Today Centre Forum published the report ‘Retiring Trident: An alternative proposal for UK nuclear deterrence’ by Toby Fenwick. This report is an important and timely contribution to the debate on options facing an incoming government. BASIC does not endorse this option specifically, though the paper is well argued and an excellent response to those who assert that like-for-like replacement of Trident is the only credible nuclear weapons option for the United Kingdom.
The need for a review
The report adds to an already compelling case to reopen the Trident Alternatives Review (TAR) and include this in the broader Defence and Security Review to be conducted after the election later this year for a number of reasons:
- Recent budgetary and political developments: if current plans are followed through, the UK will be spending only 1.5% of its GDP on defence, and a big slice of that will be on Trident renewal and running costs. The decision to protect Trident spend whilst overall defence spending is slashed makes no military sense and damages the UK’s ability to influence global outcomes. As ‘Retiring Trident’ clearly shows, alternatives offer major savings and by investing in dual-capable equipment could protect conventional capabilities.
- The 2013 TAR was based upon faulty assumptions that skewed conclusions in favour of Trident, in particular that AWE Aldermaston would take 24 years to construct a new warhead, that a minimum credible deterrent requires strong confidence or widespread damage, and that the UK requires a sizable independent nuclear weapon capability instead of focusing on effective contributions to a strong and cohesive Alliance practicing collective smart defence.
- The current system and planned replacement exceeds a minimum nuclear deterrent, even when measured by the official 1978 Duff requirements of the Cold War – a minimum deterrent can be delivered with significant savings.
- The Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) is in trouble, and the recognised nuclear weapon states, including the UK, need to take steps to build greater global confidence in their commitments to disarmament. A new government will take office in the middle of the NPT Review Conference and will need to consider how it can breathe life into the process. It should announce further reductions in warheads, but an announcement to consider changes to posture that took UK nuclear weapons off continuous patrol or that otherwise reduced the capability of UK nuclear weapons would have far more impact.
The reaction of our allies, particularly the United States, is crucial to decisions in London. There is a deep assumption in London that a decision to abandon continuous patrolling with Trident would be viewed negatively by the US government and would harm the reputation of the UK in Washington D.C. This assumption has never been tested and is based upon a weak evidence base. It is particularly problematic when considering the opportunity costs. UK conventional capabilities are haemorrhaging, and are of far more importance to overall Alliance deterrence and defence capabilities, to broader US interests and to longer-term transatlantic relations and US commitment. US officials are not fooled by assurances that simply do not stack up when it comes to future budgets, and may welcome the willingness of a future UK government to take tough choices if they are in the interests of longer-term Alliance capabilities. An independent nuclear deterrent ultimately based upon the idea that the UK cannot trust the United States for its strategic security undermines Alliance cohesion. Investment justified not on independence of action but on contribution to burden-sharing has a better chance of being received by our closest allies in the longer term.
The Centre Forum report attempts to tackle head-on the assumptions that a free-fall option is insufficient to provide a credible minimum nuclear deterrent by demonstrating potential attack plans that would break through air defences, and that high-alert aircraft could scramble in time to avoid a bolt from the blue. Some may doubt this. But those advocating sticking with the current plan of deterrence based upon Trident at CASD also have to address serious doubts over the future stealth of the current system with the inevitable development of underwater drone technology. If foreign forces in future will be able to track Trident submarines, and take them out with a single strike without even having to attack the homeland, a future PM could be faced with a difficult decision on strategic response if the patrolling submarine were destroyed.
Responsible disarmament demands flexibility
The BASIC Trident Commission concluded that whilst Britain was not yet ready to give up its nuclear arsenal, it does need to pay full attention to creating and following a glide path down the nuclear ladder. The problem is that unless the UK is prepared to consider relaxing its commitment to continuous patrolling in the near future, the Trident SSBN system is rather inflexible, an obstacle to achieving any further steps beyond a rather token reduction in the warheads deployed. In contrast, the proposal for dual-capable aircraft deploying free-fall bombs is more flexible and offers the chance of balancing a continued commitment to a nuclear deterrent whilst meeting disarmament obligations under the NPT:
- It would be the obvious choice of platform for a recessed or virtual deterrent (maintaining the capability to reconstitute an arsenal at relatively short notice, an option considered in the 4th Background Paper to the Trident Commission). When the UK is ready to consider such an option on its path down the disarmament ladder (a policy of all the major parties), then it would be able to do so if it were already deploying this system.
- It represents a step down the ladder in terms of capability, and is more clearly a minimum nuclear deterrent given today’s strategic environment and any likely future environment.
- It avoids major capital investment in dedicated inflexible nuclear systems that will soon prove to be a disincentive for future governments considering abandoning the capital project or reducing the readiness of the fleet (why spend all that money on a system we do not intend to use to its full potential?).
Political parties are signalling their positions in advance of possible deals around UK governance after the election. An incoming government has a chance of coalescing around a position that adopts a proper review of the options it faces, that considers non-nuclear options, flexible nuclear options, a review of posture and the relaxation of patrolling, and crucially its responsibilities to meet its NPT commitments and thereby shore up the non-proliferation regime – in the fundamental interests of national security. This report from Centre Forum offers a credible alternative to Trident for those not yet ready to recognise that Britain’s national security would be strengthened by our abandoning nuclear weapons. It is a wake-up call in the context of defence budgets that simply do not stack up.