An announcement is imminent on the successor submarines carrying the nuclear deterrent, according to Lord Hennessy, the historian and member of the British American Security Information Council's cross party Trident Commission. Hennessy told an audience of nuclear policy experts today that key "Initial Gate" decisions on the boats, missile compartments and propulsion systems had already been signed off by the Treasury and MOD.
Anyone who understands the importance of maintaining Britain's nuclear deterrent in an uncertain world should be quietly pleased. The Lib Dems will moan, even though the value for money study they demanded has trimmed the numbers of missile tubes and warheads in the programme. (See the relevant Commons Library briefing note.) It is vital that Conservatives give no more ground here.
The Coalition agreement has already delayed the second and more crucial investment decision beyond the next general election. That means that 2015 could be, in Hennessy's words, "a nuclear election". The current Vanguard submarines are to be kept going for an extra four years longer than planned, stretching their service life into the late 2020s and early 2030s. However, because of the long lead times involved, a further decision on the successor system must be taken in early 2016. That is what could make the deterrent an election issue.
Deterrence works. It kept the peace in Europe after 1945, albeit at the cost of proxy wars in the developing world. Post Cold-War, predicting security threats is harder than ever. Think 9/11. Look at how few correctly forecast the first Gulf War or the Arab Spring. For Britain to maintain a minimum nuclear deterrent is not the act of a delusional pocket superpower. It is an appropriate insurance policy, given the unpredictability of human affairs. Conventional defences can be wound down (up to a point), then reconstituted if threats appear. But nuclear capability cannot readily be rebuilt.
Some say we should rely on the US to take responsibility for Europe's defence, or at least to put us back in the nuclear business if we temporarily get out of it. At at time when President Obama has shown America can shoot straight once more, that might be tempting. But a debt-laden, less confident and more isolationist USA of the future might not oblige. America's McMahon Act of 1946 prohibited collaboration on the Bomb, and it was eleven years before Macmillan secured an amendment. Think 1940, and realise that relying on the US has its limits. Leaving nuclear weapons to Iran, North Korea, Russia, China and the other states and terrorist groups that may be seeking to acquire them makes no sense, even if the conditions under which the UK would use the deterrent independently are hard to specify. This is a sovereign capability we must maintain.
These are not easy arguments to make. Most people don't want to confront these realities. In hard times, they would prefer to save the money, or spend it elsewhere. But Conservatives are going to have to get better at making the case for the deterrent, if this is to become an election issue. They cannot rely on support from the chiefs of staff, some of whom would, understandably, put more money for fighting vehicles, planes and ships ahead of Trident renewal. Of course, it is not either/or. We need both.
So at a time when the Lib Dems are looking for bribes to keep their recently humiliated activists on board, any announcement of the "Initial Gate" decision must not be watered down to please them. The Prime Minister said in February that he was "in favour of a full replacement for Trident, a continuous at-sea deterrent and making sure that we keep our guard up." That's what we want to hear, loud and clear, not some Clegg-adapted weasel words that raise question marks over the Coalition government's commitment to the deterrent.