the point in haivng our own tiny nuclear force and who are we aiming at anyway? WE had no trouble in having this as the official Liberal policy for 30 odd years.
    But what chance of debating this alternative at conference?

  • Not at all happy with the current Lib Dem conclusion (per Danny Alexander, although I like him in many other ways). Is there not a defence policy motion in Glasgow? Is all not lost?

  • The debate seems to have got stuck on only considering Trident and a like-for-like replacement. If we are really to move beyond Trident we need to seriously consider a future without Trident (or similar) and what we need and could do to protect our interests – I’m not talking about a dream world but hard nosed and grounded thinking, some of which we can start putting into practise so as to facilitate a future scrapping of Trident (or it’s replacement).

  • nuclear cockroach 28th Jul '13 - 10:04am

    @jb

    You seem to be under the misapprehension that voters all think as you do. A little education, dear chap: they don’t.

    It’s perfectly reasonable for electoral reasons, alone, for the Lib Dems to propose scrapping our nuclear weapons, say. In fact, given most polls of public opinion over the last decade or so indicating a plurality against renewing Trident, it’s probably a vote winner.

    Just like it would be for the Conservatives or Labour, if they had the intelligence, the ethics, the imagination and the courage – but don’t hold your breath waiting!

  • We need to separate the issues of CASD (that many view as an outdated cold war strategy) and the strategic importance of maintaining an independent nuclear weapons capability in the UK.

    The trident review should offer the opportunity for considering how we can meet our obligations under the nuclear non-proliferation treaty and take concrete steps towards longer-term nuclear disarmament.

    Whether or not a decision is taken to step down the UK’s nuclear strike capability in the next parliament, we need to retain our focus on expanding the creation of Nuclear Weapons Free Zones in non-nuclear weapons states beginning with a NWFZ for Central and Eastern Europe

    Long-term middle-east peace proposals should include serious planning for a Nuclear Weapons Free Zone in the middle-east and the Indian sub-continent.as proposed by Iran. Simulataneous planning should be undertaken for a NWFZ in North Asia to encompass both Japan and the Korean peninsula.

    Effective containment of nuclear weapons proliferation is the only feasible route thay may someday offer the prospect of a European-wide nuclear weapons free zone. If and when, Israel, Iran, India, Pakistan and North Korea have abandoned nuclear weaponisation, the way will be clear for the UK, France and potentially China to follow suit, leaving the two main players, Russia and the US to engage in SALT negotiations aimed at significant elimination of nuclear warhead stockplies.

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