More nuclear missile questions for Government

The Government faces further questions over its nuclear missile defence policy today.

The news that the Government is considering a 25 per cent cut in the number of nuclear warheads raises new questions about Government’s true intentions regarding the future of Britain’s nuclear deterrent.

With the Ministry of Defence now committed to bringing British nuclear warhead numbers down from 160 to 120, and considering a successor to Trident featuring three submarines rather than four, the direction of travel for British nuclear weapons policy appears to be that of dramatic disarmament measures.

In the broader geo-political context of the 2010 global nuclear weapons reduction talks, the Government’s moves on warheads and submarines will strengthen Britain’s moral authority in negotiations. However, given the concessions made to date, it is difficult to see how Britain could both build a new Trident system and make any further concessions in those talks without severely limiting the efficacy and utility of its nuclear deterrent as a whole.

Indeed, the Royal United Services Institute has already described plans to cut the Trident submarine fleet as “incredibly risky”, with former Defence Secreatry John Hutton warning that it could lead to “potential gaps in our ability to deploy continuous at-sea deterrents”. Furthermore, in cost terms, the submarine cut is unlikely to lead to significant savings due to high up-front fixed costs.

The warhead cut decision creates a potentially major headache for the Government in terms of its plans for a successor system to Trident. Having committed to an existing warhead cut, the Government’s plans to spend at least a further £2bn on a warhead development programme – to refurbish and upgrade the D5 Trident missile for a new generation of service – under the new Trident proposals would lead to accusations that the government was merely cutting back on an old stockpile whilst forging ahead with new weaponry.

Such a change could well undercut the Prime Minister’s own desire to achieve dramatic successes at next year’s Non-Proliferation Treaty talks.

Between current government cuts to warheads, planned cuts to the number of future nuclear weapons-bearing submarines and questions over both the cost of a new Trident programme and its wisdom, the Government’s real future intentions for a full scale, continuous nuclear deterrent delivered through a new Trident system court ever increasing sceptism and controversy.

Former United Nations High Representative and co-author of an influential Institute for Public Policy Research national security report, Lord Ashdown, has summarised the danger now facing British defence policy.

He says:

“I don’t believe that salami-slicing this decision in the way that he has done for political or cost-cutting reasons is a sensible way of going about it. I think a strategic defence review … is a better way.”

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