Trident: it’s déjà vu all over again

The latest flurry of excitement about the Trident nuclear deterrent — as the Daily Mail puts it with typical tabloid restraint: Tories and LibDems at war over contract to build Trident sub: £350m deal is jumping the gun, warns Clegg — is one of those stories which pops up twice a year. The last time was six months ago, in May, when the Ministry of Defence announced £350m-worth of design contracts for the Trident successor submarines had been signed. As then Lib Dem defence minister Nick Harvey pointed out on LDV at the time:

[this] 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.

As Nick Harvey went on to point out, all that’s happening at the moment is that the Coalition Agreement is being followed exactly as set out in its text:

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.

That remains the position, the same today as it was six months ago. As I wrote shortly after Nick Harvey was reshuffled out of Defence just a few weeks ago:

The North Devon MP has been a victim of his own success. So shrewdly has he overseen the Trident nuclear weapons review — the crunch defence decision which divides Lib Dems and Tories — that it is highly likely to produce more effective, better value deterrent options, with a final decision not needed until 2016, after the next election. We hear often enough about rewards for failure. Nick Harvey just encountered punishment for success.

I don’t often quote Polly Toynbee, but I’ll make an exception this once:

Tim Farron, the Lib Dem president, says it is inconceivable his party would ever be “handcuffed to Trident”. He tells me, “We are making this an election issue for 2015”, boasting that “we have already prevented a vast amount of money being wasted on it in this parliament.” Nick Clegg said yesterday that he would prevent the spending of “billions and billions and billions of pounds on a nuclear missile system designed with the sole strategic purpose of flattening Moscow at the press of a button”. … we know where everyone stands – except Labour. Deep policy thought is in progress. Ask, and it all depends who you talk to. Some in Labour are nuclear-heads because they occupy seats such as John Woodcock’s Barrow, a one-industry town dependent on defence. Others are nuclear out of strong conviction a unilateralist Labour would be dead at the polls. Probably no one in Labour actually believes we need a Trident replacement for national defence – only for political defence of Labour. The higher theology of nuclear weapons was always about face, status and politics.

We know what the Tory position is: pro-nukes no matter what the cost or whether they’re needed because they believe in the appearance of strong defence more than the reality. We know the Lib Dem position: in favour of a smart, effective — and cost-effective — replacement for Trident. The interesting question is which way will Labour now jump? Will they place a higher premium on defending themselves from the usual Tory attacks than they do on adopting a rational policy? They’ve a couple of years to make their minds up.

* Stephen was Editor (and Co-Editor) of Liberal Democrat Voice from 2007 to 2015, and writes at The Collected Stephen Tall.

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  • Richard Church 30th Oct '12 - 2:15pm

    If a nuclear deterrent secures our permanent seat on the UN security council, should Israel, Pakistan and North Korea be admitted too?

    Who do you think might contemplate invading the UK and under what circumstances, since that is your justification for a UK nuclear deterrent? Do you think it is more likely that Canada would be invaded, since it dosen’t have a nuclear deterrent? If Trident does give us protection from such a risk, then why shouldn’t other countries have a claim to the same protection and further nuclear prolifereation?

  • Gareth Jones 30th Oct '12 - 7:37pm

    @ Jedi – or… We can build 12 nuclear submarines with common missiles compartments, fill with them cruise missiles (or other capabilities) which can actually support expeditionary operations and put the nukes in the cupboard in case we need them in the future…

  • Gareth Jones 30th Oct '12 - 9:31pm

    Ah – thought you were arguing for keeping CASD. In fact we agree.

  • Old Codger Chris 31st Oct '12 - 2:36pm

    It will take something unexpected to “deter” the next government – Tory or Coalition or Labour – from renewing Trident while reducing our conventional forces to a pitifully small remnant.

