Trident could be replaced with a simpler, less costly, system. Photo: Flickr/UK Ministry of Defence
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Is there a cheaper but credible alternative to Trident?

A new dual-role system for our nuclear deterrent could save money and remove all nuclear weapons from Scotland in the process.

The last election in which defence and foreign policy played a decisive role was 1983. Michael Foot took on a post-Falklands Margaret Thatcher with a Labour platform that included withdrawal from Europe and unilateral nuclear disarmament in the face of KGB boss-turned-Soviet leader Yuri Andropov. No one needs reminding how that turned out.

Since 1983, only the 2005 election campaign, which followed the Lib Dems’ consistent opposition to the Iraq War, have defence issues been at the front and centre of campaign discourse.  And even then, despite Charles Kennedy achieving a party record of 62 seats – five more than the Lib Dems achieved in 2010 – concerns about Iraq did not deny Tony Blair a third successive victory with a reduced-but-comfortable 66 seat majority.

Will 2015 be different?

It is unlikely: voters in 2015 are mainly concerned with health, the economy and immigration. But defence and foreign affairs cannot be overlooked this election. There is real policy differentiation between Labour and the Conservatives, and the next government will have to take decisions that will shape the balance of Britain’s armed forces for the next 40 years. Whoever the Prime Minister is after May will in large measure determine the options for our international role beyond 2040.

The biggest decision is whether to replace the existing Vanguard­-class Trident submarines at a capital cost of up to £33bn, £3.3bn of which has been spent so far. A decision to press ahead with replacement would commit between a quarter and a third of the total Ministry of Defence (MoD) equipment budget to Trident – every year – from 2018 to 2032. It would deny the conventional forces of the investment that they need to remain capable of world-wide operations in support of the UN and regional peacekeeping and, where necessary, peace-enforcement.

Trident go-ahead will also have a knock-on impact on personnel numbers, as Nick Harvey MP made clear in a Commons debate on 20 January. Put simply, Trident’s burden could well mean cutting the Army to 60,000 men and women – a previously unthinkable figure that would render the UK unable to play a leading role in (or indeed, meaningfully contribute to) the multilateral operations that support our diplomatic and development agenda worldwide.

Yet it doesn’t have to be like this

Today, CentreForum has published a paper outlining how a simpler – and much less costly – system can provide the UK with a credible, minimum, independent nuclear deterrent. It draws on the recently declassified government definition of minimum deterrence developed to deter the Soviets in the late Cold War. This minimum requirement was defined as the ability to destroy 10 Soviet cities other than Moscow or Leningrad, or to deliver 30 warheads against Soviet targets. Given that this would result in several million casualties, we agree with the MoD in 1982 that this would be enough to deter Putin’s Russia.

Our proposal uses a British-built version of the new US B61-12 thermonuclear bomb being developed for NATO, delivered by the UK’s forthcoming F-35 Joint Strike Fighters operating from land bases and from the Royal Navy’s new carriers. The weapons would be based in existing facilities at RAF Marham, Norfolk and RAF Honington, Suffolk, removing all nuclear weapons from Scotland in the process.

Dual-role systems offer two clear advantages. First, the nuclear mission could free-ride on much of the capital and operating costs of the conventional forces. It would significantly reduce costs.

Second, a dual-role system is a clear step down the nuclear ladder in both cost and capability terms. This means that as and when the international climate allows for multilateral disarmament, the UK won’t waste the investment in the F-35 aircraft, which can continue to operate in their conventional role.

Trident submarines, however, are much harder to adapt to a range of conventional tasks, meaning that once acquired, there is likely to be heavy pressure to operate the vessels beyond 2050 to avoid wasting the billions invested in them.

Those advocating unilateral nuclear disarmament in a single jump off the nuclear ladder need to think carefully about whether this is realistic. It would be a rather pyrrhic victory if opposing a minimum nuclear deterrent based on dual-use assets led to Trident replacement that locks the UK into nuclear operations into the 2050s.

After paying for the cheaper, dual-use platforms for a minimum nuclear force, CentreForum’s proposal provides an additional £5 – 13bn savings to recapitalise the UK’s conventional force equipment. And by retaining the submarine industrial base, the facilities and expertise at Aldermaston, and the UK’s uranium and plutonium stocks, if there is a new Cold War – which is very unlikely – this plan retains the UK’s option to return to Trident if necessary.

The end result would be a much more capable conventional force, which balances the conventional mission and the UK’s global role with a credible, minimum independent UK nuclear force fit for the 21st century.

Looking at the current position of the political parties, it is clear that the Conservatives will pursue like-for-like Trident replacement, though it is unclear how they intend to pay for it and not cut the conventional forces further, irrespective of David Cameron’s bluster at PMQs. The Lib Dems seem poised to back a policy of fewer Trident submarines not kept on continuous patrol and possibly unarmed when at sea, even though it has been criticised for costing 94 – 97 per cent of the cost of like-for-like replacement. Ed Miliband, on the other hand, called in January for the “least-cost nuclear deterrent we can have”, though without spelling out what he meant.

Let’s hope that something close to this proposal is what Miliband has in mind.

Toby Fenwick is a Research Associate at CentreForum and author of the report ‘Retiring Trident: An alternative proposal for UK nuclear deterrence’

Photo: Getty
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Can Philip Hammond save the Conservatives from public anger at their DUP deal?

The Chancellor has the wriggle room to get close to the DUP's spending increase – but emotion matters more than facts in politics.

The magic money tree exists, and it is growing in Northern Ireland. That’s the attack line that Labour will throw at Theresa May in the wake of her £1bn deal with the DUP to keep her party in office.

It’s worth noting that while £1bn is a big deal in terms of Northern Ireland’s budget – just a touch under £10bn in 2016/17 – as far as the total expenditure of the British government goes, it’s peanuts.

The British government spent £778bn last year – we’re talking about spending an amount of money in Northern Ireland over the course of two years that the NHS loses in pen theft over the course of one in England. To match the increase in relative terms, you’d be looking at a £35bn increase in spending.

But, of course, political arguments are about gut instinct rather than actual numbers. The perception that the streets of Antrim are being paved by gold while the public realm in England, Scotland and Wales falls into disrepair is a real danger to the Conservatives.

But the good news for them is that last year Philip Hammond tweaked his targets to give himself greater headroom in case of a Brexit shock. Now the Tories have experienced a shock of a different kind – a Corbyn shock. That shock was partly due to the Labour leader’s good campaign and May’s bad campaign, but it was also powered by anger at cuts to schools and anger among NHS workers at Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship of the NHS. Conservative MPs have already made it clear to May that the party must not go to the country again while defending cuts to school spending.

Hammond can get to slightly under that £35bn and still stick to his targets. That will mean that the DUP still get to rave about their higher-than-average increase, while avoiding another election in which cuts to schools are front-and-centre. But whether that deprives Labour of their “cuts for you, but not for them” attack line is another question entirely. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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