UK Nuclear Policy Now: Questions Remain

The Conservatives fought the election with a clear policy of like-for-like renewal of the Trident nuclear weapon system, and now have a majority in Parliament and fully control the government. The Labour Party also contested the election on a similar policy. If there was any doubt prior to the election that Trident renewal would go ahead, it is surely answered unequivocally now. The government has a clear mandate and all the signals point to a smooth transition through Main Gate next year (or sooner) with some rowdy but inevitably ineffectual parliamentary opposition, most notably from the SNP benches. There do, however, remain one or two questions that will continue to dog Ministry of Defence planners responsible for managing risks to the project.


Ajockolypse Now

Like many a political satirist’s quips, it was one of Boris Johnson’s you weren’t quite sure whether you should take offense or laugh it off. But David Cameron will not be able to ignore the SNP opposition block in Parliament – the greatest shock of all to UK politics arising from this election. Whilst it is no means the principal threat to his majority and still constitutes less than 9% of the Commons, its impact cannot be totally ignored. The Prime Minister faces a choice between on the one hand writing off Scotland and reinforcing the notion north of the border that if it wasn’t time for independence nine months ago, it will be at some inevitable if undefined future, and on the other projecting an attitude of cooperation with a reasoned level of devolution. For now it seems he is likely to attempt the latter choice with some tough hard-nosed bargaining in store, though it is suspected that a significant proportion of his party would be more than happy to see Scotland leave the Union and will press the PM to call the SNP’s bluff. If the forthcoming referendum on membership of the European Union leads to Britain’s exit, the chances of Scottish independence will increase dramatically (uniting the forces of nationalism and pro-European internationalism).

This Parliamentary quandary will not directly affect Trident prior to Main Gate, as defence policy would be the last vestige of sovereignty to be handed over on full independence some way down the line. Nevertheless, further devolution may serve politically to highlight the political edge and symbolism of Trident as an imposition upon the Scots. The sight of a large majority of English MPs voting in favour of massive investment in a system that all Scottish MPs bar the single Conservative will oppose can only strengthen the popular attraction in Scotland for independence. Trident, a system designed during the Cold War to protect the Union, could yet be a critical catalyst for its destruction in the longer run.

The debate in advance of the 2014 referendum illustrated the difficulties for MoD in considering alternatives to Faslane and Coulport, though it may now be easier this side of an unsuccessful referendum last year. The cost and associated challenges in any project to relocate the bases may yet prove fatal to the future of the project. In addition, though less serious, there may yet be powers transferred with devolution (such as policing and public order or the coast guard) that could make operating Trident out of Scotland require greater coordination with the Scottish government and just that much more of a logistical headache than it is already.

As a major project requiring massive investment, MoD will as standard practice need to account for and maintain tight control on the risks involved to operations and the infrastructure, as specified by the official Orange Book. MoD would be highly irresponsible were it not to factor this and the rising probability of a successful independence referendum into their risk and cost calculations. There may well be Freedom of Information requests and calls from MPs in the near future to make such a risk assessment and the mitigating options public. The public interest dimension of these assessments is overwhelming, and it would be difficult to credibly keep these back for national security reasons.


Voting tactics for 2016

Any accommodation with the SNP on matters of devolution will not include the forthcoming parliamentary vote on the Main Gate for Trident renewal directly. Most parties in this drama will pass through their respective lobbies knowing the result will likely be a comfortable government majority, with no more than a tiny handful of Conservatives failing to join the Yes vote far outweighed by Labour MPs supportive. Any hopes harboured by those opposed to a full like-for-like replacement that a future Labour Prime Minister might have sought some compromise position are now dead. The Labour Party is likely to move closer to the middle ground, and whilst it will focus on opposition to the Government programme in many areas, Trident renewal will not be one of them.

