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Toby Fenwick: Retire Trident now and reinvest the savings in conventional forces

Toby FenwickToby Fenwick is the author of the CentreForum report 'Dropping the bomb: a post Trident future'.

2012 provides two contrasting anniversaries. It is 30 years since victory in the Falklands when against all the odds we saw the Union Flag once again flying over Stanley. And it is 20 years since the Red Army’s withdrawal from eastern Germany was in full swing following German reunification and the implosion of the Soviet Union.

The real paradox is that we are investing at least £25 billion in Trident when the rationale for it melted away two decades ago. As General Sir Mike Jackson recently pointed out, Britain’s conventional forces have been cut so far that we could not credibly retake the Falklands if Argentina staged a successful invasion. Given our assurances that we will not threaten non nuclear states, Trident is of course useless in defending the Falklands.

The £74bn of cuts over ten years that have to be borne by our conventional forces – £51 billion due to unfunded commitments from Labour, and £23 billion from deficit reductions – have hit the forces very hard. Losing 20% of their service manpower will leave the British Army smaller than at any point since the Napoleonic Wars and the RAF smaller than at any point since the inter war years. Worse is to come, with another £3bn to £5bn of cuts due to be announced by Philip Hammond before the Easter Parliamentary recess on 27 March.

In a report published today CentreForum examines whether we can justify Trident strategically or economically in the light of the effect of these cuts on our conventional forces, and so on Britain’s international standing and influence. The choice is stark: scrap Trident to invest in the conventional forces, or have Trident but such limited conventional forces we become "Switzerland with rockets".

We conclude 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.  As a result, we conclude that it is short sighted to replace Trident at the expense of the conventional forces.

This is not unilateralism. Under our proposals, Britain will become a nuclear threshold state. We will maintain Aldermaston and Burghfield and Britain’s military fissile stockpile. 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. In the interim, Aldermaston’s expertise will be turned to producing the verification tools required for global nuclear disarmament.

Similarly, our eight point plan sees 100% of the Trident savings invested into the conventional forces, as well as firm commitments to meet the NATO target of 2% of GDP for defence, and to increase defence equipment expenditure by 1% per annum in real terms through the next parliament. Finally, mirroring an American programme, the existing Trident submarines would be converted to carry up to 98 Tomahawk cruise missiles that have become the Navy’s covert precision strike weapon of choice. This allows us to maximise the investment in the Vanguard-class and bridge the Britain’s long-range strike capability until the new aircraft carriers are fully operational in the late-2020s.

There will undoubtedly be those who want to have Trident as well as the full spectrum conventional capability. Simply put, the current – and any likely future – MoD budget precludes this.

The old aphorism is that to govern is to choose – so let’s make informed, forward looking choices that will facilitate Britain playing her full and active international role. The world is a much better place with a fully engaged Britain than being "Switzerland with rockets".  Many in the military privately agree.

And, if the worst were to happen, having the ability to retake the Falklands is a lot more useful than a weapon to deter the threat posed by the long extinct Group of Soviet Forces in Germany.


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