Trident: A Done Deal?

Trident is in the news again, and will continue to generate heat in the run up to a parliamentary debate promised later this year on the programme and patrolling posture. But the outcome is clear, pre-determined in the minds of the political elite and to some extent in contractual and diplomatic commitments. For now. Could the equation change in the next parliament? The momentum behind the project appears unstoppable, but beware unexpected shocks before coming to a firm conclusion.

The parliamentary arithmetic clearly supports Trident when it comes to a vote later this year. Whatever the merits of patrolling Trident submarines into the indefinite future, attention will be given to the political impacts on the individuals involved. Cameron will look to exploit divisions in Labour, landing accusations that Corbyn’s Labour Party is irresponsible, soft on defence and hostile to our essential alliances, a danger to all we hold dear. He will refer to naivety, and seek to mortally damage any trust the electorate may have in the ability of the Labour Party to govern responsibly. Anyone questioning the renewal of Trident will risk being seen as siding with the hard left and therefore suspect.

Many in opposition will see this as a chance to establish their anti-war credentials, and show the government to be run by closed-minded dinosaurs, trapped in jingoistic Cold War thinking. They will accuse those in support of Trident as failing to understand the change in mood of the country, post Iraq. And the Scottish Nationalists will exploit resentment that nuclear weapons based just 30 miles from Glasgow are imposed from London. But it will not be about winning this debate. That is a hopeless cause.

But what if an incoming government were to reassess in 2020? This government announced in November that there will no longer be a final Main Gate investment decision committing contracts for whole submarines (previously timed for March this year). They will instead be contracted over time in a modular approach, bit by bit. This could make it easier than it would otherwise have been for a future government to walk away, but not without big costs.

We are today at around £3.9bn spent or contractually committed to the project. This figure could double within the life of this parliament as contracts are let on the actual construction of critical parts of the submarines. Parts of the fourth submarine have already been ordered. More has been spent and committed on relevant infrastructure investment at Aldermaston, Faslane and Derby. It would take a courageous leader of a party already identified as unilateralist to cancel the project and ‘waste’ well over £8bn of investment (a quarter of total spend budgeted today). Such is the passion associated with this issue on both sides, a Party not already united and prepared to expend political capital on this decision could be deeply wounded by such a move. Shades of the 1980s.

Trident is heavily dependent upon the Americans, and the assumption is widely held in London that the Americans will not respect a Britain without it. The UK may have developed its first nuclear weapon systems independently after Ernie Bevan turned the Cabinet debate in 1946 saying, “I don’t want any other foreign secretary of this country to be talked to or at by a secretary of state in the United States as I have just had in my discussions”. But future governments tied themselves to the Americans in signing the Mutual Defence Agreement that has facilitated nuclear cooperation ever since 1958. That cooperation has deepened even more with this latest project.

Soon after the 2007 debate MoD contracted with the United States to design and produce the guts of the submarine – the Common Missile Compartment (CMC) – in collaboration. The UK requirement is for eight missiles whilst the CMC contains a dozen tubes, so the Royal Navy will have to find a use for the spare four, or fill them with concrete for ballast (a serious option). The PWR3 reactor that will power the submarines is a superior American design than the current British PWR2 reactor. Pulling out of the programme in 2020 could put at risk good faith and may be interpreted by some as anti-American, severing deep and unique ties in strategic cooperation.

So the programme appears safe and we can expect, bar some completely unpredictable disaster, to see Successor submarines on patrol in the 2030s – those of us still alive by then. But the world moves on and there may yet be curve balls.

Driven by developments in our everyday world, the decisive military systems of the near future look very different from those of the recent past. The trends favour those that are small, mobile, networked and integrated, open source, often employing remote or autonomous control, and increasingly cheap and disposable. Crucially, military systems will have to continuously keep pace with the ever-changing technologies designed to neutralise them. Those with long lead times, even of just a few years, will involve technologies out of date before the systems come into service, making them deeply vulnerable.

As the drone revolution dramatically changes the character of aerial and ground warfare, it is beginning to affect the seas too. Employing ever more effective sensors, underwater communication technologies, efficient batteries in tandem with micro power generation, extraordinary leaps in electronics and computing capabilities, the future looks extremely worrying for those tasked with ensuring submarines remain stealthy. The speed in the development of technology relevant to sub-hunting is astonishing, and hint at far more transparent oceans well before the Successor submarines are deployed in the early 2030s, as now planned.

But these future considerations are unlikely to affect the debate this year. Neither will the big issues at stake, including the UK’s ability to positively contribute to the international community’s efforts to tackle common nuclear dangers collaboratively, or to apply limited resources to develop defence and security capabilities alongside allies that really tackle the challenges of tomorrow. Meanwhile, the money is spent, contracts laid and the transatlantic work goes on.

This article was originally published on the Huffington Post Blogs on 21 January 2016:

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