Spending on Trident now is good value for money

The opposition to Trident is not about costs or democracy. It is about ideological opposition to UK nuclear weapons. Opponents should be open and say so.

HMS Vigilant submerges
Peter Cannon
On 23 December 2011 10:36

Opponents of the UK’s nuclear deterrent have recently been trying to stir up a fuss about the cost of renewing the Trident system, yet again.

Following a written parliamentary question to the Ministry of Defence, Green MP, Caroline Lucas, revealed the supposedly shocking news that the MOD was spending money on the renewal of Trident. The aspect of this which was supposedly controversial was that the MOD has spent approximately £2billion on facilities for building and maintaining the UK's nuclear weapons before the 'Main Gate' decision on renewing Trident and replacing the current submarines has been announced.

According to Lucas, this "makes a complete mockery of the democratic process." Lucas took to the Politics Home website to argue that the "Government's billion pound spend on Trident must be challenged". She argues that Trident "has become one of the most taboo subjects in Whitehall in recent years" and that "The Coalition Government refuses to discuss its policy".

She was supported this week by Labour MP, Jeremy Corbyn, who argued in the House of Commons that “after the next election the new Parliament will be confronted with the decision whether to renew the Trident system, having already spent £5 billion on it" and therefore "we are walking—indeed, sleepwalking—into a massive expenditure".

But the claim that the renewal of Trident has not been properly debated in Parliament and lacks democratic legitimacy simply does not stand up to scrutiny.

The House of Commons had a vote on the renewal of Trident back in 2007, and voted overwhelmingly in favour, by 409 to 161. What could be clearer than that? The renewal of Trident was in the manifestos of the Conservative Party and the Labour Party, and was deliberated in the party leader’s debates.

It was also agreed to as part of the Coalition Programme for Government, a commitment which was restated in the Strategic Defence and Security Review. In accordance with this commitment, The 'Initial Gate' decision to go ahead with the renewal of Trident was made and announced in Parliament earlier this year.

Of course spending on the replacement has already started. The MOD has to start spending now for the renewal of Trident to be viable and to avoid a major capability gap. If it did not, the same critics would resurface in a few years to complain that the costs of renewal had escalated and that Trident was no longer feasible.

The fuss and opposition is not about costs or democracy. It is hard to escape the suspicion that these are just excuses for opponents’ ideological opposition to UK nuclear weapons. They should be open and say so. The trickle of stories focused on costs is clearly intended to create the impression that Trident is too dear so as to undermine public faith in the system.

The reality is that Trident represents excellent value for money.

For all the talk of this being a ‘white elephant’ which will weigh down the defence budget, the House of Commons Library calculated that the annual cost of the Trident programme over its lifetime amounts to just five percent of the defence budget. Scrapping Trident should not be seen as an easy way of freeing up defence spending, as disarmament would itself cost billions.

The answer to defence cuts is not to scrap the UK’s most important defence capability. You have to question the wisdom of abandoning the UK’s nuclear weapons in a world where North Korea has the bomb and Iran is close to getting it. Keeping Trident is the nation’s ultimate insurance policy, as well as forming part of the defence of NATO. Nuclear weapons cannot be un-invented and it is quite safe to say that Barack Obama’s idea of a nuclear-free world is a flight of fancy.

Nor is the Liberal Democrat proposal for ‘cheaper alternatives’ to Trident helpful. Developing and testing an entirely new system is highly unlikely to be cheaper than using the existing one.

Moreover, none of the alternatives suggested – such as land-based missiles or a submarine-launched cruise missile system - offer improved capabilities. In fact they all have flaws which are absent from the Trident continuous-at-sea deterrent; a deterrent which guarantees constant coverage, cannot be pre-empted and which could be fired at any time and at any target. None of the alternatives match up.

The two aspects of the renewal of Trident which are creating unnecessary costs are the delaying of the Main Gate decision until after the next election, and the decision for the Cabinet Office to conduct a study into alternatives to Trident in order to ‘assist the Liberal Democrats’.

Again, it is difficult to see the argument for ‘alternatives’ as anything other than an excuse to undermine the renewal of Trident due to fundamental opposition to the UK having nuclear weapons at all. One Conservative MP rightly described the camp in which this view point is based as "CND revivalist" at the last Lib Dem party conference, at which Nick Harvey promised to make Trident "a hot potato" at the next election.

Opponents of Trident are not being any more ‘democratic’ or ‘open’ than anyone else. No matter how many votes are taken on the issue, they will continue to reject the result until it goes their way. That will now be a decision for the next Parliament, due to a most unwise delay made by the Coalition.

Peter Cannon is a Research Associate at the Henry Jackson Society

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