It is extraordinary that, even at a time of intense pressure on Britain’s defence budget, questioning the biggest, most expensive, unique, controversial weapons system – one whose rationale depends on it never being used – carries the risk of being treated like the characters in an old Bateman cartoon – mocked or embarrassed for offending traditional manners.
Things are about to change – mainly, though not only, because of a real possibility that the SNP, which is strongly opposed to Trident, gains a pivotal role in a new House of Commons.
The main reason why hitherto any Trident challenger has appeared like a Bateman character is that the leaders of the two main parties, Conservative and Labour, are committed to building a fleet of four new Trident submarines equipped with intercontinental ballistic missiles armed with nuclear warheads.
So great was the intent to close down a debate over Trident that it was excluded from Labour’s 1998 Strategic Defence Review, and from its successor, the Tory-LibDem coalition’s 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR). There are no plans to include Trident in the next, post election, SDSR due at the end of the year.
Though the first sea lord, Admiral Sir George Zambellas, makes it plain that in his view the navy must keep its role as the only provider of British nuclear weapons, the heads of the three armed forces are officially banned from joining the debate because, as they put it, whether to renew Trident or not is a “political, not a military, decision”. (Thus, they argue, money spent on Trident should not come out of the defence budget but from a separate account, a suggestion the chancellor, George Osborne, has rejected.)
A useless status symbol?
The shadow defence secretary, Vernon Coaker, made a point of insisting in an otherwise off-the-record meeting run by the think tank, ResPublica, in December, that a Labour government would replace Britain’s four existing Trident submarines and maintain a “continuous at sea deterrent” (CASD) – a policy identical to the Conservatives’. It is unclear whether the Labour leadership’s position is determined by domestic political reasons – to avoid being accused of being weak on national security – or whether it actually believes that Trident is a credible nuclear deterrent. Even Tony Blair, in his memoirs, A Journey, conceded that “the expense is huge and the utility … non-existent in terms of military use”. In the end he thought giving up Trident would be “too big a downgrading of our status as a nation”.
The claim that possession of nuclear weapons enhances a country’s status is not only a dangerous provoker of proliferation. It is fallacious. The British establishment may shrink from the idea of France being the only EU country with nuclear weapons. Whatever the Elysée or Quai d’Orsay may think, that does not increase one iota France’s influence in international affairs. Status depends on economic power, many other forms of soft power, and armed forces that are relevant and appropriate. Abandoning nuclear weapons would not, as some suggest, affect Britain’s permanent membership of the UN security council since Britain would have a veto against any attempt to expel it. Any such attempt would, of course, do little to enhance the security council’s reputation.
According to authoritative estimates, by the early 2020s a new Trident system will account for more than a third of Britain’s entire defence equipment budget. Trident’s capital costs are estimated to amount to £50bn, and the running costs of operating the system some £1.5bn annually over a 30-year life span, making a total approaching £100bn. Michael Fallon, the defence secretary, told MPs in January he “did not recognise” the £100bn figure, (adding that it was not possible for him to put a total figure on the cost of replacing Trident.)
Though parliament will not vote on a decision to go ahead with a new Trident system until 2016, the Ministry of Defence (with the Treasury’s permission) has spent more than £3bn on what the MoD calls “long lead items” for a new nuclear weapons system, thereby allowing proponents of Trident to argue that since so much has already been spent, it would be a waste of money not to go ahead with the project.
Britain’s annual defence budget of some £36bn is already skewed by spending on two large aircraft carriers (estimated to cost more than £6bn or three times the original estimate in the1998 defence review). An unknown amount will be spent on an unknown quantity of American F35 Joint Strike Fighters, estimated to cost £70m each, to fly from the carriers.
Real external threats
These weapons systems are not the kind that’s useful in combatting what both government and defence chiefs say are the real threats to Britain’s security – namely, terrorism, extreme jihadists, cyber attacks, Putin’s Russia. What Britain (and other European countries) needs more of are not nuclear bombs but special forces on the ground, experienced soldiers to train armies of countries threatened by violent terrorism, drones (used appropriately), and small fast surface ships to combat pirates and other international criminal gangs feeding west African jihadists with drugs and cash.