    Jedibeeftrix does well to remind us that some kind of nuclear-lite arrangement would not save money. I cannot for the life of me see why Britain requires any kind of nuclear deterrent and I don’t believe it is truly independent of the USA. If we DO need these weapons money shouldn’t be an issue – defence of the realm must be maintained (almost) regardless of cost.

  • Paul McKeown 1st Nov '12 - 6:09pm

    @JB “1. A nuclear deterrent – no-one can EVER contemplate invading the British Isles”

    The UK’s declaratory policy explicitly forbids any first use. That was one of William Hague’s first statements to Parliament as Foreign Secretary – a post, incidentally, which I think he has mostly filled with distinction. So the UK’s possession of nuclear armaments provides no defense to any conventional military threat. Neither Trident or its replacement can ever substitute for the need for credible conventional armed forces; at worst they degrade those conventional forces by starving them of funding. One point I would raise is that British sovereign territory has been occupied on several occasions since becoming a nuclear power; the solution to the Falklands crisis did not involve nuking Buenos Aires, despite headlines in the Sun, but a resolute conventional response from highly trained, highly motivated sailors, marines, airmen and soldiers with superior conventional armaments.

  • Paul McKeown 3rd Nov '12 - 2:27pm

    “Do. Not. Be. Utterly. Ridiculous.”

    Seems I touched a nerve. Thanks for the rant.

    Actually, I do not believe for a moment that any Prime Minister would contemplate using nuclear weapons in revenge for the UK being occupied by a foreign power. In one case, the UK would invite massive retaliation likely to result in the end of British culture and its people for ever. On the other case, the British people would have the opportunity to resist and would ultimately be able to overthrow the invading power and re-establish its sovereignty.

    I think you are plain wrong when you state that the nuclear declaratory policy can be changed on a whim: it’s actually a rational statement of what’s best for the country for now, and for all time. The threat of first use against a non-nuclear power would outrage public and political opinion, here and everywhere else around the globe. First use against another nuclear power or a threshold state would be suicidal. First use is precluded.

    I really don’t think you have thought at all deeply about the issue, but instead rely on unthinking reflexes built up during the Cold War.

    And no, in your words, I am not a woolly-jumpered pacifist. I just happen to have come to the conclusion that Britain’s possession of nuclear weapons actually harms our defense interests as it reduces our outlay on genuinely useful conventional armaments. Britain as a threshold state could never be subject to nuclear blackmail; we would always be capable of redeveloping and threatening to deliver our nuclear Vergeltungswaffe with devastating effect within a matter of months of any looming crisis, provided we retained stocks of weapons regrade fissionable material.

  • Jedibeeftrix 3rd Nov '12 - 3:35pm

    Those quotes are from Page 37 of the SDSR.

    They demonstrate your stated position to be wrong.

    It is that simple.

  • Old Codger Chris 3rd Nov '12 - 3:42pm

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but I thought that when the USA and UK first began deploying nukes it was for the purpose of deterring a Soviet invasion of western Europe utilising the Warsaw Pact’s considerable advantage in conventional forces. It was openly stated that if Soviet tanks rolled into Austria (for example) the West would unleash its nukes. The USA has never, I believe, promised that it wouldn’t strike first.

    How is this relevant to today’s situation? And how does an independent British deterrent (if it is independent, which I doubt) make us safer?

    Mention of the Falklands is interesting since we couldn’t assemble such a task force today. Let’s hope that Argentina’s sabre rattling is no more than………sabre rattling.

  • Paul McKeown 3rd Nov '12 - 4:32pm

    It’s quite funny talking to someone prepared to paint a Union Jack on their backside, sit on it and propose to use it as an instrument of thought.

