William Wallace writes…The case has not been made for a like-for-like replacement of Trident

110301-N-7237C-009Jeremy Corbyn’s arrival as Labour leader will make it easier for the right-wing, in politics and media, to dismiss all criticism of the decision on replacing Trident that Parliament will make next year as wacky. Yet there are many, within the expert defence community as well as outside, who think that committing a third of the UK’s defence procurement budget, over a decade, to the replacement of a system designed for a contingency that no longer exists, is unjustifiable.

Liberal Democrats in the coalition examined the case for alternatives, against stubborn Conservative opposition. Next week the Liberal Democrat conference will debate what response to give to Conservative determination to press on with a full four-submarine programme, while cutting military spending elsewhere.

Britain’s nuclear deterrent was developed, early in the Cold War, to defend Western Europe – above all West Germany – against Soviet attack. The ‘Moscow criterion’ was essential to its rationale; for an ‘independent’ British deterrent to be credible, in the hypothetical circumstances of American failure to guarantee nuclear retaliation in response to Soviet invasion, Britain alone could destroy the core of the Soviet state. Behind this rationale, the UK independent deterrent was also from the outset about international status: our claim to remain a global power, to be America’s key partner on this side of the Atlantic, to walk taller on the world stage than Germany, France, Italy and other NATO members.

25 years ago the cold war ended, Soviet forces withdrew from central Europe, and the USSR collapsed. With that also collapsed the rationale for maintaining the capability to knock Moscow out in a second strike, guaranteed by four submarines, at least one continuously patrolling at sea. Arguments about status still linger – that our UN Security Council seat would be at risk without Trident, that we would fall behind the French, that Washington would no longer listen to us. No government since 1990 has however provided a new military rationale. A threat from Iran now seems less plausible; an alleged threat from North Korea was never credible.

Our Conservative government has opted out of negotiations with Russia over the future of Ukraine. It talks in unilateralist terms about ‘bombing ISIS’, as if Britain alone remains a key player in the Middle East. It seems determined to deny that Britain is committed to European defence, or to continued political cooperation with our European partners. The size of the army, the working ships of the navy, the air transport needed to support operations in weak and failing states across Africa, are all being cut; but the nuclear deterrent, the badge of Britain’s claim to stand alone in the world, is to be sustained.

Liberal Democrats reject these competing unilateral stances. We hold that Britain’s security can only be maintained in cooperation with our neighbours. We will debate at our Bounremouth conference the threats that Britain and its partners now face, and the spending priorities these imply. The last Security and Defence Review listed terrorism, climate change, state collapse leading to migration, pandemic diseases, and trans-national crime as Tier One threats. Nuclear sabre-rattling from a distant and economically-weak Russia is not a threat to Britain – above all not to a country drifting away from engagement with the European continent. We are committed to common defence, within NATO, rather than posturing about Britain standing alone. And we insist on addressing the opportunity costs that the Conservative government is sweeping aside.

British defence spending is under acute strain. Liberal Democrats, unlike the Conservatives, will address the best way of ensuring that the UK prioritises resources to meet post-cold war threats. There is a case for maintaining a nuclear capability, against the distant prospect of an emerging threat in 10-20 years’ time. The case has not been made for a like-for-like replacement, continuously patrolling under the sea in response to threats and claims to status that were defined before most of the population of Britain today were born.

* William Wallace is Liberal Democrat spokesman on constitutional issues in the Lords.

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  • The threat of nuclear attack never went away – it just became old hat.
    It’s because we have access to these weapons, and the peace they bought, that there is safe space to argue for their decommissioning.

    To me, it seems that they are somewhat like vaccines, in that they are a victim of their success. Just because we don’t suffer from Measles anymore, doesn’t mean that we should not vaccinate.
    Just because there is no obvious nuclear threat now, does not mean that one is not out there nor will develop.

  • Leon Duveen 17th Sep '15 - 3:28pm

    We no longer have an independent nuclear deterrent and could only use Trident, or any full or partial replacement for it for that matter, with the permission of the US.
    This being the case there is no purpose served by replacing Trident with any nuclear capability and the money saved going to bolster our conventional forces & replace other expenditure now being cut.
    There is the chance on Monday to make not replacing Trident party police in debate F27, please support that motion

  • @Leon Duveen “We no longer have an independent nuclear deterrent and could only use Trident, or any full or partial replacement for it for that matter, with the permission of the US.”


