America tells Britain to pick: replace Trident, or be a "real military partner"

It's just not possible for us to have both at the same time, writes the CND's Kate Hudson.

As debate continues about the replacement of the Trident nuclear weapons system, many just assume that the United States automatically supports a new generation of British nuclear weapons – or even that they may not "let us" disarm. Those backing the retention and replacement of Britain’s nuclear arsenal often cite our obligations as part of NATO – a US-led nuclear alliance – and of our commitment to our allies in "an uncertain world". Indeed some even see nuclear cooperation with the US as the keystone in our "special relationship". 

So it was interesting to read the following passage in the International Herald Tribune last week – "NATO at a turning point" (12 April) – under the heading "Sharing Capabilities":

As for Britain, Prime Minister David Cameron is insisting on keeping a nuclear deterrent on a new generation of submarines, even as U.S. officials are pushing London to consider abandoning the idea. As one U.S. official said privately, "They can’t afford Trident, and they need to confront the choice: either they can be a nuclear power and nothing else or a real military partner."

As the article clearly conveys, there are many in high places that would prefer Britain to be a well-equipped and viable conventional military force, capable of twenty-first century interventions and keeping up the European end of NATO military capacity. This lays bare one of the main arguments – whether implicit or explicit – put forward by those in favour of Trident replacement: that while times may be hard economically, maintaining a nuclear arsenal is the strong choice for defence policy. So it’s interesting to note that allies may see it as making us a bit of a military lame duck.

In fact, such a view is increasingly widespread here, as well as in the US, given the drastic reductions in personnel and capabilities as a result of cuts to the Ministry of Defence (MoD). 

In the first instance, no-one should be in any doubt about the impact of Trident spending on UK defence equipment budgets. 

The Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) has said that by the early 2020s, 'submarine and deterrent spending is set to account for around 35% of the total core procurement budget'. And by 2017, cuts to defence personnel will see regular troops reduced from 102,000 to 82,000 – with increasing reliance on reservists.

We are now starting to see previously pro-Trident news outlets such as London's Evening Standard and the Telegraph raising concerns about the government’s approach to defence priorities. The Evening Standard has written two excellent editorials on the question of Trident and defence spending, here and here, stating:

'Defence must take its share of cuts and choices must be made. Something has to give: it is worth asking again whether renewing the Trident nuclear missile system, on which design work alone will cost £350 million, is as good a use of defence funds as more boots on the ground. Given our present challenges, the answer must be no.'

While many are still right to put forward the moral and humanitarian arguments against nuclear weapons, they are increasingly joined by those who see the strength in the economic and strategic arguments against Trident. These are people with serious concerns about the thinking behind the government’s defence spending and security strategy. And of course they’re right that the costs will be astronomical and devastating. 

The MoD puts the build cost of the "Successor" submarines alone at £20-25bn, which, given its track record of delivering major projects around 40 per cent over budget, might be more accurately predicted as £28-35bn. The maintenance costs will be £3bn per annum (not factoring in inflation) for 30-40 years according to former Minister for the Armed Forces Sir Nick Harvey MP. Then there’s the estimated £25bn decommissioning cost. 

£100bn is now a considerable underestimation of Trident replacement costs. It is clear it will be more.

But even without the grim economics, Trident replacement seems at odds with both government analysis – the National Security Strategy downgraded the threat of state-on-state nuclear attack – and with the ability to fulfil government policy. As the Standard rightly points out:

The Foreign Secretary talks tough about North Africa and David Cameron regards Libya as one of his foreign policy successes. Yet they must know that interventions like that in Libya, or a British version of France’s exploits in Mali, would be impossible with drastic reductions in troop numbers.

And this is precisely what is being called into question in the US administration. What use is an ally which becomes incapable of action through a dearth of personnel and equipment? How would Britain’s nuclear weapons play any useful role in US operations? 

This dilemma should be ringing alarm bells for Labour, whose shadow Defence Minister Jim Murphy MP recently outlined his vision of a flexible, dynamic, military with "adaptable units" to head off emerging security threats around the world. Labour needs to understand that it will not be able to afford both that and Trident.  

The debate on Trident will continue, to the general election and beyond. But those who still think we are well-served by nuclear weapons would do well to heed the view of former Conservative Defence Secretary Michael Portillo: Trident, he says, is completely past its sell-by date and a tremendous waste of money. I can’t say fairer than that.

People stand on a Trident submarine. Photograph: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.