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The government could make political and fiscal gains if it reviews the Trident upgrade

4 August 2010

On one level, there is something admirable about the
government’s uncompromising support for a Trident upgrade: senior Tories really do believe in the deterrent’s strategic importance, and are not willing to sacrifice that. But, on many other levels,
that same inflexibility is looking more and more unwise.

Three former senior military figures write to the Times today with a new riff on a point that they have frequently made before. Why not squeeze another 15 years out of the current system, they say – by which time, "the anachronistic and
counterproductive aspect of our holding on to a nuclear deterrent would be even more obvious." This is an argument with which a whole host of military figures and Lib Dems will sympathise.

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But the government needn’t do anything quite so drastic as scrapping Trident to satisfy these figures. All it would take, as I’ve said before, is for them to incorporate Trident into the Strategic Defence Review.
After all, why not have a debate about something which is held up as such a central, and expensive, part of our defence strategy? With the public finances as they are, I’d say that such a debate is
necessary – not an indulgence.

Even someone like Liam Fox, an avid supporter of Trident, could benefit from a review – especially now that his department has the burden of funding the replacement in its entirety, alongside
probable cuts of 10 percent. The Times is told by a frontbencher today that, "Fox will go all the way against
Osborne on this." Looking at alternatives at least offers the prospect of easing the pressure on the MoD. This argument could even be used to persuade sceptical Tory backbenchers.

Of course, Trident shouldn’t just be looked at as a game of politics. It is primarily a question of the public finances and of Britain’s place in the world. But, increasingly, putting it up for
review could help the internal balance of the coalition.

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Show comments
  • nonny mouse

    >>Why not squeeze another 15 years out of the current system

    Is this even possible? All it really needs is 5 years until public finances are in a better shape, and maybe then the LibDems won’t be involved in decision making which would make it easier politically.

  • nonny mouse

    TGF – Did Liam Fox defect to UKIP when I wasn’t looking? Please don’t refer to him as ‘our Liam’ when he isn’t even in your party.

    I realise that UKIP want to bring the government down, even though that means a pro-Europe Labour government, but please stop trying to meddle in Conservative party politics to achieve it. You lost that right when you joined a no hope party like UKIP.


    TomTom at 4.28 pm – nail on head.

    As for Fox, his resignation on a matter of principle is long overdue. It should have come when The Trio chose the African Dictator Fund and the Lefties at DfiD over Defence as a defining priority.

    Add to that Fox’s resignation would make any parallel threat by IDS over the benefits argument the nuclear option, and you could make the case that our Liam has a duty to resign.

  • TomTom

    Following the McMahon Act in the US in 1946 Clement Attlee took the decision to build a British A-Bomb. The country was on its knees with food rationing and almost bankrupt, but he had the vision to push the project through.

    If a Labour Government in 1946 could spend the money to build the weapon; and a Labour Government in 2006 could agree to upgrade the weapon; why is it Conservative Governments that seek to scrap the weapon – whether Macmillan over Blue Streak or Cameron over Trident +

  • Dan Grover

    Whilst I agree with you in principal, R, that kind of thinkings justifies getting literally anything into the military. Who knows what threats we’ll face in 25 years? Let’s build more submarines, more air craft carriers, a space programme to weaponise space, a new generation of light tanks, a new generation of heavy tanks, more military animal training, more urban warefare vehicals, more aerial attack vehical etc etc etc.

    We don’t know what will be going on in the future, but unless you plan for all eventualities, you have to make an assessment based on an informed estimate.

  • Lee Hannaford

    Fully agree with R’s comments and would also add that it seems awfully familiar that it is retired Army Officers again attacking the need for the deterrent. Field Marshall Brammel, Gen Ramsbottom and Gen Beach are either not looking at the bigger picture and realising that it is more than an Army that makes the armed forces or are so entrenched in their position that they do not wish to change. Boots on the ground is not the answer to everything.

  • balaclava

    The major cost of trident is the submarines themselves. This is a high value complex capability (building nuclear submarines) that must continue on a drumbeat whatever happens. This means scrapping trident will require the government to order 4 Astute submarines or risk losing the capability to build them (Nuclear submarines are the best tools for sea lane control). So we’ll spent money whatever happens, 20bn won’t just be removed from the order books.

