Unlike Nick Clegg, the generals who have joined calls to scrap the Trident nuclear deterrent are at least being honest and sincere. There have always been a few anti-nuclear dissidents from the armed forces. Remember Lord Mountbatten who said the same even at the height of the Cold War.
But Nick Clegg keeps saying he can “save £100 billion” by scrapping Trident. He does not spell out that his policy is (at least officially!) to replace Trident with something else. He does not know what that replacement would be, and certainly does not know what such a replacement would cost. And it is "£100 billion" (actually about £78 billion) over the 35-year lifetime of the new submarines, which don't start to come into service until the 2020s. This should remind us that he is more left-wing and irresponsible than Brown.
He won’t say, because he can’t say. The Lib Dem defence guru, Sir Menzies Campbell (who is far more anti-establishment than he pretends) has been mumbling something about submarine launched nuclear cruise missiles, but no such weapons system currently exists, so it would require to be developed from scratch with a new warhead. This would be a breach of the Nuclear non-Proliferation Treaty – such a great start for an internationalist like Ming!
This should remind us just how duplicitous and dangerous the Lib Dems actually are. It is an easy hit on a largely uninformed public to promise to “save £100 billion”, but this is surely the kind of utterly dishonest politics Clegg says he is against.
Why do we need to upgrade and extend the Trident system? Three reasons: firstly, we are a nation that takes its security seriously; second, Trident is the most effective deterrent; and third, it is actually the cheapest and most effective option.
We seek to influence world affairs for our own interests and in the interests of global security. We do not believe we should get a free ride on other nations. It is ironic that those who most strongly advocate disarmament are also those who most despise America. Who would they have us depend upon? France? Russia? China? Ultimately, we retain our deterrent because we have the responsibility and capacity to contribute substantially to our own and global security.
Trident is most effective system, because submarines remain undetectable and therefore invulnerable when at sea. We can both launch a first strike, and retaliate if we are struck first. No other system has that potential. We can also maintain it at permanent readiness. Land-based “minute man” missiles have first strike capability, but could be taken out unless we fire them first. That would be destabilising. The Lib Dems’ submarine launched cruise would be subsonic – too slow for a first strike, and too vulnerable to interception. What kind of deterrent is that?
Some (including the Prime Minister!) have argued that we only need three new Trident subs, instead of the present four, but this could present risks, particularly towards the end of the system’s lifetime, when the subs might become less reliable. It allows no contingency should one sub be lost or seriously damaged in an accident. To maintain the “continually-at-sea” deterrent, you need to provide for one on station; one preparing to deploy or returning from operations; one in refit; and one spare. The Americans who run a very similar system maintain two at sea out of twelve subs and are astonished that we can maintain one out of four. With only three, there is the risk that you would have to put the deterrent to sea at a time of international tension – an act that would be seen as wantonly provocative.
As for cost, the “£100 billion” claim is rather misleading. Far from being expensive, Trident is extraordinarily good value. Even with our rather depressed defence spending, the cost of continuing with Trident and building the new submarines will amount to no more than 5-6 per cent of the defence budget over the 35 year lifetime of the system. When I asked Ming Campbell how much submarine launched cruise would cost to develop and to deploy, he candidly said he had no idea. The government believes it would be more expensive, as well as being much less effective. The government is right. Trident gives us the capacity to piggy back on US technology, while giving us operational sovereignty over its use. What a bargain!