We still have choices about Trident replacement

Should we be patrolling with nuclear weapons when we face no current strategic threat and see ourselves as a constructive force for good in the world?

Should we be patrolling with nuclear weapons when we face no current strategic threat and see ourselves as a constructive force for good in the world?

The UK delegation has just returned from the Vienna Conference on the Humanitarian Impacts of the use of Nuclear Weapons, having attended for the first time. They were alongside the vast majority of the international community that has forsworn nuclear weapons.

It would have been an uncomfortable experience, coming face-to-face with the sheer scale of what we threaten by patrolling our nuclear weapons day in day out under the sea.

After all, there’s no point in having them if we aren’t willing to use them, and there’s no question that if we use them hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of innocent civilians would die.

Should we be patrolling with nuclear weapons when we face no current strategic threat and see ourselves as a constructive force for good in the world? At the very least it demands that we re-double our efforts to work with fellow nuclear-armed states to rid the world of these weapons.

And that starts with some searching questions around why we are investing such a major proportion of our defence budget on Trident replacement (a third of the defence procurement budget over the next 15 years) and running costs (£2bn a year) whilst dramatically cutting back on other public expenditure.

Why protect Trident spend, when front-line conventional forces have suffered huge cut-backs?

One option amongst several would be to take our nuclear submarines off continuous patrol – they’ve been out for 25 years since the end of the Cold War, at huge expense, and yet those nuclear missiles have not been targeted on anyone.

They are there because we cannot be sure that a new threat might not emerge for which planners think a nuclear deterrent threat could be relevant. It is hard to establish particular scenarios that might fit such an activity, let alone ones which do not involve other allies that brandish their own nuclear weapons.

Abandoning continuous patrolling would not only send an important signal that the UK is prepared to take steps further down the nuclear ladder, it would also open up the possibility of further delay to decisions to replace the submarines, potentially saving the MoD and the taxpayer several billion.

Of course, to many people it doesn’t seem right to be talking about ‘abandoning’ our readiness to strike just when Russia is acting tough. What will vulnerable allies in Eastern Europe think if we appear to pull back?

But this is not about one man’s megalomania. President Vladimir Putin has high approval ratings in Russia precisely because actions by the ‘West’ have ignored the inevitable consequences of marginalising a state that still has daunting capacities to deliver major economic and strategic damage to the international community.

This is about a series of misjudgements over the last 20 years that all key states involved share. It is going to take a much deeper level of maturity to step out of the mutual traps we have developed with the Russians, and create a fresh reset that genuinely addresses their concerns (particularly the expansion of NATO, on missile defence and the development of destabilising conventional weapons).

Because right now we are headed towards a crisis in the international non-proliferation regime,  of which the experience of the British in Vienna this week was only a brief and pleasant aperitif.

And falling out with the Russians not only harms the prospects for escaping an arms race with them and further belligerent actions on both sides, it harms the cooperation that is essential to deal with nuclear crises in South and East Asia and the potential for proliferation to the frightening unstable melting pot of the Middle East.

Paul Ingram is the executive director of the British American Security Information Council, and was host of the BASIC Trident Commission.

13 Responses to “We still have choices about Trident replacement”

  1. uglyfatbloke

    Even thinking about replacing Trident is proof of a cross-party failure to think seriously about defence and war. Few MPs take any more interest in defence than to see how much MOD spending they can get in their constituency. Whether there is any value to the spending is neither here nor there. We spend a fortune on assets for deep (interdiction) bombing which has proved useless time and again for 70 years and more, we have already embarked on a programme to replace one pointless over-priced tank with another, the frigate and destroyer have no greater utility than to provide sea-going command jobs so that officers can achieve the promotion criteria for becoming admirals.
    At the same time we have more generals than battalions and more admirals than ships, but we still can’t afford decent boots etc for the infantry, though the infantry is the absolutely crucial tool for combat on land. Notably Brown and Blair presided over a 15% cut in the infantry (but the Brigade of Guards and the Parachute Regiment were protected) to achieve a marginal reduction in defence costs, but did nothing about over-manning at the top or scrapping pointless RAF stations and did n’t even think about scrapping Trident, FRES or the impossibly expensive Eurofighter project…and the tories – through sheer grit and determination I suppose – have managed to be even worse.

  2. swat

    Excellent response to an excellent article. I question the whole refit of Trident which will cost £100m over a decade or two .. especially when the country is trying to make ends meet. The fact is the Russians are not the enemy, they are our economic competitors true but not our enemy. I’m struggling to find any enemies other than the islamofacists, and those can easily be liquidated with conventional weapons if the will is there and we are not hamstrung with minor questions about respecting their HRs.
    ‘Enemies’ are ideologocal forces you generally cannot reason with. Communism is virually dead as a force since most developing nations are adopting a kind of market forces model akin to capitalism. Big review coming up in 2016 thats when we have to put the screws on the Govt. Point about too many Generals and not enough foot soldiers is well made; a lot of the foot soldiers could just as well be reservists and not commissioned. In fact we need a larger volunteer Army standing by just like Israel. Conscription into National Service by volunteering for 2 years would be great, and give the youth of today a sense of purpose and some skills in engineering and carpentry as well.

