Tonight the Trident Commission hosts the first of its public events to involve Parliamentarians and others in the brewing debate over this stage in Britain’s nuclear weapons development. It will be holding a Question Time in Parliament on Britain’s nuclear choices, hosted by Anita Anand of the BBC in the chair with Baroness Williams, Julian Lewis MP, David Omand, Prof Mike Clarke and Tim Hare on the panel. This promises to be a lively evening, reflecting the potential for a robust debate in the coming years as Britain approaches its final decision on the new generation of nuclear submarines. The financial pressures alone suggest serious questions for any future decision, given a capital cost reaching £28 billion over the next 15 years. Looking for ways to save money, some have proposed building one less sub, or changing to less expensive means of carrying nuclear warheads, while others have argued for phasing out nuclear weapons altogether.
Some also believe that this is now a serious, brewing debate in the United States over whether it can afford its triad of long-range bombers, and strategic land and sea-based missiles indefinitely. STRATCOM Commander Gen. Robert Kehler, recent Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. James Cartwright, and recent Chairman of the JCS Adm. Mike Mullen have all recently expressed doubts about the cost and the necessity of the triad in the long-term. The most expensive leg in its modernization plans, the strategic ballistic missile submarines, carries a price tag of billion for design, production and operation until 2080 under the Pentagon’s current plans for 12 new submarines. Some have called for cutting the number of subs down or following a less expensive design in an effort to save money. This could well have follow-on impacts on the UK decision, and lead to pressure from the US to stick with current plans.
The BASIC Trident Commission has also earlier today published its first briefing on the state of the nuclear world today. Rather depressing reading, in surveying the states armed with nuclear weapons other than the UK it concludes that despite all the recent disarmament rhetoric, there is no evidence that any of them are actively contemplating a future without nuclear weapons. How this plays out remains uncertain, but one thing is for sure, if the prospects of global zero have any prospects, they are going to need a great deal more political attention and energy focused upon them, or a transformation in political or technical decision-making environment. The United States and United Kingdom are in unique strategic positions to show leadership by lowering investment in nuclear weapons, in recognition of their declining utility as a determinant of strategic influence.