    Why we discuss these numbers based over 25 years when we burn a large portion of £200bn on Welfare and 7bn on international development A YEAR is beyond me… we have the money and frankly history teaches us that we’ll regret not spending now when we really need it.

  • Disillusioned

    Any government that even contemplates putting the UK nuclear deterrent anywhere near French control would be committing suicide. A more untrustworthy ally it is hard to imagine.

  • Francis Horner

    Is there really no interim solution (eg major refitting) that would extend the submarines’ useful life for say 15 years, to allow a proper replacement at a hopefully more affulent time? I understand that it’s submarines not the missiles / warheads that are the issue.

  • David Lindsay

    Since when did Radio Four say “nookyular”?

    Anyway, last night’s episode at Aldermaston adds yet another item to the long list of reasons why nothing makes this nation less safe than the possession of these, in any case morally repugnant, weapons.

  • David Bishop

    Peter, whilst I admire your tenacity on the Trident issue, there are some problems with your argument of leaving the decision for up to 5 years.

    The submarines which carry the deterrent are getting older. Vanguard was launched in 1992. Vengeance in 1998. The newest boat is 12 years old, and the submarines were designed with a life of 25 years.

    The closer they get to that age, the more problems there are with running the continuous at sea deterrent (CASD). The submarines wear out. Refuelling of the reactors means cutting open the pressure hull, which reduces diving depths etc. All this puts limitations on their ability to maintain the CASD.

    If the UK wants to maintain a nuclear deterrent then a CASD is the best way to deploy it. That will require a new generation of submarines to be entering service in 15 years time. Which requires the decision to be made now- it takes a long time to design and build a submarine.

  • TrevorsDen

    Tom Tom’s ‘inevitable’ is in fact pure unfounded speculation. And totally unlikely at that. ie that UK boats would be under French control.
    The French boats (reduced from 5 to 4) are only now coming into service and the ‘upgrade’ consists of them being fitted with bigger missiles. They are effectively behind our deployment, and so do not have to think about scrapping them for many years.
    French nuclear expenditure has in fact declined.

    The point of this article is valid. There is no need to rush to replace trident and our nuclear deterrent can be provided by other means. The French have kept their former Mirage nuclear bombers in storage rather than scrapping them.

    ‘Trident’ is just being used as a totem a litmus test. Its point and purpose totally lost as it is used by such loony luminaries as the odious Simon Heffer.

  • R

    Reviews are all very well, and spending no more on a strategic deterrent than is necessary is clearly correct.

    But what I have never understood about this debate is the idea that we no longer need Trident, or similar, and that we can tell this by looking at our current defence environment. This is nuts.

    Upgrading Trident has nothing to do with our current defence environment – it is about having a nuclear deterrent between 2025 & 2050 (or something like that). Show me a person who claims to know what threats we will face then and I’ll show you a fool – even the near end of this range is beyond the bounds of accurate prediction. There is no qualification that enables one to predict what global politics will look like in 2050 – there might be a new cold war or much worse – so it is irrelevant what retired generals etc say.

    Of course Trident is expensive in absolute terms, but it’s also one of the only parts of our defence establishment that is wholly to do with the defence of the UK – most of the money goes on conventional capabilities related to expeditionary warfare.

  • Andrew Kitching

    I suspect the public finances might be improving more rapidly than we originally thought possible. If the bank profits are anything to go by. Revenues will recover sharply. The coalition may be sitting pretty very soon.

  • strapworld

    Dr Fox will go all the way! I do, though, agree that Trident MUST become part and parcel of the whole SDR.

    Although I do think, as one who admires Dr Fox, that Cameron would love to have him out of the way.

    ( off topic. I am told that there is very interesting in-fighting going on within the BNP leadership election. With many allegations being thrown at the present leader! )

  • TomTom

    Le Triomphant-class submarines of the French fleet are being upgraded. Britain needs US warheads for its platforms and if it does not renew its submarines in the next decade it will by default end up merging its 3 submarines with the 4 French boats to form an EU Strategic Force under French control.

    The British have a long tradition of neglecting assets to end up as junior partners in alliance – Royal Dutch Shell is a case in point, as is Astra-Zeneca.

    It seems inevitable that Britain will merge its remaining armed forces into an EU grouping. Just as Britain refused to join Euratom because it would have hampered development of atomic weapons in the 1950s, now the Treasury recognises Britain cannot exist without being a junior component of an EU Force under French control

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