Increasing number of senior military figures oppose replacing nuclear fleet, but supporters say alternatives are no cheaper
Nothing illustrated better the irrelevance of the British fleet of Trident ballistic missile submarines than the jihadist terror attack in Algeria, say opponents of Britain’s nuclear arsenal.
Those opponents include an increasing number of Britain’s most senior military figures. Asked about the determination of the prime minister and the defence secretary to replace the existing nuclear fleet with a new one, they reply: “A very good question.”
They cannot answer it in public. All they say is that it is a “political” decision. From a military point of view, Trident ballistic missiles are a hugely expensive irrelevance that the country – certainly the defence budget – cannot afford, defence chiefs say.
Trident will not deter, and will never be used against, what they say are Britain’s real enemies, al-Qaida-influenced Islamist extremists charging around the desert in pickup trucks or planning terrorist attacks in sprawling cities.
The last time MPs voted on Trident, in March 2007, the Blair government had to rely on the Tories to get a majority in favour. In his autobiography, A Journey, Tony Blair revealed that he had “hesitated” himself.
He wrote: “I could see clearly the force of the common sense and practical argument against Trident … The expense is huge, and the utility in a post cold war world is less in terms of deterrence and non-existent in terms of military use. Spend the money on more helicopters, airlift, and anti-terror equipment? Not a daft notion.”
Blair admitted it was “frankly inconceivable” that the UK would use nuclear weapons without the US. In the end he opted to renew Trident, because giving it up would be “too big a downgrading of our status as a nation”.
Most independent commentators say the status argument is anachronistic. Field Marshal Lord Bramall, a former chief of defence staff, says that if Britain had not already had the bomb “it certainly would not get it now”.
Vital to Britain’s security is its economic health, General Sir David Richards, chief of the defence staff, and MI5 agree. A new fleet of Trident submarines is officially estimated to cost more than £100bn over its intended lifespan. That does not include the expense of decommissioning the submarines.
The defence budget is still under huge pressure. It is already skewed by the decision – also described by defence chiefs as “political” – to build two large aircraft carriers for the navy. (Originally priced at £3.5bn, they are now estimated to cost £6.2bn. The Commons public accounts committee says the bill is likely to increase to as much as £12bn not including the cost of the US joint strike fighters planned to fly from them.)
One former senior military figure describes the carrier decision as “pork barrel politics”, a reference to the number of shipyard constituencies that benefit from the project. Every time the Ministry of Defence announces new money for Trident-related research and development programmes, it emphasises the number of jobs that will be saved. Sometimes it seems as though the Trident and carrier projects are regarded as job creation schemes. Meanwhile more cuts in the overall defence budget are on their way.
Philip Hammond, the defence secretary, and other supporters of a new Trident fleet argue that it is needed as an insurance policy against a resurgent Russia and China. They seem to regard the outcome of a study on Trident alternatives, demanded by the Liberal Democrats as part of the coalition agreement, as a foregone conclusion. Alternatives such as placing nuclear warheads on cruise missiles would be no cheaper and a less effective deterrent, they expect the study to conclude.
Those opposed to Trident renewal argue that it would be better simply to let the existing Trident fleet expire, allowing Britain to disarm gradually and set an example while vigorously promoting international nuclear disarmament. Nearly 90 Labour MPs defied a three-line whip and voted against Trident renewal at the end of the Commons debate in March 2007.
It is now clear that a decision on whether or not to go ahead with a new nuclear missile fleet, due in 2016, will depend entirely on the political arithmetic after the general election in 2015.