    In some ways I don’t really care. We’ll never use it – it is entirely useless in any military sense. So the fact that we have it makes me shrug my shoulders. It’s more a case of trying to establish what taxes people are prepared to raise to pay for it or which government programmes they are prepared to cut. As it is the military budget is under extraordinary pressure, indeed our government has committed to funding the development of two new aircraft carriers, without actually being able to commit to funding the aircraft needed to make the carriers useful. And the SDSR cut lots of genuinely useful (and even necessary) military platforms. To speak of the UK currently having a genuine expeditionary capacity is silly. Yes, we can commit soldiers to foreign shores, but only if other nations are prepared to carry them their, house them their, provide them with effective air defence and battlefield intelligence. Etc. In the meantime we don’t even have an genuinely effective means of patrolling our own coastal waters.

    So, as usual, the discussion will involve the usual obfustication. No one is prepared to say how we will fund anything, yet no one is prepared to make any meaningful statement of level of ambition. Instead we get half-baked efforts like the SDSR, which just pulled the emergency brake from a position of fiscal chaos, chop out a lot of stuff and leave behind a jumble with huge capability gaps, so that the whole thing doesn’t hang together. Then we start with the next round of unfinanced promises. And so it goes on.

  • Paul McKeown 3rd Nov '12 - 4:34pm

    Urrgh. “there” not “their”. Sry.

  • A credible invasion of the UK could only be mounted by a major naval power that controlled a piece of the coastlines between Bergen and Brest. While a nuclear arsenal might be successful at destroying a fleet anchored at, say, Rotterdam, it could also be very effective at spreading radioactive fallout over southeast England, including London — even without a nuclear reprisal in response.
    Of course, if Scotland attained independence, the fearless leaders could always contemplate an invasion from that quarter and order their weapons retargeted against Edinburgh and Glasgow.

  • @Jedi “The falklands did not represent an existential threat to the survival of the UK of GB & NI, so threatening nuclear retaliation was never appropriate or credible.”

    The SNP represents an existential threat – perhaps you wish to nuke them.

  • Paul McKeown 4th Nov '12 - 11:36am


    Unevidenced? No, a statement of the bleeding obvious. You cannot threaten the first use of nuclear weapons against a nuclear armed or threshold state, as that is a death wish. You cannot threaten the first use of nuclear weapons against a non-nuclear armed state, as that is monstrous, and you would outrage opinion in this country and across the world. To say that you can is merely tub-thumping fantasy, an adolescent fever of the imagination.

    The sole purpose of a nuclear weapon is second strike. We even call it the “nuclear deterrent”. A weapon of revenge which is so horrendous that no one(*) contemplate using them against us in the first place, for fear of the consequences. Whether anyone would actually threaten to use them against us in the first place is,,itself, a moot question. The considerations concerning their first strike use apply to other nations, too. Naturally some nations are more subject to public and global outrage than others, but then, we will always be a threshold state, anyway, so it would be difficult for an enemy to be sure that a devastating revenge attack would not take place.

    One can argue how necessary a deterrent is. To suggest, though, that we have (or need) a first strike nuclear capability is nonsense, because the concept of a nuclear first strike by a democracy such as our own is a clear nonsense. And there are certainly any number of retired senior military staff prepared to question the utility of Trident in the first place.

    Anyway, you have stated that you would chop welfare further to fund it – although you don’t say specifically what you would cut, just the easy, amorphous target of “welfare”. Not payments to the blind, nor support to parents, nor support to the unemployed, or whatever. Well, that make be a fine election slogan, one which I doubt will be used by the pro-nuclear weapons parties, so as usual a General Election campaign with rank dishonesty from the off.

    (*) naturally this only applies to identifiable enemies, such as state actors. If you can’t identify who has carried out an attack, naturally you cannot revenge yourself on it.

  • Paul McKeown 4th Nov '12 - 2:34pm

    And Judy, lets cut to the chase. The statement to Parliament was clear enough: “We are now able to give an assurance that the UK will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapon states parties to the NPT.” The UK will not use nuclear weapons against those not armed with them. As to the idea that we will use nuclear weapons against another state which itself has a nuclear arsenal, I don’t think it requires much of a military mind to see the flaws in that one. Daft.

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