Chris Newton is a former defence adviser in the Conservative Research Department.
At a time of strategic uncertainty, no decision in government can be more important than whether to replace the nuclear deterrent. In opposition, the Conservatives said that the policy was settled and that they would exclude Trident replacement from consideration in the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR). But since the election, the issue has seldom been out of the headlines – including during this week's Liberal Democrat conference. The Chancellor’s decision to fund the costs of Trident replacement from the defence budget and not the Treasury has re-opened the debate on the matter both inside and outside the Party.
The arguments in a favour of a nuclear deterrent have been covered more than adequately in other articles. (I discuss future threats in Defence Viewpoints which can be found here.) This article will therefore focus on what type of nuclear deterrent we should have.
There is no doubt in my mind that the submarine deterrent based on a ballistic missile system is the best option. It is understandable that Liberal Democrats and others would want to find "cheaper" alternatives in the current financial climate. However, when you look at the evidence available, the Trident system not only provides the most effective deterrent, but also offers the best value for money and the best insurance policy for the taxpayer. Moreover, the various counter-arguments against a like-for-like replacement contain serious flaws.
Why can’t we just have a cruise missile alternative?
The Liberal Democrats have already ruled out land and air based alternatives. These options would involve the building of new infrastructure and platforms, which would be incredibly costly; and the platforms themselves would be vulnerable to a pre-emptive strike.
The Liberal Democrats are mainly pinning their hopes on using the Astute class attack submarine as a platform to fire nuclear cruise missiles. My main worry about this option is not just that cruise missiles are technically inferior to ballistic ones, and the question marks over the cost and legality of developing what would be a whole new system. It is that each time a conventional cruise missile was fired from a submarine, an enemy state would question whether it is a conventional one or a nuclear one. It is not difficult to see how a conflict could quickly escalate if an adversary made the wrong assumption.
Can’t we just have a part-time or ‘virtual’ deterrent’?
Currently nuclear deterrent submarines operate on what is known as a "continuous-at-sea deterrent" (CASD) basis. Some commentators have suggested that we should procure only one or two submarines and that these should patrol only part of the time. However, this is incredibly dangerous. The removal of a continuous-at-sea posture would create inconsistency and uncertainty in our policy, ultimately undermining our deterrent’s credibility. Furthermore, if a government decides to change its nuclear posture during a major crisis, it will risk escalating the situation further.
Others have argued that we could simply retain the intellectual knowledge to build a new deterrent and then create one when a new threat emerges. But this idea is seriously flawed. If we stick with a submarine based platform, how will the submarine skills base be maintained in the meantime? And given that the Vanguard-successor submarines will take up to 17 years to be built, how will we be able to identify a potential nuclear threat to this country years or even decades ahead of a crisis? The last few years have shown that events usually catch the world by surprise, and that regimes can change and collapse very suddenly.
Can’t we just extend the life of the current submarines?
It may be technically possible to get away with extending the Vanguard-class submarines’ life for a few more years, if that. But this would be risky and it would come at considerable cost. Submarines are extremely difficult to maintain when they come to the end of their service life. Their reliability, availability, and safety reduce over time, and maintaining them for too long could put the continuous-at-sea capability at risk. In short, the longer you leave a submarine in service, the more money and effort you have to put into maintaining it. This was the Defence Select Committee conclusion when it looked into the issue in 2007. Its report said that life extension "is likely to be an expensive process", and recommended that "such an expensive option should not be used only as a means of deferring a decision on the future of the UK's strategic nuclear deterrent".
In addition, delaying the procurement timetable for the successor submarines would fly in the face of good practice. As we have seen with the aircraft carrier programme, any decisions to delay a project for short-term financial gain leads to increased costs later on. This was something that the Conservatives criticised in opposition; so the media reports that suggested that they would take such an approach with the nuclear deterrent were surprising, to say the least. It was therefore reassuring to see Armed Forces Minister Nick Harvey denying those reports.
Can’t we just delay the main investment decision until after the 2015 General Election?
This was an additional suggestion that the Government has reportedly been considering, although this has again been denied by the Ministry of Defence. From a political and strategic point of view this idea would not make much sense. Deterrence only works if the government of the day shows unwavering commitment to the policy. If any delay to such an important decision is made for political reasons, then it will merely fuel the suspicion that the Government does not wholeheartedly believe in the doctrine of nuclear deterrence.
Whilst these recent reports have been denied, they are only the latest in a series of stories that have come to light over the summer which have detailed disagreements within Government about Trident replacement. The Government needs to reflect on those stories, and consider carefully the messages it is currently sending out. As long as there is uncertainty over funding, public disagreements between the MoD and the Treasury, and similar disagreements within the Coalition, the Labour opposition will be able to question the Government’s commitment to the programme.
Headlines, words, and nuances will also be noted with interest overseas. Throughout the SDSR process and over the next few years, our allies will be watching carefully to see whether the UK can be relied upon. Our adversaries will also be questioning whether the new Government has the will and determination to protect and defend its interests. Whether we like it or not, the Government’s commitment to the nuclear deterrent will be seen as a symbol of its commitment to defence overall. Ministers must provide some clarity over its policy so that the world gets the message that Britain is wholly committed to nuclear deterrence.
Britain possesses nuclear weapons to deter. It is primarily a political weapon. It is no good if we procure a system which cannot fulfil its deterrence function adequately – that would be a waste of taxpayers’ money. The Trident system does offer the best value for money; not only is it a good deal financially, it provides this country with the most effective and credible deterrent. When it voted for Trident replacement in 2007, the Conservative Party made the right choice. But what it needs to do now that it is in government is to make sure that the messages it sends out to the world are clear and consistent.