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Alistair Thompson: Philip Hammond is right – a part-time deterrent is no deterrent

AtAlistair Thompson was the Conservative candidate for West Bromwich East at the last general election. He also runs Media Intelligence Partners with business partner Nick Wood, the former press secretary to Conservative leaders William Hague and Iain Duncan Smith. Follow Alistair on Twitter.

Today, Danny Alexander will unveil plans for a scaled back nuclear deterrent.

If the briefings to the papers are correct, the likeable Treasury Minister will call for an end to the 24/7 at sea deterrent and reduce the number of missile boats (SSBN-F) from four to two.

This will undoubtedly cheer up Lib Dem party members who have seen their poll ratings plummet since the election and now regularly come forth to Nigel Farage's UKIP.

This report however must be viewed through the prism of the internal party machinations of the Lib Dems, coupled to the fact that most of their members hate the concept of the nuclear deterrent and would happily scrap it completely.

I have no doubt that Mr Alexander will do his best to dress up his arguments in terms of affordability and a changing world.

He will say that the UK can no longer afford the £15-£20 billion price tag, although he will almost certainly conflate this figure. He will also argue that the Trident system and the continuous at sea deterrent aren't needed – that this system was designed in the Cold War era and that it does not fit the current threats faced by the country.

These are dangerous and short-sighted arguments that need to be quickly and comprehensively squashed by both military chiefs and Conservative ministers and MPs.

Let me start with the economic argument. The UK defence industry is something of a British success story. Worth around £35 billion, it employs some 300,000 people in 9,000 companies in mainly manufacturing jobs, representing a staggering 10 per cent of all manufacturing in this country.

We should not forget the lucrative export market as well. In 2009 the defence industry’s exports contributed £7.2 billion the economy, sustaining 55,000 jobs.

Any commitment to replacing Trident would represent a considerable investment in this industry and would help to maintain not only this high-skill sector, but also our military’s industrial base.

If the Government adopted the cut-price, slimmed-down model, it is debatable whether the industry could afford the significant upfront investment necessary to build the new subs, almost certainly leading to the Government being forced to buy from abroad.

This might sound far-fetched, but this will not be the first time the sector experienced a skills gap and had to plough money into training.

In the mid-noughties, for example, prior to the development of the Astute Class submarines a skills gap was identified at Rolls Royce Submarines. The company moved quickly and invested some £8 million to resolve this issue.

This represented a huge investment in the workforce as well as in the future success of the company, and would have been impossible without significant orders on the books.

More immediately, however, a commitment to a like-for-like replacement would help to safeguard up to 15,000 jobs, dependent on the contract.

Then there are the defence arguments.

True, the Cold War is over. But if the Lib Dems think the threat has somehow diminished, then they are simply ignoring the facts.

Russia, our Cold War adversary, is investing $150 billion in their armed forces, including the building of over 50 new warships. These come on-line in just three years, and include strategic nuclear submarines and special operations support vessels.

The Lib Dems can’t make the argument that nuclear proliferation has not worsened since the 1980s.

And there is the ever present threat of Iran developing a nuclear bomb. 

Furthermore, there is a 17-year lead-time from making a commitment to building the vessels to getting them in service. These boats represent a long term investment that will be in service in the 2040s.

If all of the above was not enough, I am sad to say that, as a country, we are very bad at predicting the future. Just look at the recent SDSR, which I have previously written about. Published in 2010, it is already completely out-of-date, with its prediction of stability in the Middle East torn apart by the Arab Spring just months later and continuing problems in Egypt and the civil war in Syria. It has seen our armed forces being cut and no effective aircraft carrier cover till the next decade.

Scrapping or simply downgrading Trident is a decision that could well come back to haunt this Government or its successors.

No, Philip Hammond is right to dismiss the arguments of our yellow coalition partners. He is right to say we must have a continuous at sea deterrent, which involves four boats, one at sea, one in refit, one for training and one on standby.

He recognises that only having two vessels, which would not be routinely armed, renders the deterrent worthless and makes this country a far less safe place.


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