No real alternatives to Trident after all

The Lib Dems must not be allowed to hold Britain's future security to ransom. Britain needs a full fleet of nuclear submarines

Peter Cannon
On 24 July 2013 09:46

After two years of effort, the ‘Trident Alternatives Review’ study published by the Cabinet Office last week only served to show what had been obvious for some time – that there are no ‘alternatives’ to Trident worthy of the name. Alternative nuclear deterrent systems exist, of course, but none of them are as effective and none of them would save money.

None of the alternatives would have saved money because they all would have required the design and building of entirely new systems, which would have taken much longer than simply replacing the existing submarines.  And none of them would be as effective as the continuous at-sea deterrence provided by Trident.

With all the alternatives discredited, the review turned to keeping Trident but reducing the submarines from four to three. This would end continuous at-sea deterrence, as four submarines is the minimum number required. 

The review found: “a 3-boat fleet would risk multiple unplanned breaks in continuous covert patrolling as well as requiring regular planned breaks for maintenance and/or training.” The Lib Dems have suggested going further and reducing the fleet to two submarines, an option not even considered by the review.

They now want to keep Trident, but get rid of the most important thing about it: continuous at-sea deterrence. Rather than replacing Trident with something else, they want to downgrade it and undermine its effectiveness. 

This is not only a case of shifting from wanting to change the weapons system to wanting to change the UK’s nuclear posture, but of wanting to ensure that the UK will no longer have the capability to maintain a continuous deterrent posture.

The Lib Dems fail to explain the logic of renewing a system that can provide continuous nuclear deterrence but choosing to make it incapable of continuous deterrence. Plenty of governments have cut back on and downgraded military capabilities, but the Lib Dem argument is unique, in wanting to downgrade the UK’s military capability for the sole purpose of downgrading the UK’s military capability.

The financial savings from renewing the Trident system but cancelling one or two of the planned four submarines are negligible and would not be seen for years to come. Nor is there any reason to believe that these marginal savings would be invested in conventional defence forces.

Danny Alexander has accused those of us who still believe in continuous at-sea deterrence of ‘Cold War thinking’. Of course, the threats have changed since the Cold War, but they have not disappeared. The Lib Dems fail to explain how there is a threat which justifies the UK maintaining a nuclear deterrent but not one ready and able to deter all the time. 

The review states that a non-continuous posture depends on “political confidence that: a potential aggressor would not launch a no-notice pre-emptive attack when the UK was at a lower posture with no boat deployed.” Surely, that is exactly when an aggressor would be most likely to attack, and they would be unlikely to give notice.

The review also states that non-continuous deterrence depends on confidence that “with sufficient warning, the UK could re-constitute back-to-back patrolling before a potential period of heightened tension arises (covering the availability of equipment and suitably trained and motivated civilian, military and industrial personnel); and that such back-to-back patrols could then be sustained long enough to cover any emergent crisis.”

Danny Alexander says that continuous patrols could be restored if necessary, if there is a heightened threat, but having only two or three boats ensures that this cannot be maintained.  That is the whole point of downgrading from four boats to two or three. The idea of the UK waiting until a time of international tension or crisis and then restarting continuous patrols is fanciful.

The Lib Dems argue that the UK ‘stepping down the nuclear ladder’ by moving away from a continuous deterrent posture will be a positive contribution to multilateral disarmament, citing recent speeches in favour of nuclear disarmament by Barack Obama.

Yet Barack Obama talking about a world free of nuclear weapons does not make it more likely to happen. It is almost touching to see the level of faith and reverence Lib Dem elder statesmen seem to put in his words. It is also ironic to see the Lib Dems advocating an approach so subservient to the US that it actually involves permanently downgrading our nuclear security for the sake of one president’s say-so.

Sir Menzies Campbell pointed out that Obama is considering downsizing the US Trident fleet from eighteen to twelve submarines. The UK only has four already, the minimum for continuous deterrence, so going down to two or three would change the UK’s capabilities in a way that the US going down from eighteen to twelve would not. The US also has a large arsenal of silo-based nuclear missiles and bomber-carried nuclear warheads in addition to its submarine-launched Trident missiles. 

The UK only has the submarine-launched missiles. Of the five official nuclear weapons states, the UK is the only one with only a single platform for nuclear deterrence.

Moving to a part-time deterrent would therefore put the UK at a serious disadvantage. Whatever the Lib Dems might think, the ending UK continuous at-sea deterrence would be unlikely to impress the US, France or our other NATO allies. The UK’s continuous deterrent is after all recognised as part of NATO’s nuclear defences, and helps shape the global environment which the Lib Dems think is so safe that continuous deterrence is unnecessary not only now but in decades to come.

The Lib Dems may believe that the UK’s ‘good example’ in ‘stepping down the nuclear ladder’ will inspire Russia and China to disarm, and North Korea and Iran to stop seeking to develop nuclear weapons capability, but it is doubtful that anyone else does.

The Lib Dems seem obsessed with undermining Trident at all costs – first by advocating replacing it with an unknown alternative system, then when that was shown to be unviable, by advocating making it non-continuous, stripping it of its most important feature.

In the House of Commons debate on the Trident Alternatives Review, both Conservative and Labour MPs, frontbench and backbench, tore apart the illogical and intellectually dishonest position the Lib Dems are taking on Trident. Therein lies the hope for maintaining continuous at-sea deterrence into the future.

The Lib Dems have made it quite clear that they will seek to make Trident a political issue at the next general election and in any future coalition negotiations.

But there is no reason to delay the ‘Main Gate’ decision on renewing Trident until 2016, as is currently planned. Instead, this decision should be taken as soon as possible in this parliament, with the support of Conservative and Labour MPs, so that the Lib Dems cannot hold the country’s future security to ransom by playing political games with our nuclear deterrent.

Peter Cannon is a Conservative councillor on Dartford, Kent

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