Alistair Thompson was the Conservative candidate
for West Bromwich East at the last general election. He also runs Media Intelligence Partners with business
partner Nick Wood, the former press secretary to Conservative leaders William
Hague and Iain Duncan Smith. Follow Alistair on Twitter.
Today, Danny Alexander will unveil plans for a
scaled back nuclear deterrent.
If the briefings to the papers are correct, the
likeable Treasury Minister will call for an end to the 24/7 at sea deterrent
and reduce the number of missile boats (SSBN-F) from four to two.
This will undoubtedly cheer up Lib Dem party
members who have seen their poll ratings plummet since the election and now
regularly come forth to Nigel Farage's UKIP.
This report however must be viewed through the
prism of the internal party machinations of the Lib Dems, coupled to the fact
that most of their members hate the concept of the nuclear deterrent and would
happily scrap it completely.
I have no doubt that Mr Alexander will do his best
to dress up his arguments in terms of affordability and a changing world.
He will say that the UK can no longer afford the
£15-£20 billion price tag, although he will almost certainly conflate this
figure. He will also argue that the Trident system and the continuous at sea
deterrent aren't needed – that this system was designed in the Cold War era and
that it does not fit the current threats faced by the country.
These are dangerous and short-sighted arguments
that need to be quickly and comprehensively squashed by both military chiefs
and Conservative ministers and MPs.
Let me start with the economic argument. The UK
defence industry is something of a British success story. Worth around £35
billion, it employs some 300,000 people in 9,000 companies in mainly
manufacturing jobs, representing a staggering 10 per cent of all manufacturing
in this country.
We should not forget the lucrative export market as
well. In 2009 the defence industry’s exports contributed £7.2 billion the
economy, sustaining 55,000 jobs.
Any commitment to replacing Trident would represent
a considerable investment in this industry and would help to maintain not only
this high-skill sector, but also our military’s industrial base.
If the Government adopted the cut-price, slimmed-down
model, it is debatable whether the industry could afford the significant
upfront investment necessary to build the new subs, almost certainly leading to
the Government being forced to buy from abroad.
This might sound far-fetched, but this will not be
the first time the sector experienced a skills gap and had to plough money into
In the mid-noughties, for example, prior to the
development of the Astute Class submarines a skills gap was identified at Rolls
Royce Submarines. The company moved quickly and invested some £8 million to
resolve this issue.
This represented a huge investment in the workforce
as well as in the future success of the company, and would have been impossible
without significant orders on the books.
More immediately, however, a commitment to a
like-for-like replacement would help to safeguard up to 15,000 jobs, dependent
on the contract.
Then there are the defence arguments.
True, the Cold War is over. But if the Lib Dems
think the threat has somehow diminished, then they are simply ignoring the
Russia, our Cold War adversary, is investing $150
billion in their armed forces, including the building of over 50 new warships. These come on-line in just three
years, and include strategic nuclear submarines and special operations support
The Lib Dems can’t make the argument that nuclear
proliferation has not worsened since the 1980s.
And there is the ever present threat of Iran
developing a nuclear bomb.
Furthermore, there is a 17-year lead-time from
making a commitment to building the vessels to getting them in service. These
boats represent a long term investment that will be in service in the 2040s.
If all of the above was not enough, I am sad to say
that, as a country, we are very bad at predicting the future. Just look at the
recent SDSR, which I have previously written about. Published in 2010, it is
already completely out-of-date, with its prediction of stability in the Middle
East torn apart by the Arab Spring just months later and continuing problems in
Egypt and the civil war in Syria. It has seen our armed forces being cut and no
effective aircraft carrier cover till the next decade.
Scrapping or simply downgrading Trident is a
decision that could well come back to haunt this Government or its successors.
No, Philip Hammond is right to dismiss the
arguments of our yellow coalition partners. He is right to say we must have a
continuous at sea deterrent, which involves four boats, one at sea, one in
refit, one for training and one on standby.
He recognises that only having two vessels, which
would not be routinely armed, renders the deterrent worthless and makes this
country a far less safe place.