The Lib Dems' nuclear defence policy is a dud
If the UK is serious about nuclear deterrence, it has to do it properly, and cannot afford to entertain the possibility of any of the Lib Dems’ various harebrained schemes
At the defence policy debate of the Lib Dem party conference in Glasgow, delegates voted to reject an amendment which would have committed the party to scrapping Trident.
That was wise. But delegates voted to adopt a policy of ending continuous at-sea deterrence and instead adopting what the Lib Dems describe as a ‘contingent posture’. That was not.
Following the Cabinet Office review into ‘alternatives to Trident’ (which concluded this summer that there were in fact no credible alternatives to Trident), the Lib Dems proposed keeping the Trident system but abandoning the most important thing it provides: continuous at-sea deterrence (CASD), meaning that the UK is ready to respond instantly to any nuclear attack, and any potential aggressor knows this to be the case.
The Lib Dems would do this by reducing the number of submarines from four down to three or two, so that continuous patrols could no longer be maintained.
The ‘contingent posture’ the Lib Dems have now adopted goes further. As well as reducing the number of submarines, they would end nuclear-armed patrols altogether, except in a time of crisis.
According to the Lib Dem policy document endorsed by their conference (Defending the Future: UK Defence in the 21st Century), the UK should not only “end CASD” but also
“Issue a declaratory policy of going to sea only with unarmed missiles and store a reduced stockpile of warheads at RNAD Coulport for redeployment within a specified timeframe”. The UK could then: “Surge to more constant, armed patrols only during limited periods when a deteriorating security picture in which the survival of the state is conceivably at stake demands this.”
Sending out submarines with unarmed missiles is quite clearly not a deterrent. The Lib Dem policy seems to assume that – contrary to most historical experience – the UK would be given enough advance notice of any crisis or attack to bring its nuclear warheads out of storage and then deploy them on our submarines.
This idea reminds me of the episode of Dad’s Army where Sergeant Wilson puts dummy detonators in the hand grenades, saying that it would ‘only take a minute’ to switch them for the real thing if the Germans invaded. But of course, with nuclear warheads, it would take considerably longer than a minute.
The Lib Dems are suggesting that in the middle of a crisis the UK – having publicly stated that its submarines would carry unarmed missiles – would now bring out its nuclear warheads and restart armed patrols in full view of whichever adversary we were seeking to deter. At a time when there was a ‘deteriorating security picture’, such a move would surely be seen as a dangerous escalation and could even provoke a pre-emptive strike against us.
It is hard to disagree with Baroness Falkner, co-chair of the Lib Dem backbench international affairs committee, who said:
"How does a posture of sending out boats unarmed actually deliver credibility? We say that we will send out boats with a public declaration that they will not be armed and that's what we will do and then occasionally, as the world gets tenser, as potentially a crisis situation approaches, we will send two guys up a hill to Coulport to get down some warheads, run down the mountain with them, stick them into batteries, get the boats out of the Clyde - never mind the fact an aggressor might target you in the Clyde - and then a couple of weeks to get out into international waters and, if you are talking about China, you've still got a long way to go.”
This is not nuclear deterrence at all, but a reckless gamble with the UK's national security. What’s worse, this gamble is driven by an emotional and ideological desire to scupper Trident at any cost short of publicly advocating unilateral nuclear disarmament – even though the Lib Dem-led Cabinet Office review into 'alternatives to Trident' found that Trident was the only credible option remaining for the UK.
Of course, the Lib Dems are unlikely to ever win a general election and bring their policy into practice. But Danny Alexander, with an eye on any future coalition negotiations in the event of another hung parliament, argues that this is a policy “which the party can argue for at the next election, but also in any discussions that might follow the election. I think that’s a crucially important point.”
This latest policy shift from the Lib Dems is another reason why it would be better for the UK’s national security if the Conservatives and Labour agreed on the ‘Main Gate’ decision to renew Trident in full before the next election, to ensure that the Lib Dems do not get the chance to use Trident as a bargaining chip in any future coalition talks with either party.
If the UK is serious about nuclear deterrence, it has to do it properly, and cannot afford to entertain the possibility of any of the Lib Dems’ various hare-brained schemes for a part-time or unarmed deterrent. In reality that is no deterrent at all.
Peter Cannon is an Associate Fellow at the Henry Jackson Society
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