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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Jeremy Corbyn sat down on train he claimed was full, Virgin says

The train company has pushed back against a viral video starring the Labour leader, in which he sat on the floor.

Seats were available on the train where Jeremy Corbyn was filmed sitting on the floor, Virgin Trains has said.

On 16 August, a freelance film-maker who has been following the Labour leader released a video which showed Corbyn talking about the problems of overcrowded trains.

“This is a problem that many passengers face every day, commuters and long-distance travellers. Today this train is completely ram-packed,” he said. Is it fair that I should upgrade my ticket whilst others who might not be able to afford such a luxury should have to sit on the floor? It’s their money I would be spending after all.”

Commentators quickly pointed out that he would not have been able to claim for a first-class upgrade, as expenses rules only permit standard-class travel. Also, campaign expenses cannot be claimed back from the taxpayer. 

Today, Virgin Trains released footage of the Labour leader walking past empty unreserved seats to film his video, which took half an hour, before walking back to take another unreserved seat.

"CCTV footage taken from the train on August 11 shows Mr Corbyn and his team walked past empty, unreserved seats in coach H before walking through the rest of the train to the far end, where his team sat on the floor and started filming.

"The same footage then shows Mr Corbyn returning to coach H and taking a seat there, with the help of the onboard crew, around 45 minutes into the journey and over two hours before the train reached Newcastle.

"Mr Corbyn’s team carried out their filming around 30 minutes into the journey. There were also additional empty seats on the train (the 11am departure from King’s Cross) which appear from CCTV to have been reserved but not taken, so they were also available for other passengers to sit on."

A Virgin spokesperson commented: “We have to take issue with the idea that Mr Corbyn wasn’t able to be seated on the service, as this clearly wasn’t the case.

A spokesman for the Corbyn campaign told BuzzFeed News that the footage was a “lie”, and that Corbyn had given up his seat for a woman to take his place, and that “other people” had also sat in the aisles.

Owen Smith, Corbyn's leadership rival, tried a joke:

But a passenger on the train supported Corbyn's version of events.

Both Virgin Trains and the Corbyn campaign have been contacted for further comment.

UPDATE 17:07

A spokesperson for the Jeremy for Labour campaign commented:

“When Jeremy boarded the train he was unable to find unreserved seats, so he sat with other passengers in the corridor who were also unable to find a seat. 

"Later in the journey, seats became available after a family were upgraded to first class, and Jeremy and the team he was travelling with were offered the seats by a very helpful member of staff.

"Passengers across Britain will have been in similar situations on overcrowded, expensive trains. That is why our policy to bring the trains back into public ownership, as part of a plan to rebuild and transform Britain, is so popular with passengers and rail workers.”

A few testimonies from passengers who had their photos taken with Corbyn on the floor can be found here