Still Dithering

Norman Dombey on the future of Britain’s nuclear deterrent

On the eve of the Liberal Democrat Party Conference in September the armed forces minister, Nick Harvey, a Lib Dem, told MPs that ‘the government had decided in principle to renew Trident.’ A few days later, Nick Clegg told the conference that he opposed ‘a like-for-like Trident replacement’ and suggested that ‘the money would be better spent on frontline military operations.’ Clegg described Trident as a Cold War weapon, and added: ‘the world has changed.’ Chris Huhne, the energy secretary and, like Clegg, a member of Britain’s new National Security Council, went further in the Sunday Telegraph that same week. ‘I believe you can see alternatives,’ he wrote, ‘such as, for example, putting cruise missiles onto our attack submarines: that is a much cheaper alternative to the development of a whole new generation of Trident missiles.’ Some Conservative MPs were worried by the mixed messages. Julian Lewis, the veteran Cold Warrior who once hired a light aircraft to trail a banner reading ‘Kremlin sends Kongratulations’ over the women’s peace camp at Greenham Common, wrote to the Financial Times: ‘When Conservative MPs met to consider forming the coalition after the general election, the renewal of Trident was listed as a Conservative commitment, which the Liberals accepted … Now we find that the Lib Dems have no intention of keeping their word.’

The coalition agreement does not, in fact, state that Trident should be renewed. ‘We will maintain Britain’s nuclear deterrent,’ it says, ‘and have agreed that the renewal of Trident should be scrutinised to ensure value for money. Liberal Democrats will continue to make the case for alternatives.’ But October’s Comprehensive Spending Review and Strategic Defence Review settled the matter: the government would not make a final decision on Trident renewal in this Parliament. While it was committed in principle to like-for-like renewal, no substantial spending on new submarines or warheads would be made until 2016, after the next election.

Assuming that the UK retains a nuclear weapon capability, what are the submarine-launched alternatives to the US-manufactured and US-maintained Trident missile? (There is no sign that even the RAF is pushing for air-launched systems.) The current Trident system consists of four nuclear-powered submarines, armed with Trident D5 ballistic missiles, based at Faslane on the Gare Loch. The policy of the New Labour government was like-for-like renewal, though it left open whether three or four new submarines would be required. The first of the current generation of submarines to enter service was the Vanguard in December 1994. It was designed to last 25 years; in the 2006 defence White Paper this was extended by five years. Any replacement would be expected to enter service by 2025. If it were decided that three submarines would do, the first replacement would be needed by 2026. Let’s assume it would take ten years to build a submarine and put it through sea trials before it entered service. Then 2016 would indeed be the latest that the first replacement submarine could be ordered. So why did Tony Blair say in his foreword to the 2006 White Paper that ‘the present submarines will start to leave service in the early 2020s and we have to decide now’ – in December 2006 – ‘whether we want to replace them’? The reason seems to be that Gordon Brown was eager to create jobs for BAE shipbuilders in the North-West, while Blair wanted to ensure that the UK would continue in its role as spear-carrier to the US.

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