The Independent View: Trident – when two into four doesn’t go

It is welcome that Danny Alexander is to publish a paper into the alternatives to a like-for-like replacement for Trident this summer. In doing so, the Liberal Democrats have made a sea-change in the transparency of British nuclear weapons policy, which for more than half-a-century has been veiled in official secrecy and occluded behind impenetrable bromides.

But the leaks surrounding the paper suggesting a “Third Way” style compromise on Trident by reducing the number of submarines to two feels hollow. The current four submarine Trident force is the minimum currently required to ensure that one is always at sea on patrol – a posture known as Continuous At-Sea Deterrence (CASD).

The major benefit to CASD is that any potential adversary knows that a first-strike on the Trident base at Faslane near Glasgow will not destroy the entire fleet, leaving an (undetected) submarine to return fire. This certainty of retaliatory capacity is fundamental to the cast-iron logic of nuclear deterrence.

Breaking CASD removes this certainty, and with it, deals a mortal blow to the deterrence argument. Fundamentally, either you need a nuclear deterrent or you don’t; the notion of a part-time deterrent is logical contradiction and an operational nonsense.

Indeed, reliance on two submarines could increase the threat to the UK (by making an effective first strike possible if and when both are in port) and makes nuclear crisis management much more difficult – any decision taken to sail a Trident submarine out of port in the heat of a crisis would be enormously escalatory, just at the time that politically you would want to be deescalating tensions.

It is for these reasons that CentreForum advocated the complete removal of Trident in their paper “Dropping the Bomb” last March. As it shows, with the US-backed NATO nuclear guarantee, Trident does not increase the UK’s security. But pursuing Trident will cost at least £30bn, with the costs of the replacement programme – between one-third and one-half of the likely defence equipment budget from 2018 to 2032 –decimating Britain’s conventional forces.

If anything, a “compromise” of two submarines succeeds in making a bad policy choice worse: going forward the design costs would be the same, the engineering support infrastructure would be similar, leaving only comparatively small savings in build and operations. This quickly leads to a paradox of a policy that generates savings too small to meaningfully reinvest in the conventional forces, but which potentially increases the strategic risks to the UK.

As we design Britain’s forces for the 21st century, the choice is stark: either a like-for-like replacement is required, or the UK steps off the deployed nuclear ladder altogether. The case appears to be clear: if the UK wants to continue to play a leading international role with its conventional forces, it is time for Britain to scrap Trident.

* Professor Stephen Lee was Chief Executive of CentreForum from 2012 – 2015. He is Professor of Non Profit Management at Cass Business School and a proud member of the Liberal Democratic Party

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21 Comments

  • Agreed totally. Although, personally I’d rather see us retain full strength Trident and stop playing an international military role.

  • Geoffrey Payne 4th Jul '13 - 1:15pm

    I agree. We have to accept that we can no longer afford to be a nuclear superpower, and even if we could it would not actually deter anyone from attacking us any more than it would nuclear free Germany. Meanwhile the government has cut the benefits of the poorest people in our society, the latest cut for those who now have to wait seven days before they can start claiming JSA. That saved £0.3Billion, a tiny fraction of what it would cost to replace Trident. So how can we possibly justify wasting taxpayers money like this?

  • If you want to scrap Trident, I suggest you join the YES campaign in Scotland. The SNP are clear that an independent Scotland would throw nuclear weapons out, and the need for a full new nuclear base in (presumably) England to replace Faslane may just tip the balance and make it just too expensive to retain. I could see the UK Government defying the referendum result unless the SNP backed down on Faslane though; just too important.

    I’m no expert on nuclear dynamics, but surely common sense says that if you have 2 subs and a main base in Faslane, you don’t ever have them in that port at the same time. A second docking port (with fewer facilities so much cheaper) could be used with all maintenance taking place at Faslane. There is such a strong political voice, particularly from the Tories, for full replacement, and few voices outside the Lib Dems for full decommissioning that going from all to none in one step would make us feel better but wouldn’t be taken seriously; a reducing proposal might get a hearing, and when it comes to negotiating future budgets it’s a mighty negotiating tool.

  • We dont need this expensive system mothball what u got the bombs dont go away so if needed (never in my view) they thier u have cruse missle from ships and land an air carried carring conventional warheads which can be switched for nucular all this at a massivly lower cost and I question do we need such anyway our best defence is forging political an economic tie’s with all countrys not just europe

  • Nick T Nick Thornsby 4th Jul '13 - 2:13pm

    This is an excellent piece. The review has made the choice very clear: Trident or nothing.

