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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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

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