Time to rethink Trident

Posted: 02/07/09

To paraphrase Churchill's famous phrase following the Battle of El-Alamein in World War II: we may not have reached the end of the recent twin meltdowns of economic and political confidence, we may not even have reached the beginning of the end, but we may be at the end of the beginning.

Unprecedented shocks have been administered to the system, too many of them self-inflicted. Now we have to start to re-build. It is a time to take the big decisions, and to take them boldly, in the same way that bold, big decisions had to be taken last autumn when we may have been only hours away from a collapse of the world banking system.

Such boldness potentially holds many rewards. One of the biggest opportunities will face us later this summer when the Ministry of Defence will take stock of where it has got to on the commissioning of a replacement for the Trident submarine-borne nuclear missile system. When the decision was taken to proceed with a replacement, back in 2007, I voted against the government. I felt that the 21st century world required a different approach to defence than that which dominated our thinking between 1947, when Prime Minister Attlee and a small ad-hoc committee made the decision to manufacture a British-bomb, and the collapse of communism over four decades later.

I believe that the circumstances we face today make confirm the essential validity of that judgement. For one thing, the election of President Obama has injected fresh momentum into the transformation of the architecture of international relations. We can look beyond the defensiveness and the reliance on exclusively military responses to crises that characterised the post 9/11 years. For another, we need to focus our minds even harder on what are the essential priorities of public spending and what might sensibly be discarded is even greater than it was. The nature of our defence requirements and the foreign policy challenges we face require a different type of investment geared far more towards investment in personnel and equipment.

Given that replacing Trident will cost us an estimated £20 billion in build costs alone and up to another £40 billion in maintenance and refitting over the thirty year lifetime of the upgrade is it truly necessary? Must we still have a British flag on the bomb as the then Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin argued back in 1947? Might there be many and better uses this money could be put to?
The Government deserves credit for reducing the number of British nuclear warheads over the past decade (cut by 50% since 1997) and supporting a renewed drive, along with the new US President, for multilateral disarmament. However, I think the case for going further is robust.

The Trident system was conceived and constructed in a bygone age, shaped by a bipolar Cold War world in which nuclear weapons were deemed essential to ensure deterrence and 'Mutually Assured Destruction' should any nation be tempted to use them in a first strike attack against the United Kingdom. The military, indeed, even the nuclear, challenges we face today are very different to those of the 1980s, let alone the 1950s. We need a different mix of hard military power and 'soft' power to respond effectively to the challenges of failed and failing states, terrorism, and nuclear proliferation and belligerence from North Korea to Iran.

As an interim measure, whilst the world considers how to navigate its way through the threat of nuclear proliferation and the imminent expiration of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) towards a sustained reduction in the world's nuclear weapons stockpiles, why not consider the potential use of the new Astute Class of submarines to carry cruise missiles, as a genuine, but more minimal, deterrent? This might save us billions of pounds and enable the UK to be sufficiently flexible to respond to global disarmament initiatives, without risking the charge of leaving us vulnerable during an ear of continuing threat and uncertainty.

The world has changed almost beyond recognition since 2007. We should change with it.