    Primarily because of the cost, I don’t think we should renew. But I also don’t think we now need a nuclear weapon. We are neither the main target of nor the main deterrent to the countries who could potentially pose a threat (particularly North Korea; I’m less worried about Iran).

    And as Hans Blix urged at the Hay Festival recently, ask yourself this: Do you feel safer because of our Trident submarines than a German or a Japanese person? I certainly don’t.

  • The CentreForum report proposed a costed plan of eight interlocking recommendations, which withdraws Trident from service immediately, refocuses AWE Aldermaston’s work on disarmament verification technologies, and invests in the conventional forces to allow the UK to meet its global commitments. As part of this they propose converting the existing submarines to carry conventional cruise missiles to bridge the long range strike gap to the new carriers. It would provide a balanced UK military to maximise our ability to be a force for good worldwide. In the very unlikely case of a new Cold War, it would provide us with the option to return to fielding nuclear weapons.

    The stepping-down to a Nucleat threshold status makes a lot of sense to me and is a proposal that I hope will be examined diligently in the forthcoming paper on Trident this summer.

  • Good post – wrong conclusion.

    My frustration with this whole debate is that it is being taken forward on the basis of redundant theory.
    CASD is an active detterent posture (essentially non-first strike mutually assured destruction) designed during the cold-war to address a particular threat. This is the lens through which Stephen makes his arguments….and yes, under Cold War doctrine of nuclear deterrence (whether it be MAD or minimum) with the UK relying on one platform (just sub, not air or land) CASD at minimum dettrenece levels makes sense.
    But what if you rethink nuclear detterence for the 21st century? What about a posture of dormant detterence.

    Let me explain. The logic of Stephen’s active detterence argument is that Trident is effectively dettering a Cold War style threat as we speak ie if given the chance Russia would launch a first strike on Faslane, crippling the UK’s ability to respond (hence his talk of escalatory tensions and retaliatory response.)

    Yes – this is the cast iron logic of active detterence.

    But I would argue that our active detterent posture is actively deterring no-one – and indeed, that is the Government’s stated position – we face no large scale state based nuclear threat.

    If however we consider the UK’s nuclear weapons capacity as dormant – ie an insurance policy held against a future Cold War type threat – then we open up a whole array of postures that the UK can adopt short of the ‘cast-iron logic’ of an active detterent CASD.

    I’m not saying that dormant detterence is cheap as chips, or without theoretical problems, but it enables us to approach nuclear detterence with a new theoretical framework that is viable for the 21st century.

    The key to dormant detterence is balancing cost with risk (just like any insurance policy) – how much are you willing to pay to get the level of cover you require. It does mean accepting a greater risk to natioanl security than CASD. But I would argue that this is the difference between no risk and next to no risk.

    CASD is Comprehensive cover with all the add ons
    Relying on the US nuclear umbrella is essentiall third party, fire and theft.

    Would a 2 boat Trident fit the bill? Well you don’t save much on capital costs in the big picture. I would argue that you should build all four boats anyway but run a non CASD posture with them. THat would extend their life, keep crews trained, keep technology live, and save money over the life of the system. How much money and would it be enough to take the risk off a non-CASD posture to national security? I’m not in a position to make that judgement – perhaps the published paper will eventually enlighten us.

    But what I am sure of is that we need to develop new nuclear doctrines and new nuclear postures to fit our circumstances – rather than rely on ‘old think’.

    It is not a choice between all singing all dancing Trident or nothing. Don’t be fooled by those who attempt to force this binary choice onto the party.

    Let’s be smarter than that and consider all the options.

  • jenny barnes 4th Jul '13 - 4:13pm

    I thought the point of Trident was that it ensured the US stayed in the game – a nuclear strike by the baddies on the UK, with no-one else involved, but a threat to strike the US if they retaliated for the UK strike just might cause the US to hesitate… So in that scenario Trident avoids an uncertainty.
    What we have now is the certainty, if we upgrade, of spending very large sums of money on an insurance policy that we don’t need any more. Whether it’s 40 or 100 billion, add that to the 50 billion HS2 bill… 10 billion here, 10 billion there, pretty soon you’re talking real money. Which we could use for something more urgent – housebuilding, for example.

