Do the Americans want Britain to renew Trident?

24 April 2013

What is the point of Britain’s nuclear deterrent? If it is an insurance policy it is a remarkably expensive one that might not, in any case, ever be honoured. I suspect that, more importantly, retaining an independent [sic] nuclear capability is a psychological crutch for politicians who fear that leaving the nuclear club would somehow make it harder for Britain to remain a member of the Top Nation club.

And perhaps it would. This is not necessarily a trivial thing. It would change the way we think of ourselves and might, in some sense, be considered an admission of defeat or as some kind of retreat. No Prime Minister wants to be the guy remembered as that guy and this, plus other institutional pressures helps make the case for replacing Trident.

But at what cost? Or, to put it another way, is Trident worth more than our conventional military capability? Would the money spent on Trident be better spent elsewhere in the MoD? Now perhaps this is a false choice but it’s one that seems to be being asked elsewhere too.

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Consider this passage from a recent New York Times article bemoaning – as has become traditional – europe’s declining defence budgets:

A senior American official said that Washington was eager for partnership in the Middle East and Asia, but that “Europe’s decision to abdicate on defense spending increasingly means it can’t take care of itself, and it can’t be a valuable partner to us.”

While the United States would like to be able to rely more on its European allies, many experts doubt that even the strongest among them, Britain and France, could carry out their part of another Libya operation now, and certainly not in a few years. Both are struggling to maintain their own nuclear deterrents as well as mobile, modern armed forces. The situation in Britain is so bad that American officials are quietly urging it to drop its expensive nuclear deterrent.

“Either they can be a nuclear power and nothing else or a real military partner,” a senior American official said.

Doubtless the MoD would dispute this view. Nevertheless, it is quite something  if the Americans really are suggesting* we spend scarce resources on something more useful than replacing Trident. That doesn’t mean that the Americans should determine British policy but it is, if you like, another indication that defence cuts have already gone too far or, if you prefer, that we need to rethink what we mean by defence and how we intend to fund it.

Of course, from the American perspective Trident serves no useful purpose whatsoever whereas other things upon which Britain could usefully spend the cash presently earmarked for Trident do matter to the Americans or would, that is to say, be useful to them. And to NATO.

*They may not be! The NYT could be wrong or at least guilty of over-egging this particular pudding.

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Show comments
  • Ian Walker

    We should buy in the Trident replacement, because we’ve got no time to do anything else. But the subsequent replacement could be an all-British, home grown system.
    As for scrapping it, well, given how much Obama hates us, would anyone trust him to press the button when we needed it? Nope, didn’t think so.

    • Dave Wolfy

      That is the real reason we keep Polaris/Trident/next – to force the USA to keep its promises.
      Russia would not allow itself to be decapitated by the UK so that the USA can happily carry on.
      The French have theirs because of the Germans.

  • andagain

    What is the point of Britain’s nuclear deterrent?

    I always thought it was to allow British Conservatives to pretend to themselves that their country was still more important than Japan.

    • Angus McLellan

      The Japanese could build and test an independent nuclear deterrent system lickety-split I think. They have all the bits and bobs. All they’d have to do is put them together and test them. And that’d be independent as in “didn’t import half the stuff from the USA”.

      When did the UK last build a missile/rocket that would serve as an ICBM? Before I can remember certainly and so long ago I would guess that if there was an announcement of the event on TV it was not just in black and white but also broadcast on VHF with 405 lines on the screen.

      • andagain

        Oh I don’t think the Consrvatives are fooling anyone in the rest of the world. Just themselves. But there is no one they want to fool more.

  • David Rowland

    Hey Brits. Trident flying the Jack makes us Aussies proud as punch to be part of the Empire. Our Aussie built conventional Collins class subs are an expensive joke.
    The UK should build Trident Mk 2 and RAN should buy 6 to patrol the Southern Oceans for the good guys. Some things are just not optional regardless of the cost.

  • David Lindsay

    See also, although it does not (yet) appear to be online, the superb article on Trident in this month’s Prospect, by Field Marshall The Lord Bramhall, a former Chief of the Defence Staff.

