Glasgow will give Liberal Democrats the opportunity to debate Trident, climb down the ladder or jump off altogether? George Potter makes the case for jumping off and we will hear from David Grace later this week on the case for “climbing down”.
The recently published Trident Alternatives Review must now force social liberals to climb off the fence regarding nuclear weapons.
To summarise the report, for those who haven’t read it, it considers different ways to provide the UK with a nuclear deterrent. In particular it looks at ship, air or submarine launched nuclear tipped cruise missiles and at land or submarine launched nuclear tipped ballistic missiles.
It also looks at three “postures” when it comes to nuclear readiness. These are being able to launch nuclear missiles at very short notice, being able to launch with months notice and being able to launch with years notice.
When I look at the report as a whole, the conclusions I draw boil down to this.
All options other than nuclear submarines armed with Trident ballistic missiles and warheads would either cost more to implement or leave us with much shorter windows in which to respond to a threat (land based missiles would have to be launched within less than five minutes of a threat being detected – leaving little time for careful and balanced evaluation of the situation).
This leaves us with the following three options:
Continue with full renewal of Trident
This would cost £20 to £25 billion (plus lifetime costs) and go against current Liberal Democrat party policy but, with four submarines, is the only way to provide continuous deterrence – in other words being able to guarantee the constant ability to launch a nuclear counterstrike in the event of an attack on the UK.
Partial renewal of Trident with just two submarines
This would cost about £2 to £3 billion less than the full renewal of Trident and would involve just two new submarines. At any given time the goal would be for one to be at sea and the other to be in dock being repaired. The problem with this, however, is that any unforeseen problems could delay one submarine from going out on patrol – thereby leaving us with a nuclear deterrent what is not continuous, that has gaps in the times when we are capable of retaliating to a nuclear attack.
The cost of this is unknown as we’d still have to pay for work already done on renewing Trident, and bear the (minor) costs of cancelling the rest of the renewal – as well as probably paying to prevent the unemployment of the thousands of people employed at the Falsane naval base where our nuclear deterrent submarines are kept. But it is certain that this would cost much less than either partial or full renewal of Trident. It would also mean losing our ability to independently launch a nuclear attack on another country and giving up our nuclear deterrent.
Looking at these three options, partial renewal is a non-starter. The savings are so little that, if we’re going to keep a nuclear deterrent, we might as well pay £3 billion extra and get one that works all the time rather than a part-time one.
This leaves us with the choice of either renewing Trident in full or scrapping it completely. Personally, I think we should choose the latter. Leaving aside moral questions, we simply can’t afford the cost of Trident at a time when our conventional military forces are being severely handicapped due to budget cuts and when we are still dealing with a monumental budget deficit.
More importantly, we don’t need a nuclear deterrent.
Other countries, such as Germany, do perfectly well without a nuclear deterrent. In fact, all NATO member nations are already protected by the American nuclear umbrella. Having a nuclear arsenal probably only makes us more of a target if a nuclear war were to take place.
And whether we really need a nuclear deterrent at all is also a question worth asking as the Cold War is over and the only people likely to use nuclear weapons in the modern world are either stateless actors (like terrorists), who nuclear deterrents are useless against, or national leaders too crazy to be deterred by the prospect of nuclear retaliation.
That’s why I am convinced that social liberals should make the case for ending the economic madness of wasting £25 billion on nuclear weapons we can’t afford and will never use. It’s the only option that makes sense and we should be proud to get off the fence and make the case for it.