The Lib Dem scheme for cut-price nukes is a bad idea

If the UK is to continue to do nuclear deterrence, it should do it properly. For something as important as our nuclear defences, cut-price half-measures are not good enough

Vanguard Class submarine HMS Victorious
Peter Cannon
On 22 May 2012 15:58

As  NATO leaders gathered at the summit in Chicago, former Liberal Democrat leader Sir Menzies Campbell called on the UK to publicly announce that it was abandoning the ‘Moscow Criterion’ of its nuclear defence doctrine – the principle that the UK’s independent nuclear deterrent should be able to destroy Russian ballistic missile defences.

Campbell argues that the ‘Moscow criterion’ is no longer relevant due to the end of the Cold War and that abandoning it “would make a significant contribution to the multilateral disarmament so eloquently promoted by US President Barack Obama”. It is always strange to hear Liberal Democrats, who always complained that British foreign policy should be more independent of the United States, argue that the UK should downgrade its nuclear capabilities because it would suit the rhetoric of Barack Obama. 

Unsurprisingly, Campbell links this proposed change in doctrine back to the replacement of Trident: “Abandoning the Moscow criterion would inevitably affect the current debate about a replacement for Trident. It would underline the question of whether a like-for-like replacement of Trident is necessary or whether minimum deterrence can be provided in some other way.”

The idea of Trident is that it is an independent deterrent that is able, on its own, to deter all nuclear attacks – not only from smaller ‘rogue states’ but also from major nuclear powers.  This deterrence works by promising not merely a nuclear bomb but complete destruction to an aggressor, through submarine-launched ballistic missiles with multiple nuclear warheads.  Trident is not designed as a ‘first strike’ capability to attack another country, but as a guaranteed ‘second strike’ which could respond with devastating force to any attack.

Campbell recognises that: “a world free of nuclear weapons... is a noble objective, but in truth one that is unlikely ever to be achieved” and that total unilateral disarmament is not the answer: “Who believes that Iran would abandon its nuclear ambitions or Israel feel confident enough to acknowledge what is known about its nuclear capacity if the UK were to announce at this weekend’s NATO summit that it would decommission the existing Trident system and abandon any policy of replacement of a nuclear capability of any kind?” 

By the same token, why should we believe that the UK changing its nuclear doctrine and downgrading its nuclear deterrent would inspire Russia or China to stop upgrading their nuclear weapons systems? And how can we know that we will never again face a nuclear threat from a superpower?

This is not just a suggestion from Sir Menzies Campbell, but something which the Liberal Democrats are pushing for in government. Nick Harvey, the Liberal Democrat defence minister, is also pressing for the abandonment of the ‘Moscow criterion’ as part of the internal review of alternatives to Trident set up for the Liberal Democrats. This is presumably because without changing the criteria, the ‘alternatives’ to Trident that have thus far been proposed are so inadequate. 

Trident provides continuous at-sea deterrence, meaning that there is always at least one submarine at sea ready to respond. Any change which ended this principle, for example by reducing the number of submarines or keeping submarines in port (a previous suggestion of Menzies Campbell), would leave the UK vulnerable to a pre-emptive strike, as an aggressor could attack the submarines when they were in or leaving port. Land-based ballistic missiles would also be vulnerable to a pre-emptive attack, while planes or ships carrying missiles would be vulnerable to being shot down or sunk. 

Another suggestion doing the rounds is to have nuclear-armed cruise missiles (as opposed to ballistic missiles) launched from submarines. The problem with this suggestion is that such a cruise missile would have a range of just 1500 miles (rather than 7500 miles), travel at 500 miles per hour within the earth's atmosphere (rather than faster than the speed of sound above the earth's atmosphere) and would carry only one warhead (as opposed to multiple warheads). It would therefore be a wholly inferior option, with missiles much more vulnerable to being shot down. On top of all that, the UK does not currently possess a suitable warhead, missile or submarine for such a system. Any new system, would inevitably incur additional development and testing costs of its own, whereas Trident is a tried and tested system which has been used successfully for decades.

We should not consider replacing Trident with alternatives that are so clearly inferior. An alternative should only be considered if it does a better job, which none of the suggestions so far do. We should question why the Liberal Democrats are so obsessed with stopping the renewal of Trident and replacing it with a lesser system. This would be a gamble no government could afford to take.

If the UK is to continue to do nuclear deterrence, it should do it properly. The UK is an official recognised nuclear weapon state and permanent member of the UN Security Council. The UK’s nuclear weapons are also recognised as part of the nuclear defences of NATO. Our nuclear capabilities therefore need to be superior to, not be on a par with, rogue states acquiring or seeking nuclear weapons such as North Korea or Iran. For something as important as our nuclear defences, cut-price half-measures are not good enough.

Fortunately, despite Liberal Democrat objections, the Ministry of Defence is pushing ahead, with contracts for the new submarines being announced this week. Whoever is in government in 2016 when the final ‘Main Gate’ decision is made will have to stand firm in defence of the UK’s nuclear deterrent. Using NATO summits to announce unilateral gestures of disarmament is not the way forward.

Peter Cannon is a Research Associate at the Henry Jackson Society

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