  • nol west
  • Boo80

    The problem is that I doubt it will be Trident or conventional forces.
    Part of the funding for conventional forces is so that we are part of the TOP NATION club, we junk Trident and why bother with the rest?
    That in itself is not a reason to keep Trident, just a reason to look at claims we can boost the rest of the defense spending if we ditch Trident with a degree of scepticism

  • thanksdellingpole

    Could somebody please tell me why “retaining an independent [sic] nuclear capability” is grammatically incorrect?

  • thanksdellingpole

    We should have a truly independent nuclear system, like the French.

    • randomsausage

      I think most Specator readers want an independent nuclear system so we can bomb the French

  • ChristopherMorganJon

    The problem with the UK deterrent is not the missile but the carrying platform. After twenty years they are worn out in comparison to the multitude of USN Ohio class.

  • Paul Ingram

    There has always been a desire to escape the inevitability of the opportunity cost of Trident. Like Canute ordering back the waves, Tony Blair promised when PM that conventional capability would not be effected, and many MPs took that promise at face value. But it’s a ridiculous position and always has been. The fact that US officials are now starting to question the wisdom of Britain’s choice to stick with Trident replacement should give us big pause for thought, not least because we’ve often thought of our nuclear deterrent as a way of being treated seriously by Washington.

  • Angus McLellan

    The choice between the deterrent and conventional defence has always been there. Look at defence spending under the Divine Margaret. Sure, Trident didn’t come out of the defence budget, but it seems like a remarkable coincidence that the defence budget was cut significantly around the time Trident was being ordered.

    But it’s more than just the price tag on Trident. The existence of Trident skews defence spending in other ways. Even if the navy wanted to do otherwise, they’d have no choice but to spend a relatively large part of their equipment budget on “conventional” nuclear submarines just to keep the Barrow yard and supporting industries busy between once-in-a-generation orders for missile submarines.

    Arguably Trident and Polaris before it were also responsible for the navy’s fixation on anti-submarine warfare. Talk about planning for the last war! How many merchant ships have been sunk by submarines since WWII ended? Less than the number of enemy aircraft shot down by the RAF in the same timeframe I believe, and that’s a very small number indeed. If we’re so minded, we can probably also chalk up the great disaster that was Nimrod MRA.4 to Trident’s account. Another big win then.

    • ChristopherMorganJon

      The principal task of the submarine is killing your enemy’s boat. They also make very useful platforms for covertly firing Tomahawks and intelligence gathering. Much more Tom Clancy than Das Boot.

    • HJ777

      You could argue this the other way around. You could say that the RN wants conventionally-armed nuclear submarines and therefore needs Trident subs in order to make it economical to keep the facility at Barrow-in-Furness running.

      In order for your argument to be true about Trident forcing large cuts elsewhere, you would have to demonstrate that Trident consumes a large amount in proportion to the total defence budget. Does it?

      • Angus McLellan

        Depends how you look at it.

        If you were an optimist you’d start with the assumption that a missile system lasts fifty years or more and that submarines last twenty five or more. Divide large number by long period of time and voila! all looks well.

        But it’s not that simple. Trident spending is rather lumpy. The procurement costs of the Vanguard replacement submarines will be signficant later in this decade and will increase to absorb around a third of the equipment budget in the early 2020s. But after the submarines are built it’s just the (relatively low) running costs that are of concern, and those should not be much greater than the running costs of the present Vanguard class submarines. In an ideal world they’d be less in real terms, but that’s almost certainly too much to hope for.

        In theory, if the MoD had a 30-year+ rolling equipment plan – it doesn’t, of course – that wouldn’t be a problem. But so far are they from that happy state of affairs that the Vanguard class replacement will run alongside such other bottomless pits for defence spending as the F-35 JSF and the comedy that is FRES. In theory the navy should also be ordering an unknown number of Type 26 frigates in a similar timescale, but frankly I can’t see where the money will come from. Appropriating £500 million from the health and education budgets, which Osborne seems minded to do to please Phil Hammond, is not significant in terms of the MoD budget, even just the equipment budget.

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