16 Jul 2013

Going nuclear over Britain’s defences

Danny (introduced as “Douglas”) Alexander has been outlining a new Lib Dem position on nuclear deterrence in a sweltering Whitehall library. He’s doing it armed with a specially commissioned officials’ paper: “Trident Alternatives Review.” But it turns out the paper does not give his argument ready-to-deploy defence.

Senior Lib Dems wanted to bring the number of Vanguard subs that deliver the Trident nuclear missiles down from four to two. But the review took as its remit that it would look into “a minimum nuclear deterrence capability that … is able to deliver at short notice a nuclear strike against a range of targets at an appropriate scale and with very high confidence.” The officials who ran the study – much praised by Danny Alexander – concluded that the two-sub option didn’t fit that remit and would “not be a credible deterrent”, in the words of one source close to the study.

So Danny Alexander is using a report that explores four subs and three subs as a defence for a position he says he intends to take to Lib Dem conference proposing two or three subs. He has made a gain in getting an official MoD study to kitemark a three-boat policy, to endorse an end to continuous at sea deterrence (CASD) as a credible policy.

But you could argue that he is stretching that endorsement to say as he did talking to me after the speech that the “analysis supports a lower number of Trident submarines … a two-boat solution as well as a three-boat solution.” I think certain people in the MoD would strongly disagree with that interpretation – you could even say they’d go nuclear.

Three devout opponents of the scaled down deterrence policy chose front row seats under his nose – Tory MPs Bernard Jenkin, Julian Lewis and Sir Gerald Howarth, circling like hostile subs. Julian Lewis started the questioning saying that you’d never be able to upgrade to four subs if a new danger emerged.

Then former head of the armed forces Admiral Lord Boyce tried to torpedo the Lib Dem position as “unilateralism” born of a “lack of political will.” Sir Menzies Campbell, sitting near me in the audience, groaned his disapproval at that.

This September’s Lib Dem conference is supposed to decide the party’s position and there is every expectation that some grassroots will want unilateralism. The leadership wants to head that off with a tempting alternative and two subs is more likely to fit that bill than three.

The significance of the Lib Dem position hangs on the general election outcome and where Ed Miliband comes down on this issue. Labour sources say he is wavering on this one. Some of those closest to him think that he should seize the opportunity to make a decisive break with the Blair/Brown support for the CASD approach. One adviser and shadow cabinet member, Lord Wood of Aintree, was listening closely in the audience but didn’t speak.

The report proclaims that the savings achievable by coming down from four to three subs would be £2bn in present prices stretched out over 30 years starting after the next parliament. That’s £65m a year in present prices. Done by future 2029 prices that figure doubles to £4bnn and so £134m a year. There are many factors in the continuing costs of nuclear deterrence but one of the biggest is the cost of running Porton Down.

As is standard practice in Lib Dem circles, Danny Alexander side-stepped the “red lines” question about whether he’d make reducing the Vanguard sub fleet a non-negotiable in future coalition negotiations.

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