On Wednesday, Britain’s Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Danny Alexander, will be in Washington, D.C. discussing the UK government’s study on alternatives to the Trident nuclear weapon system, released in mid-July.
The Trident Alternatives Review (TAR) was led by the Liberal Democrats and born from their original coalition agreement with the Conservatives in May 2010; Alexander assumed leadership of the TAR in late 2012. Though being the the most comprehensive official report on Britain’s nuclear weapon system and options ever released into public domain, the TAR did not give any set recommendations; it simply reviewed the choices. The TAR falls as the first of five markers in the great British Trident debate leading up to the Main Gate decision on Trident replacement, currently set for 2016 (the others include: the publication of the Trident Commission’s final report in late 2013; the Scottish independence referendum in September 2014; the General Election in May 2015 and the subsequent Strategic Defence and Security Review in late 2015).
Back in London, it is two months and a summer break after publication of the TAR, and Members of Parliament are just now delving into the issues behind the Review and what it means. Many will now be particularly interested in the special relationship angle, asking what the American perspective is on any British decision over its nuclear weapons programme. This is something that worries many politicians in Westminster, particularly after the vote to decline involvement in military intervention in Syria called into question for some the UK commitment to enforcing international WMD standards alongside the Americans. On the nuclear issue, it has always been assumed that the US values the British independent nuclear deterrent, but this was brought into question by an article in The New York Times in April, reporting an official’s opinion that the United States would rather the UK prioritise its conventional military capability.
The British debate is likely to focus on this need for an independent continuous at sea deterrence (CASD) some decades after the end of the Cold War. In their recently released Defence Policy Paper, “Defending the Future”, the Liberal Democrat leadership put forth its support for a policy that departs from CASD, in order to shape British capabilities to requirements. Currently being referred to by some as “Trident-Lite”, this posture would entail a partial replacement of the Vanguard system, but it would be a noteworthy step down the disarmament ladder and come with the potential for some savings. But others are still committed to moving even further down the ladder. The Liberal Democrats will debate this issue next Tuesday, September 17th, alongside an amendment to move the UK to a “virtual deterrent”, retaining the capability to produce nuclear weapons without fielding them (See the new BASIC/WMDA briefing by Toby Fenwick, “‘Defending the Future’: A rational approach to Britain’s future nuclear arsenal” for more on this and other options and considerations ahead of the Liberal Democrat Party Conference). The conference vote will determine the Party’s policy on defence and Trident going into the next election.
The Labour and Conservative parties have their annual conferences later this month, but are not expected to discuss this issue at this stage.
The opinions expressed are those of the author.