Posted by: mattburleigh | April 13, 2010

Do we need to replace Trident?

Miranda asked me my opinion, so here’s my considered response to her:

Well, firstly, I’m not convinced it needs replacing in the medium term and one argument is that the decision to do so is premature. The submarines are roughly 15  years old, and could be refurbished. But for some reason both main parties make it an issue. So the questions are
(a) do we need a nuclear deterent?
(b) if so, do we need submarine launched ballistic missiles?
(c) if yes, how many and armed with what?

Now (a) is the most emotive question obviously, with the response ranging from CND unilateral disarmament, to needing a deterent to maintain our place in the world order, and most specifically a position at the UN security council as a permanent member. I have sympathy with both arguments: nuclear weapons hold the potential to send mankind back to the stone age for several millenia, so the best option is to get rid of ALL of them. On the other hand, that isnt going to happen, especially with rogue states developing them, and terrorists trying to get hold of them. But does Britain really need nuclear weapons itself? I can’t see a situation in which we would unilaterally use them. We’d only use them alogside america in some extremely dangerous crisis. And I cant see a war between superpowers on the horizon. Realistically, one can only see a nasty regime like Iran or Korea, or terrorists, launching them as a one off (eg at Jerusalem). So the deterrent argument is a good one from that point of view (although again, do we need them if America’s got them?), but would we really retaliate by nuking Tehran? And what if terrorists of dubious geographical origin committed the attack? You may not have a target to nuke back. In any case, these potential scenarios hardly require fleets of nuclear submarines on 24/7/365 duty.

(b) The four Vanguard class nuclear submarines are the most expensive ships ever built for the royal navy, and it will cost tens of billions to replace them. If we decide we need nuclear weapons, do they have to be submarine launched ballistic missiles? For
example, smaller submarines are now routinely armed with cruise missiles carrying conventional warheads. They can easily carry a nuclear one. Its just that they are much more vulnberable to being shot down by a technically well equipped defender. Ditto a
plane with a free fall bomb. If you want to attack Russia or Chnia you’d definetly need an undefnedable ballistic missile. But Tehran? Saddam never stopped any cruise missile attacks.

(c) four boats are needed to maintain 24/7/365 coverage (one at sea, one preparing for a 90 day patrol, one returning from its patrol, and one in refit – bit like crop rotation in the 14th century). Yet both parties are selling the trident replacement on having fewer boats. Seems like a strategically compromised sop to me. One idea doing the rounds is sharing the patrols with France. Er, 1000 years of anglo-french history says that’ll work. Not.

So my view is that I am not sold on the idea of spending tens of billions on highly expensive replacement boats that are probably overkill given the likely scenarios facing us over the next 40 years. Those tens of billions can be better spent on numerous other things in a country with our enormous budget deficit (and the specious argument that we could do with fewer boats says the politicians know the money can be better spent). If we feel we need a nuclear capability, then there are cheaper options as I  outlined. I’m also not convinced we’d really lose much in the world order by not having trident. After all, apart from america no one else in the world is prepared to send their army into so many war zones on peace keeping missions. One of the best arguments for military spending is jobs. Sure, the boats would be built in the uk. But much better would be the two planned giant aircraft carriers,floating bases from which planes, marines, helicopters, humanitarian aid etc can be taken around the world on the missions which we do best and are likely to dominate over the next 40 years. My fear is that they will be cancelled for a white elephant ballistic missile fleet.

But the truth is that both major parties have already decided to replace trident with more giant submarines and ballistic missiles. So it’s a moot point.

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