In Britain, meanwhile, the RAF’s most modern aircraft – the Eurofighter/Typhoon, whose cost has increased from an estimated £7bn when it was first conceived in 1988 to £30bn today – is still unable to carry the most modern and accurate bombs, in a task undertaken in the fight against Isis in northern Iraq by 30-year-old Tornado jets.
Britain does not have the weapons it needs, and nuclear weapons, the most powerful and devastating ones it does have, are stockpiled to deter, not to be used.
A long-overdue debate about Britain’s nuclear weapons will get going after the election – maybe even during the campaign. The Liberal Democrats suggested in 2013 that Britain should “step down the nuclear ladder” and save money by ending its cold war posture of round-the-clock (CASD) patrols by a nuclear-armed submarine. Earlier this month, the LibDem-leaning think tank, CentreForum, suggested scrapping Trident (PDF) and replacing it with free fall nuclear bombs placed on dual-purpose F35 aircraft, an alternative to Trident that would save many billions of pounds.
Ed Miliband is also said to be looking at ways to save money on Trident. His potential backbenchers have already decided on a more radical course: 75% of Labour PPCs want to see Trident scrapped, according to a survey by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND). CND have surveyed 79 Labour prospective parliamentary candidates – both current MPs and new candidates.
Cost is not the only issue. For nuclear weapons to be credible as a deterrent, they have to be “useable”. It was “inconceivable”, Sir Nick Harvey, the former LibDem armed forces minister, told the Commons in one of its rare debates on nuclear weapons on 20 January this year, “any sane person could press the button”. In their book, The Ultimate Weapon is no Weapon (Perseus Books, 2010), Shannon Beebe and Mary Kaldor refer to the now familiar argument – that deterrence does not work against rogue states or terrorists. The authors add: “And if deterrence only works against states that are rational, why do we need nuclear weapons at all? Surely no rational state would threaten to use them”.
All at sea
Would a Russia under Putin, or a ruthless autocratic successor, credibly use nuclear blackmail against Baltic or other European countries (including a post-Trident Britain)? Is Britain’s nuclear force truly independent? A report by an all-party Trident Commission, set up by the British American Security Information Council (BASIC), concluded last year that the life expectancy of the UK’s nuclear capability, without US help, could be measured in months. Britain’s deterrent is “a hostage to American goodwill”, it said. Most defenders of Britain’s nuclear weapons accept that the country would not seek to have them if they had not already possessed them.
Nicola Sturgeon, the first minister and SNP leader, has said cancelling Trident’s replacement would be a “priority demand” and a “red line” for entering into coalition with Labour, a demand that the Labour leadership has rejected.
That may sound dramatic but the need to rely on the SNP for support in government could pave the way, to start with, to scaling down the Trident system, reducing its number of operational warheads – currently put at 120 – and abandoning CASD. The plan to build four new Trident submarines could be put off – though there would come a time when the cost of maintaining the existing fleet would be unbearable.
In an interview with the Guardian website Nicola Sturgeon has now dropped demands that a minority Labour government must cancel a new Trident nuclear weapon in return for the Scottish National party’s backing at Westminster. Asked if that meant the SNP could still back Labour policies without Ed Miliband promising to scrap Trident, she did not disagree, but added: “But we would not in any vote support the renewal of Trident and I can’t make that any clearer than I have already made it.”
All this would mean British taxpayers would not be asked to pay for a new “like for like” Trident system, and their representatives would be able to hold their heads a bit higher at the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty review conference in New York in April and May where nuclear weapons states are certain to be attacked by countries which do not possess them – the vast majority. Taking steps towards nuclear disarmament should not be seen as a sign of weakness. Quite the contrary. And it might even encourage the French to think again about the real value of its “force de frappe” if it is indeed “inutile.”
Most European members of Nato, including Britain, are planning more cuts to their defence budgets. RUSI, the military think tank, estimates that up to 30,000 more armed forces personnel could be axed in the next decade while the Clyde shipyards could be closed under as much as a further £70n in cuts. Burden sharing in Europe is becoming more and more urgent, prompting Jean-Claude Juncker, European Commission president, to talk of a European army. France, which professes to be more “European” than most, could ponder the very practical advantages of spending more on usable, conventional, weapons and intelligence-gathering systems rather than nuclear warheads.