In the last week or so there has been something of a spat within government about the future of our Trident nuclear defence system. The Chancellor wants it to be paid for out of the defence budget and the Ministry of Defence does not.
By putting Trident up as a potential target for cuts, the Chancellor is playing a very dangerous game indeed. Our nuclear capability is an insurance policy which we cut at our peril. And it actually represents very good value.
Let’s look at the figures. Firstly, the cost of Trident at the moment is not a great deal. For the last forty years or so, Britain has had one submarine submerged every moment of every day, silently ensuring that no other nuclear power in the world would ever think about using the ultimate weapons of mass destruction against us. It is, as they say, the ultimate insurance policy. This costs us £1.5 billion per year, a drop in the ocean of government’s yearly expenditure.
Compare that to the cost of doing what we would have to do to retain that security. The previous government proposed a modernisation which would have allowed us to retain our nuclear deterrent which would cost £21 billion over the next twenty years or so. That is, of course, just £1 billion each year. A nuclear attack, of course, doesn’t bear thinking about. As a cost of retaining our ultimate insurance it, a further £1 billion per year is cheap.
Compare that to the value of the debt which has forced those cuts. Last year it was a staggering £167 billion. On any reckoning, the £1 billion per year it would cost to renew Trident would barely makes an impact.
Before the election, the Liberal Democrats had proposed replacing Trident with another kind of nuclear deterrent. They hadn’t decided what, exactly, so were unable to tell us how it will work, what it will cost, how much money it would actually save, and whether it would keep us safe. Their policy review tentatively brought up a number of options, none of which it squarely supported. They include the options of modifying the current submarine platforms, perhaps with fewer missile compartments, which it said “could be possible.”
It also talked about a ‘virtual deterrent’, an idea whereby we would abandon the actual ability to launch a nuclear weapon, but make sure we always have a few people in the country who know how to build one, to be, in the words of the Lib Dem policy paper, “a long-term insurance policy to hedge against the re-emergence of an existential threat to the UK.” It also discussed the possibility of ending Britain’s nuclear capability altogether.
I mention these as an example of the kind of thinking which is likely to be going on behind closed doors within the government. I urge the government not to look inwards, but rather to look outwards, at a world in which reasons to retain Trident abound.
Firstly, consider the international environment. Before leaving his post, the former Chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the Agency charged with overseeing anti-proliferation efforts amongst other things, said that the coming risk over the coming decades would be from ‘virtual’ nuclear states – states which, as the Lib Dems suggest we do, achieved the knowledge of how to build a nuclear weapon but did not actually do so, keeping them within their Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty obligations but enabling them to build a nuclear weapon fast if they so desired.
At the same time, senior officials in the Pentagon have raised the alarm about the progress of Iran towards acquiring nuclear weapons capability. And as President Obama’s conference on global nuclear security helped to remind us, there is an urgent need for action on safeguarding the world’s nuclear materials to prevent terrorists or other non-state actors from obtaining nuclear weapons. Given the financial incentives for rogue elements from international regimes to sell their knowledge for profit, the danger that such knowhow fall into the wrong hands is very real. Is it really safe to downgrade Britain’s safeguard against such attacks?
And then there is the message it sends. Downgrading our nuclear deterrent would send the clear message that Britain no longer cares about her international standing. The idea that scrapping Trident would make a significant dent on the national debt does not stand up.
Azeem Ibrahim is a Research Scholar at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, Member of the Board of Directors at the Institute of Social Policy and Understanding and Chairman and CEO of Ibrahim Associates.