  3. uglyfatbloke

    Modern infantry work is difficult – too difficult to ,mix training for battle with being a chippie or a sparkie over two years. The fact is if we want decent infantry soldiers we have to pay them a decent wage and provide decent kit – if you want to be horrifies check out the raft of dishonesty that resulted in the adoption of the SA80 and LSW and note that none of the special forces outfits (who get a choice about kit) uses either of them – they use stuff that is better and cheaper, as do the firearms units of police forces . There is so much waste in the MOD that dramatically upping salaries for combat soldiers could be managed perfectly easily. Scrapping virtually all of the light armour recce units, tube artillery, the parachute regiment and giving the ceremonial duties of the guards to the TA would be a start, but we need more fundamental change. Most especially we need to stop pouring money into stupid projects for the benefit of BAe….notably 100s of millions spent on new strike aircraft which are only very marginally better (if at all) than the ones they replace….and investing in enough transport aircraft and helicopters. We need to buy from overseas at sensible prices rather than create myths about British jobs. The purpose of defence spending is not job creation and the jobs ‘created’ come in at a ridiculous price as well as putting people to work on worthless projects. Trouble is the Navy, Army and Air Force all have very different agendas and the funds get split equally between the three, though the real-world needs of the army are very much greater.
    Naturally MPs are not going to vote for base-closures or ending programmes which would affect their constituents and of course all parties lie a good deal about the value of arms exports. The latter are a minute part of our industrial exports and are effectively subsidised to a huge degree by taxpayers. There’s also an issue with so much feather-bedding at BAe etc – not to mention the cosy personal relationships between BAe, MOD staff and politicians…where was it Geoff Hoon got a job? What were his relevant skills?

  4. John L

    The days of Rule Britannia are well & truly over. The cost of a new Trident at 1bn pounds ís absolutely mind bogling to most people & we are living in an era of austerity! All that would be needed, God forbid, is one dirty bomb devastating (central) London and that would be it, the UK would be finished with OR without the Trident.

    Your last sentence mentioning conscription & learning skills is absolutely commentable, but to try getting a treasury minister to agree to that!

  5. Norfolk29

    How did you fail to mention that the US holds the ignition key to these weapons, without which they cannot be used. They are not an independent deterrent. They remain our macho stance that we are a great power which can destroy any enemy. I cannot, as an Irishman, understand this belief that we, the UK, matter in the world except as an active participant in the determination of how the world progresses. For that there is a need for a Royal Navy and an Army, with its integrated Air Force, which can respond in kind where our interests are threatened. Those interests were not threatened in Iraq but were threatened in Afghanistan. There is no need for Trident or Nuclear Weapons of any kind. Let the US handle that part of the NATO Alliance.

  6. David Lindsay

    As soon as Labour works out how else to employ people in Barrow, then Trident is doomed.

    State action to save such a thing as a submarine yard is the very essence of British social democracy.

    But not to the tune of one hundred billion pounds.

  7. Leon Wolfeson

    No strategic threat? Really?

    Who’s that to the North-East of Europe, again?

  8. Leon Wolfeson

    So no modern tanks, no ability to project seapower whatsoever…
    But hey, lots of infantry.

    And you’d have had us, what, buying the Mirage fighter?

  9. Leon Wolfeson

    That’s a naive view of Russia which recent events shows is sadly utterly unrealistic. China is an economic competitor (with, admittedly, a penchant for state-sponsored hacking), but Putin’s Russia is dangerous and imperialistic.

    And of course you don’t see the need for Human Rights, which either exist or don’t.

    So you think wasting two years of people’s time, either in a conscript army useless in modern wars, or two years of replacing jobs…

  10. Leon Wolfeson

    So no ability to support your infantry with artillery fire, only mortars, no effective scouting capacity, limited deep-strike capacity…

    And if you think 1970’s designs are “very marginally better” than 1990’s designs, let alone modern ones…right. Nope, you’d just buy cheap abroad and have undefended transports.

    Your focus on an Army, whose main use without the capacities you want to strip would be domestic suppression…

  11. Leon Wolfeson

    Fine, let’s pay them for it then. *After* we’ve done UNSC reform.

  12. Alan

    The US does not hold operational control over the UK’s Nuclear Weapons, Britain maintains Nuclear Warheads and Nuclear Submarines and the US provides the Trident Submarine Launched Ballistic Missiles but they are controlled by the UK.

    So to be clear the US couldn’t order a Nuclear Strike through British Weapons and If Britain wished to perform a strike america couldn’t stop them.

    The US could refuse to have anything to do with our Nuclear Program and so withdraw support (such as maintenance for the Missiles) but It would take Years for It to have an effect on Britain’s ability to perform a Nuclear Strike, or keep up It’s Continous at Sea Deterrent.

    If this even took place we would have three options: Give up Nuclear Weapons, Create our own Submarine Launched Ballistic Missiles or reform the Nuclear Deterrent to a less capable system (ie. Gravity Bombs, Cruise Missiles).

  13. Norfolk29

    Can I advise you to say out loud what you have written. It will be a sobering thought that you might actually believe what you have written (which I don’t). The US control our possible use of our nuclear weapons as they would be annihilated along with us if we were to fire a nuclear weapon. If we do not renew the contract today, we could maintain a reliable nuclear threat to anyone who threatened us for over 20 years. Jim Callaghan, as PM did this in the 1970 with the then nuclear weapon. Simply maintain the current fleet and use any unseaworthy submarines for spare parts until we are down to one submarine. In 20 years (2035) the concept of a nuclear war will be redundant.

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