2 Jul 2013

Ed Miliband ponders Trident options

David Cameron and Nick Clegg got their copy of the paper on Trident and its alternatives on Friday 21st June.

In writing it, officials were careful to prepare a parallel text with stuff redacted, fit (or so they thought) for publication. But senior MOD figures have had a hissy fit I’m told about some of the details in the document and are combing through it for more redactions.

The document presents a series of options but dismisses switching to another non-submarine form of delivery (aircraft or missiles fired from land bases) as a non-runner on grounds of cost and practicality. That leaves the question of whether Trident should continue on the current basis – continuous at sea deterrence (CASD), or scaled back to fewer than the current four subs and not at sea, ready to fire at a moment’s notice.

The Tories are adamant that we should keep CASD and therefore run four submarines.

The Lib Dem leader, Nick Clegg, has decided we should abandon CASD and scale back to two submarines.

Ed Miliband is wrestling with the issue and hearing advice on both sides. Old hands are urging that the party stick with CASD – anything less is worthless and you might as well go unilateral, they argue. Some close advisers want something that adds to the air of “change,” “fresh thinking” and “new approaches” – signals another “clear break” with Labour’s past.

It would distance the leadership from Tony Blair again, they argue, play well with the left, younger voters and potentially with disenchanted Lib Dem supporters too.

You get a flavour of the sort of things Labour’s high command will be considering in this report from the RUSI and this from the University of Bradford suggesting “reconceptualising prevailing understandings of ‘minimum deterrence,'” or “Trident lite” … effectively fewer subs and/or missiles.

But Labour and the Lib Dems would have to be braced for accusations from the US and the Tories that they’d down-graded to a “part-time” deterrence and were going soft.

Both Labour and the Lib Dems seem to accept that they won’t save a huge bunch of money in the next parliament if they scale back to two or three subs rather than four, because the upfront costs relate to the overall design costs and the initial submarine orders. Ed Balls, I understand, is not gunning for savings in 2015-20 on this one, and is not sure they exist.

One old defence hand in Washington says Lib Dem policy is being driven by domestic political needs not strategic arguments. Lib Dems say they’ve been assessing the risks of nucelar conflict and see no need, post 1989, for an instant nuclear capability.

The Tories are in no hurry to publish the report. Lib Dems would like it out before the summer – they want to proclaim a new position on Trident they think could be popular with voters and party members (the latter they want to start selling the policy to ahead of the Lib Dem Party Conference in Glasgow in September).

It’s not clear whether Labour will have a new position ready for the publication of the government’s options paper or will give itself more time to think about it all.

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