The Great British Trident Debate: 2013 Reviews, 2014 Scottish Referendum, 2015 General Election, 2016 Main Gate Decision

The Ministry of Defence budget appears to have escaped the level of swinging cuts experienced by many other departments in the Spending Review, as documents are released today. At least for now, plans to increase the (much reduced) equipment spend by 1% a year in real terms after 2015 are kept. But money will still play a defining role in the forthcoming Trident debate.

Policy officials and UK nuclear wonks are patiently awaiting the arrival of the long-anticipated government Trident Alternatives Review (TAR) that will outline options for the next British nuclear weapon platform and delivery system. It was born from the original coalition agreement of May 2010 and initiated in the autumn of the same year at the request of the Liberal Democrats in order to position themselves somewhere in between unilateral disarmament and like-for-like replacement. Now under the leadership of Liberal Democrat Cabinet Minister, Danny Alexander, the TAR is reportedly very nearly ready for review by the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister (if not already in their hands). It is understood that two versions of the review have been prepared – a full classified report and a shorter, expedited brief intended for publication. Neither versions are likely to include recommendations, but will rather outline the benefits and downsides of each of a handful of the more ‘realistic’ nuclear options (no non-nuclear options were considered under the TAR). The BASIC Trident Commission has been considering similar issues, and is itself planning to report on its own two-year-long deliberations later this year.

The Conservative Party leadership has already committed itself to supporting like-for-like renewal of the SSBN (dedicated ‘boomer’ ballistic missile submarines) fleet operating a continuous at sea deterrence (CASD) posture. The only question they are interested in is whether the posture requires four submarines, or whether we can ‘get away with’ three. The Liberal Democrat leadership fought in the last election on a policy of opposing this plan as too expensive, too inflexible and too inappropriate for today’s security environment. Liberal Democrats, though still committed to some form of nuclear weapon replacement, have not yet specified an alternative.

This political context presents a challenge for both the drafters and the recipients. The Conservatives will insist that the report support their conclusion that the current system presents the best value for money, and that alternatives will not be enough to meet their deterrent standards. Under this line of thinking, cost should not feature highly on the list of factors for a decision because the Trident nuclear weapon system is the ultimate insurance policy for Britain’s protection—and let’s face it: it’s hard to get cheap insurance these days. The Liberal Democrats will be looking for it to imply that there is at least one alternative that will be cheaper, more flexible, and more appropriate to today–even if it has a lower capability–because the capability offered by the SSBN CASD system is overkill. Both parities will be looking at the potential public reaction in a time of austerity and a lack of public concern around the role nuclear weapons might play in UK security.

The drafters of the TAR are likely to focus on the different capabilities that each option offers, enabling the reader to draw their own conclusion as to what a credible nuclear deterrent would require. For example, a cruise missile option gives shorter range and fewer warheads, opening up the submarine to greater risk of detection and failing traditional criteria for scale of attack. The Conservatives would be able to claim that this was inadequate, whilst the Liberal Democrats might be in a position to claim that this was adequate and appropriate to any foreseeable contingency.

The question lies in whether the TAR will have price tags associated with options, indicating alternatives to like-for-like replacement at a significantly cheaper cost. The Conservatives may be in a position to say that alternatives to Trident are not credible in potential future scenarios, but will this potentially wash with a public exhausted with public spending cuts and financial austerity. Pound signs in the report showing a cheaper option with sufficient credibility for the public to be reassured that Britain remained a nuclear power would be a political victory for the Liberal Democrats–one that could affect the Conservative Party if this became a leading issue in the 2015 General Election. The coalition government, therefore, might come to see this report as the hairline fracture in the ice, drawing closer to a deeper crevasse which will prove to divide them.

So can this dilemma be overcome? There are few concrete indications of a date for publication at this time. Does this mean the review will never be published, as some close to the Labour leadership seem to think today?

It is likely that ultimately, both coalition parties have too much to gain from publication to keep it from public view indefinitely. From day one of the coalition government, this was one of the few explicit high-profile policy issues identified as dividing the two parties, though of course, there are plenty of others. As they approach the General Election, when Liberal Democrat MPs will largely be defending their seats against Conservative challengers rather than Labour, both parties will be looking for policies such as this one that distinguishes them. The challenge today may be on the Liberal Democrats to come up with a nuclear weapons policy option that is both sufficiently ‘credible’ and significantly cheaper, but if they do, the onus will be on the Conservatives to win around public opinion to a higher spend on a weapon system all hope will never be needed.

And where does this all leave the Labour Party? Labour Party leadership up until now has held back its defence front bench from over-committing to like-for-like, keen instead to wait for the results of the TAR and the Trident Commission before considering changes to Party policy in advance of election manifesto writing in 2014. They are likely to come under increasing pressure in coming months from both wings in the party to open and perhaps conclude the debate in the Party on this issue.

The TAR and Trident Commission reports are the first of several important benchmarks that Britain will confront between now and the 2016 parliamentary vote on Main Gate for the submarine platforms. In September 2014, the Scottish referendum will continue to put Trident and Britain’s nuclear weapons in the limelight north of the border. Whether or not Scottish public opinion holds this issue particularly highly as a decisive one for their preferences, the pro-independence lobby has already shown its belief that this is a vital demonstration of London’s tendency to foist its own decisions and their negative consequences on a reluctant Scottish population. A fierce on-going debate in the Scottish media on these matters will find its way into the London media too. It may also get England to start thinking seriously about re-location of the submarines south of the border.

All of this is happening prior to the General Election in May 2015 and is the first time in a generation that the electorate will have a chance to vote in advance of a final parliamentary division on the next generation of nuclear weapon systems. Coincidentally that same month, state representatives will be meeting in New York for the NPT Review Conference (held every five years), at which the majority of countries will be explicitly linking efforts to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons with the need for nuclear disarmament. The UK is a reluctant nuclear weapon state. How will the UK’s review and decision on its nuclear weapon system be balanced under the international commitments it has under the NPT? Is it possible that we may yet see a majority of MPs after 2015 opposing a like-for-like option? Will the TAR shed any light on options that could facilitate positive flexible steps down the nuclear ladder along which other nuclear weapon states could follow?
trident decision timeline


These are the views of the authors.


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