Your Ad Here

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Defensive posture

The case for Trident is strong but it still needs to be made

The Trident nuclear deterrent is fast becoming a sort of holy grail in the national debate about how to reduce the deficit. Wilder and wilder figures for its lifetime cost are being bandied around, as those with a prior hostility to Trident leap on the poor state of the public finances as a pretext for scrapping it. Britain’s responsibility to be a force for stability in the world seems to be regarded, by some, as alarmingly dispensable.

At most, Trident represents 5 per cent of current defence spending, (including capital and running costs and the cost of the Atomic Weapons Establishment). Yet the more that money is tight, the more the justification for all expenditure, including Trident, must be sound. The question that needs to be asked is this: is a ballistic-missile submarine system the best and most appropriate use of this part of the defence budget?

Writing in The Times today, four respected retired generals sound a sceptical note. They argue that the programme to replace Trident should not automatically be protected but must be included in the Strategic Defence Review that all parties are committed to holding after the election. They make two main arguments. The first is financial. With the defence budget likely to be cut after the election, they argue that it is important to include a weapon that has a “significant” cost when everything else is up for grabs. They fear that money spent on new nuclear weapons will not be available to support troops, frontline equipment or crucial counter-terrorism work.

Their second reason is that changes in the international context, in particular the multilateral disarmament process being led by President Obama, are a reason to reconsider what relevance a nuclear arsenal has to modern warfare.

There are distinguished voices on both sides of this debate. It is a finely balanced one. Part of the problem is in anticipating what threats Britain might face in the future. Failed and rogue states abound in the world, and state failure is increasingly coupled with nuclear capability. That is why France still spends almost a quarter of its defence budget on nuclear weaponry, and has no intention of stopping. It is why the British Government’s decision to renew Trident was a realistic assessment of future threats.

The impression has been given that there is some cheaper option. The Liberal Democrats oppose a “like-for-like” replacement of Trident. But it is not clear that there is a viable alternative. Three years ago the Ministry of Defence conducted a wideranging review of Trident and possible alternatives. It concluded that the only viable alternative to a submarine-based weapon would be a space-based one, which would be prohibited under international law. Other submarine systems were said to be too easily detected, which would render them pointless. Savings might be made by reducing the number of warheads, or having three boats instead of four — but they would not be enormous.

The only real alternative would be, therefore, to abandon our nuclear capability — and with it our nuclear expertise. That decision would be irreversible. It should not be taken lightly in a flurry of cost-saving, nor because it seems like an easy option in a politically charged debate. The generals are right to argue that Trident should be included in the Strategic Defence Review. The detail would surely make the case for its retention.