15 Sep 2010

Britain’s bitter political battle over Trident

As MPs warn the strategic defence review may harm Britain’s ability to defend itself, Channel 4 News Science Correspondent Julian Rush writes there is now a genuine debate about its nuclear deterrent.

A Trident nuclear missile in flight

The government’s planned defence spending cuts could jeopardise the ability of Britain’s armed forces to maintain their current military commitments, MPs have warned.

The Commons defence committee says that the strategic defence and security review (SDSR) is being pushed through too quickly, and that mistakes will be made as a result.

“The rapidity with which the SDSR process is being undertaken is quite startling,” the committee says.

“Mistakes will be made and some of them may be serious.”

The committee also warns of “very significant” consequences if the Ministry of Defence (MoD) has to shoulder the full costs of updating Britain’s Trident nuclear deterrent.

In the past the Treasury has picked up the bill for manufacturing the country’s nuclear deterrent. But Chancellor George Osborne is saying that the MoD must pay this time.

The committee says: “The implications of this for the MoD’s budget would be very significant. In practice, this decision seems to put the issue of Trident renewal into the SDSR without making this explicit.”

The SDSR will decide Britain’s future military priorities, on the basis of which decisions on spending cuts will be made.

The committee also had “serious concerns” at the limited consultation with the defence industry in drawing up the SDSR plans.

Britain’s most important military commitment at present is in Afghanistan, where 9,500 troops are fighting Taliban insurgents.

'I hope it's not just a budget-cutting exercise'

On the prospect of defence cuts, former army chief General Sir Mike Jackson told Channel 4 News: "I seem to recall Dr Fox in his first speech saying there will be cuts - an interesting opening gambit and not one I care for.

"It seems to treat it as inevitable, rather than saying after sober, proper reflection 'We don't need to do as much as we do at the moment.'

"We have an army of about 100,000. For a country of our size and place in the world, it seems to me that it is as small as I would want it to be thought of.

"I hope the defence review isn't simply a budget-cutting exercise, but stems from an objective and careful look at where Britain wants to be on the world stage."

Click to read more from General Sir Mike Jackson

Trident as a political and diplomatic weapon
The debate about the future of Britain’s nuclear deterrent is happening behind closed doors, writes Channel 4 News Science Correspondent Julian Rush.

Within the MoD and the corridors of Whitehall, the military and their civilian counterparts, the policy officials, are engaged in a bitter struggle.

All we see is the leaked scuffles when it suits the factions tactically to air their grievances in public.

Now that the MoD seems to have lost the battle with the Treasury over who will pay the £20bn bill for replacing Trident, many in the military are asking serious questions about whether we actually need it or not – given that every pound spent on Trident, will be a pound not spent on the basic equipment that will be needed to fight the sort of smaller-scale global operations senior officers foresee as the likely role of the military in the next few decades.

On the other hand, while policy officials accept that Trident has little value as a strategic weapon that will ever actually be used, they do see it as a diplomatic weapon.

It is something that gives the UK a seat at the top table, allowing us to punch above our weight in the international arena: “too big a downgrading of our status as a nation”, as Tony Blair justified his decision to renew Trident in his recent memoirs.

The political reality of the new government has changed things too. Trident is one of the serious fault lines in the Coalition.

While the Conservatives pledged to replace Trident in their manifesto, the Lib Dems were vehemently opposed.

The compromise, in the Coalition Agreement, is to go for replacement but also to scrutinise it very carefully to ensure “value for money” and to examine alternatives.

What actually needs replacing is the submarines, rather than the missiles or the warheads. The nuclear-powered Vanguard class subs will reach the end of their operational lives in the early 2020s. But it can take up 15-20 years to design and build a submarine, so decisions need to made soon.

How might they square the circle?
A respected and seasoned observer of Britain’s nuclear policy believes there will be a fudge.

Dr Rebecca Johnson, the Director of the Acronym Institute for Disarmament Diplomacy, doesn’t believe a clear decision will be made in the lifetime of this parliament.

“They will find a formula to avoid building the submarines immediately”, she says. Dr Johnson thinks a way will be found to extend the lives of the submarines – which is why ideas have been floated like joint patrols with the French, or abandoning the policy of keeping one submarine permanently at sea.

Ironically, a delay might make the whole project cheaper as it would bring Britain closer in step with the USA missile procurement programme. Britain’s nuclear deterrent is intimately linked to America’s nuclear arsenal.

Britain leases the missiles – the Trident II D5 – from the US.

America is not planning to replace its Ohio class submarines until 2030, with a replacement for the D5 missile coming in around 2040 – within the lifetime of a submarine that replaces Britain’s Vanguard fleet.

Last year, the Public Accounts Committee warned of the potential huge costs if Britain had to modify its submarines if the Americans opted for a missile design that didn’t fit inside them.

And, as Dr Rebecca Johnson points out, a delay might also increase the opportunity for Britain to be seen as a world leader when it does finally abandon Trident altogether.

Multilateral nuclear disarmament talks are gathering pace; a British announcement, at the right time, that it is giving up the nuclear deterrent could dramatically enhance Britain’s international status.

Getting the timing of that right might make all the difference.