  • If we want to cut £2.5bn/year from somewhere where it’s useless why not start by pulling our troops out of Afghanistan? That’d save £3.5bn/year. How about then cutting 10% of our defence spending in general? The RAF don’t need all those Typhoons which we only bought to shoot down Soviet nuclear jets. The Navy really don’t need all those destroyers and frigates. The Army don’t really need 100,000 troops. Small cuts to these could easily pull 10-20% (another £3.5-7bn) in savings.

  • Thomas,

    All those things you are suggesting are happening.

    Troops coming back from Afghanistan – check
    10% defence spending cut – check
    Less typhoons – check
    less frigates – check
    army cut – check

  • A Social Liberal 4th Jul '13 - 10:52pm

    Whilst I am in favour of an independent nuclear deterrent It boils down to one fact. Our need is such that we cannot afford to have nuclear weapons and so we should get rid of them.

  • nuclear cockroach 5th Jul '13 - 8:38am

    @jb

    What funding has been put in place for the Trident replacement programme? As far as I am aware, this government has postponed any decision until after the next General Election. Happy to agree with you that the cost of the Trident replacement programme would be better spent on our conventional armed forces, which at least do something useful from time to time, and are furthermore a much more credible deterrent against armed aggression.

    As for the rest of this discussion, Nick Harvey has said everything that needs to be said for now.

  • Good article, although I agree with Nick Harvey, we should hold fire until we have seen the review and the draft party defence policy paper for the Glasgow conference. I am one who would wish to retain a flexible, multi-response capability with long-reach (a reach that is enhanced by close collaboration with allies beyond NATO) … to me that is more useful and more effective defence position and if we can not afford this along with a so-called “nuclear deterrent”, I think we must concentrate on the former.

  • Eddie Sammon 5th Jul '13 - 10:29am

    I disagree with most of the article for the following reasons:

    1. The nuclear deterrent is not an all or nothing question. It never has been and never will be.
    2. Arguments should be based more on principles rather than technicalities.
    3. It is arguably moral to use them if they are the only way to defend yourself from an imminent attack.

  • Mark Seaman 5th Jul '13 - 6:06pm

    Building a replacement for Trident is not a quick thing to do. Most conventional forces could be built up if there was a major shift in international relations, but I think the problem of getting rid of a system like Trident, is that it would take far too long to replace it if some disastrous turn in world events occurred.
    Clearly it does feel like money wasted when there are so many other things this country needs, but then so does House Insurance until a disaster strikes.
    I agree that a two ship option is a non starter, as even having just one ship at sea seems like an ‘all the eggs in one basket’ scenario.

  • nuclear cockroach 5th Jul '13 - 8:10pm

    @Mark S

    “Most conventional forces could be built up if there was a major shift in international relations”

    Really? How long is the procurement and commissioning process for an aircraft carrier, its complement of combat aircraft and carrier fleet vessels to provide anti-submarine warfare, surface interception, marine deployment and auxiliary services? Decades at current rates. Training for combat cannot be done in a hurry either.

    “the problem of getting rid of a system like Trident, is that it would take far too long to replace it if some disastrous turn in world events occurred”

    Could be done much very much more quickly than a carrier fleet, provided stocks of U235 or Pu239 are retained. I would venture to suggest that once a nation has developed a nuclear weapon and has sufficient stocks of special nuclear material, that nation can never realistically be considered a fully non-nuclear state. Naturally there remain questions regarding the delivery system, but seriously, would anyone attempt to browbeat the UK with a nuclear threat, even if Trident were scrapped altogether? The risk would be too great: a nuclear weapon can just as easily be delivered by parcel post as by ballistic missile, should the need arise. It could certainly be mounted on submarine launched cruise missile, on an air-to-ground missile, in an artillery shell, in a shipping container, in the back of a lorry or even smuggled across a national border by special forces.

    The Trident replacement progamme is, I believe, out of proportion to the current defence budget and to the level of threat which we face from a nuclear missile attack by an identifiable state actor. The programme can always be revived in the future should the threat level change.

  • Mark Seaman 6th Jul '13 - 12:03pm

    the UK already has a system to scan for concealed Nuclear materials ariving via the shipping container/Lorry route. I can’t agree about the relative time-scales to build up conventional vrs nuclear forces. The relevant conventional forces that I was thinking of are primarily Air Superiority fighters, ground forces & Anti-submarine ships, using existing build types.

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