Last time Trident was fully debated and voted upon in the Commons (March 2007) the principal opposition to the Government motion was based upon the claim by many that the vote was premature. Whilst in 2016 there will be howls of protest from those who claim there is no room in the timetable for more delay, there may yet be a sizable number of MPs open to persuasion again that there is in fact greater flexibility here than often claimed and repeated as if fact. But they will undoubtedly be in the minority.


The SDSR (or whatever they call it)

Officials in MoD will be anticipating quick moves on the government’s Comprehensive Spending Review in the context of a continuing agenda of austerity and cuts. Prior to the election there were vociferous voices within parliament calling upon the government to ensure defence spending remains above 2% GDP, and it remains to be seen whether the Chancellor is willing to allow this when other large-spending departments have already been promised budget protections. Officials will also consider the relevance of principal threats and general priority of responses in preparation for the National Security Strategy, and start to consider how best to outline existing and planned cross-departmental capabilities in more detail in the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR). The Prime Minister has already said that he does not expect major re-writes of these documents, believing that the 2010 NSS and SDSR editions remain relevant, though his opinion is not shared by most insiders. It may be that officials close to the Prime Minister are assuming a timetable for all three reviews to complete well within 2015, and before the 2016 Main Gate decision.

The SDSR would naturally be the place to consider the role of the Trident system and the opportunity costs it imposes upon other capabilities, but on past form it seems highly unlikely that there would be any such comprehensive consideration. The fact that the smaller opposition parties majored so heavily on the issue in the election campaign, an issue likely to be picked up again later this year by the SNP, will only make it more difficult for officials and parliamentarians on the inside to question the current plans.


Soundings on the future of SSBNs

The fundamental assumption that underpins the UK’s unique sole dependence upon the SSBN submarine for its national nuclear deterrence is that it is and will remain the most stealthy platform available. This feature enables a submarine commander to remain undetected and then deliver nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles to the other side of the planet within an hour and with deadly accuracy. This assumption has remained unquestioned in the public debate. Behind the scenes there has for decades been a technical game of cat and mouse in the oceans, with massive SSBN submarines developing more and more sophisticated stealth technologies (particularly around masking ever quieter propulsion) whilst hunter-killers, aircraft and satellites deploy ever more sophisticated anti-submarine warfare (ASW) detection technologies. Up until now this has not undermined the salience of the SSBN, and the UK MoD believes that it has conducted undetected continuous nuclear patrols for almost fifty years.

But this could all change with the development of networked static and mobile micro-sensors and far better satellite capabilities promising a step-change in ASW capabilities. It is possible that the oceans will be transparent acoustically to states seeking large objects before the planned UK successor submarines even enter the water, rendering them vulnerable to preemptive attack. The revolution in military affairs arising from emerging networked technologies has been dramatic but is still in its infancy. Just as in the air the introduction of drones has transformed long-range global surveillance and strike capabilities and undermines the future of manned long-range strike aircraft, so too we have to question whether the current confidence in the SSBN today could be dangerously misplaced.


A global challenge

Currently the UK is one of eight nuclear-armed states (we don’t yet count North Korea as its ability to deliver a nuclear weapon credibly remains under question). Whilst clearly it cannot determine outcomes in the strategic and diplomatic global arena relevant to nuclear weapons, it can certainly play a role in influencing it. An attitude that sees global nuclear weapon development as completely exogenous to British decisions or influence is socially irresponsible, the state equivalence of a sociopathic. It is an attitude that may have contributed to the troubles states are currently experiencing in New York in the NPT Review Conference.

National security is deeply linked to the trajectories of nuclear proliferation, arms races and the success of diplomatic efforts to stem the tide. Future British governments would do well to maximise their efforts to develop a globally cooperative approach that undercuts the drivers of proliferation and reduces the salience nuclear weapons have to all states, and maximises the tendency in them all to act in a socially responsible manner, with or without nuclear weapons. How they can do this effectively in the coming years must be at the top of their foreign policy agenda.

This article was originally published on BASICs website 15/05/2015 and was published on The Huffington Post.

Share This

Copy Link to Clipboard