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Peter Cannon: Why we still need Trident

Peter Cannon is an Associate Fellow of the Henry Jackson Society

BigpicToby Fenwick of Centre Forum argued yesterday on this site that we should “retire Trident now and invest the money in conventional forces”.  Not a surprising argument from a liberal think tank, given the current Cabinet Office study into alternatives to Trident which is being carried out to assist the Liberal Democrats in making the case.

Fenwick complains that "we are investing at least £25 billion in Trident when the rationale for it melted away two decades ago".  Yet it would be naive to assume that the downfall of the Soviet Union two decades ago means that not only is there no longer any nuclear threat to guard against but that there never will be.  The rationale behind nuclear deterrence is not just defence against one state – the now defunct Soviet Union – but defence against any nuclear-armed state, of which there are several which are less than friendly.

Fenwick concludes "that there are no scenarios – including Iran, Pakistan or North Korea – in either the near or medium term, in which Britain’s Trident force provides any additional security to that provided by the US strategic forces".  How does he possess such knowledge of what future threats and scenarios may or may not emerge?  Few threats and fewer conflicts are ever predicted.  Fenwick argues that "it is short sighted to replace Trident at the expense of the conventional forces", yet it is incredibly short-sighted to give up such an important and long-term capability for short-term savings and on the basis that the future is predictable.  Fenwick suggests that rather than maintain our own independent nuclear deterrent, we should simply rely on the United States (and possibly France), permanently.  This hardly makes good strategic sense - and nor would it be popular with the U.S, which has made it clear that it values the UK maintaining its own nuclear deterrent

Fenwick’s proposed alternative is intriguing.  He argues that the UK would become “a nuclear threshold state” so that: “In the unlikely event that the international environment deteriorates to the extent that there is a serious threat to Britain and concerns about strategic decoupling with the US are realised, we can regenerate a nuclear capability in 12-18 months”.  12-18 months is hardly quick enough to respond to an imminent nuclear threat.  It is hard to imagine a British Government, in the middle of a moment of international crisis, escalating that crisis by re-building its nuclear weapons.  If such an urgent threat did emerge, an enemy power could target the UK’s nuclear facilities before allowing the UK to build a weapon to defend itself.  After all, the deterrent would not be there.  One of the key features of the submarine-based Trident system is that it would be almost impossible to pre-empt in this way, and any potential aggressor knows that.  The "nuclear threshold" alternative is therefore utterly impractical, and not a genuine alternative to Trident at all.

While the proposal to maintain nuclear facilities at Aldermaston for “the verification tools required for global nuclear disarmament” is doubtless well-intentioned, there is little to suggest that the world is moving in that direction, no matter what Barack Obama has said about the aim of "a nuclear free world".  Countries such as Russia, China and Pakistan are improving their nuclear weapons capabilities, while Iran is seeking to develop a weapon of its own.  Nuclear weapons cannot be un-invented, and are most unlikely to be abolished.

Fenwick argues that budgetary constraints preclude renewing Trident as well as having “the full spectrum conventional capability.”  There is no reason why this must be the case.   The Government took political decisions to increase spending on the NHS (a much larger budget than defence) and on international aid, and there is no reason why this should be impossible for defence.  The damage being done by the defence cuts set out in the Strategic Defence and Security Review is not a justification for permanently giving up one of the UK’s most important defence capabilities.   While the cost of renewing Trident is significant, the £25 billion figure we often hear is spread over a number of years and provides a capability which will last for decades.  A House of Commons Library Study estimated that over its lifetime, Trident takes up between 5% and 6% of the defence budget. 

Nuclear deterrence and conventional capabilities should be seen as complementary, not mutually exclusive.  Britain does not have to choose between “a full and active international role” and being “Switzerland with rockets”.  On the contrary, giving up our nuclear deterrent would be a retreat from our international role: the Nato Strategic Concept recognises the UK’s nuclear deterrent as part of NATO’s defence.  Abandoning it would be to shift even more of the burden for the defence of Western Europe onto the U.S, at a time when the U.S is less willing to shoulder an ever increasing share of the burden indefinitely and is turning its attention more and more to Asia and the Pacific.

Fenwick mentions the Falklands War.  Two of the lessons of the Falklands War are that the signals a country sends out through its actions are important, and that threats are difficult to predict.  Giving up our nuclear deterrent would be a mistake on both counts.


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