Debate around the decision facing Britain on the renewal of its Trident nuclear weapon system continues after Financial Times published an Op-Ed by Sir Menzies Campbell, Lib Dem foreign policy grandee and co-chair of the BASIC Trident Commission. The decision to begin the process by engaging in concept studies, and later design was confirmed by Parliament in March 2007. Parliament was assured by ministers at the time that this was not a final decision to build the submarines.
When the new coalition government formed on the back of an agreement between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, this was one of the issues that divided them. Alongside the decision to continue the project for the moment, the government also initiated a value-for-money review and a study on the various (nuclear) alternatives. This latter study has been progressing behind closed doors, and it was in light of progress on this that the Financial Times published articles and an opinion piece by Sir Menzies Campbell in which he outlined the importance of adequate consideration being given to dropping the so-called ‘Moscow criterion’.
The Moscow criterion is essentially used in the strategic calculations around the number and configuration of warheads that Britain needs deployed to have full confidence in its ability to have a survivable and robust capability to deliver enough of them on the capital of any potential adversary, in order to deter them from contemplating any attack on Britain. Moscow is a clue as to the city that is the most defended – if Britain can defeat Moscow’s defences it can do so anywhere.
Sir Menzies was suggesting that 20 years after the end of the Cold War, and with the change in relationship, it was no longer necessary to threaten certain and entire annihilation of Moscow in a second strike. In other words, Russia may remain a problem, and we may have to remain in a deterrent relationship with them…but it will take much less to deter them, partly because the calculations of value have shifted so much, not least because of the end to ideological conflict.
Sir David Omand, Sir Kevin Tebbit (both former MoD) and Franklin Miller (former DoD) responded by suggesting that Sir Menzies was being complacent, that Russia was placing more value on their nuclear arsenals and rattling their sabre at the West, that nuclear deterrence remained alive and well, and would do so until states found a reliable way to ‘reduce and eliminate the threat of force as a means of settling disputes’.
The underlying debate has only just begun. BASIC will be looking to use the Trident Commission’s report, due to come out early next year, to ensure that the debate over issues such as the future for nuclear deterrence and Britain’s contribution to European and global security can remain informed and open.
These are the views of the author.