    Trident warheads are part of a stock maintained by the US. Once they are onboard ship the decision to launch is made by the British PM.

  • David Evershed 17th Sep '15 - 3:58pm

    There is a current potential threat from the nuclear powers of Russia, Pakistan and N. Korea.

    Conventional armaments are not a deterrent to any potential attacking nuclear power.

    The suggestion to spend the money saved on a nuclear deterrent on conventional arms is not logical because the conventional arms would not deter a potential attack from a nuclear power.

    Partnering with the USA is the best way of acquiring a nuclear deterrent at an affordable price.

    Without a policy of being able to defend ourselves against potentially hostile nuclear forces we should not expect any elector to vote for the Lib Dems.

  • Eddie Sammon 17th Sep '15 - 4:05pm

    I keep changing my mind on which exact policy I support, but I know I am against any gesture that signals a weakening of the UK’s defences. The arguments that appeal to me are ones about strengthening conventional forces and reducing the risk of nuclear terrorism.

    I think the current motion, although it allows for the possibility of most of the savings going back on defence, it doesn’t explicitly say so, so unless it explicitly safeguards against Britain’s hard power being significantly reduced then I think it should be voted against.

  • ” The case has not been made for a like-for-like replacement”

    But we’re not replacing the Trident nuclear deterrent, we are merely maintaining it!
    The replacement of a submarine fleet capable of acting as a Trident missile launch system (among other things) will enable the Trident nuclear deterrent to continue in active service until its intended end of life in circa 30 years.

    The problem which I’ve not seen adequately addressed, is what to do then! Because due to the success of the nuclear test ban treaty, we are unable to conduct tests on our existing warheads (hence why it is highly unlikely that the Trident warheads will get any extension to their life) and probably more importantly tests on any possible replacement warhead…

    Hence whilst there is a debate to be had about the relevance of Trident in today’s geopolitics, to me the real debate is are we doing enough now to create a civilised world without Trident?

  • Leon Duveen 17th Sep '15 - 4:48pm

    @Tabman and who contriols the guidance system the missiles need? That wouldn’t be the Americans would it, who may well not decide not to allow our “indepnedant” missles to use it if they didn’t agree with their use?

  • Ed Maxfield 17th Sep '15 - 4:49pm

    I remember the ‘William Wallace is innocent’ badges from 1986 assembly… 🙂

  • Kevin White 17th Sep '15 - 5:50pm

    I seem to recall Tim saying something about spending on Trident being like “giving P45s to our boys and girls” in the armed forces. That’s certainly what we’re doing if we support either of the amendments and don’t back the Scrapping Trident motion.

  • Conor McGovern 17th Sep '15 - 7:33pm

    Well said – it’s another relic past its sell-by date, like the monarchy. Let’s back the scrap Trident policy and focus on what our under-resourced armed forces and public services need in 21st century Britain!

  • Jonathan Pile 17th Sep '15 - 8:32pm

    Not convinced on Trident replacement being affordable. SNP Threat to Faslane means we might need to look at an England base for long term such as Devonport or barrow in Furness , where Subs made. Study needs to be made to look at cheaper options : perhaps building astute class subs & retrofitting. We might seek to look at a return to more delivery options : RAF airborne missile , Navy SSN cruise or trident & Army cruise missiles. A multi lateral creative approach needed with still retains deterrent

  • As expected, much common sense and thoughtfulness from William

  • Leon Duveen: While I’m no fan of Trident, the guidance system the D5 missile uses is a combination of inertial guidance and starmapping, the missiles don’t use GPS (unless they’ve been upgraded in secret which is possible I suppose). But even then US removed it’s own Selective Availability capability to limit access to GPS in 2000.

    A lot of people don’t realise that UK Trident subs don’t require any launch codes to fire. Technically they don’t even require authorisation from London at all, if the onboard Commanding Officer, Weapons Officer and XO all agree they can launch (see the letter of last resort)

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