Treating Trident as an employment scheme will leave Britain ill equipped for the real threat: terrorism
Fifty years ago this week Britain signed an agreement whereby its ability to fire nuclear weapons became entirely dependent on the US. Under the Polaris Sales Agreement, heralded as a pillar of the “special relationship”, the US agreed to supply Britain with nuclear ballistic missiles, their launch tubes, and their fire control system. Britain would build the submarines at Barrow and, with US help, the nuclear warheads at Aldermaston.
The 1963 agreement was amended nearly 20 years later by Margaret Thatcher as Trident replaced Polaris. It has been maintained ever since by Conservative and Labour governments, though Tony Blair’s government had to rely on Tory MPs in 2007 when it decided to pay for a new Trident system.
Those who relied on cold war certainties – the assumption that the possession of nuclear weapons would deter the Soviet Union from attacking Britain – had to change their tune. Britain needed nuclear weapons because the world was now a most uncertain place. No one actually threatened Britain, but no one could predict the future. Russia became the country most often cited as the potential threat.
However, a proper debate about what is described as Britain’s ultimate strategic deterrent has been prevented by – as John Simpson, author of a new report on Trident‘s future for the British American Security Information Council puts it – inertia, vested interests, and concern about moving the country into “unknown political and military territory”.
“The expense is huge and the utility … non-existent in terms of military use,” Tony Blair said of Trident in his memoirs, A Journey. He could clearly see the force of the “common sense and practical argument” against Trident, but in the end he thought giving it up would be “too big a downgrading of our status as a nation …”.
Can it be seriously argued that Britain’s influence in the world relies on its possession of a nuclear-armed submarine permanently on patrol somewhere in the Atlantic? The next question is: who does it deter? Presumably not the terrorists regarded by MI5 and MI6 as the greatest threat to British security (since well before the invasion of Iraq 10 years ago).
While Liberal Democrats hover between running down Trident and going for an alternative nuclear weapons system, Labour has been reluctant to engage in any serious debate. Some, it seems, are getting worried. In their recent column on these pages the Labour MPs Angela Smith and John Woodcock, whose constituencies have a direct interest in Trident renewal, suggested that nuclear weapons are not so much about deterrence, or strategy, or defence – but politics and jobs. They wrote: “Labour under Ed’s leadership would never hand a gift to opponents by opting for a plan that might look fine in a Liberal Democrat election leaflet but would create a credibility gap in the eyes of the electorate, and do major damage to Britain’s manufacturing base.”
Building four Trident nuclear ballistic submarines, they said, would sustain thousands of hi-tech jobs. The trouble for years is that Labour has treated military projects, including its decision to build two large aircraft carriers, as job creation schemes. Its legacy was a multibillion-pound gap between what the country was committed to and what it could afford.
Philip Hammond, the defence secretary, has bridged that gap by slashing the size of the armed forces. Confident that the “alternatives to Trident” study demanded by the Lib Dems will conclude that other systems, such as placing nuclear warheads on cruise missiles would be no cheaper, he says he will go ahead with a new Trident fleet if the Tories win the next election.
Trident subs would for many years consume more than a third of the defence procurement budget, defence economists say. Britain, as military chiefs privately admit, risks being left with lopsided armed forces: Trident subs and vulnerable carriers with few planes to fly from them; and not enough surface ships, helicopters and intelligence-gathering kit to deter or capture the real threats.