A Worrying Development For Trident – Analysis


By Peter Cannon

The announcement of an official study into alternatives to Trident, following the postponement of Trident’s renewal, should be a cause for alarm.

Initial Gate and the study of alternatives

On 18th May, Defence Secretary Liam Fox announced that the Government had approved the ‘Initial Gate’ decision for the replacement of the UK’s Trident nuclear deterrent.   The main design choices and programme of work for the construction of the new submarines had been agreed, although the ‘Main Gate’ decision under which the new submarines would be built is not due until 2016. The Initial Gate decision was taken later than indicated under the Strategic Defence and Security Review, which stated that ‘Initial Gate’ would be approved by the end of 2010.

The Defence Secretary rightly stated: “The nuclear deterrent provides the ultimate guarantee of our national security, and for the past 42 years the Royal Navy has successfully operated continuous deterrent patrols to ensure just that.”  He rightly explained: “we cannot dismiss the possibility that a major direct nuclear threat to the UK might re-emerge. We simply do not know how the international environment will change in the next few years, let alone the next 50 years.” The Defence Secretary reiterated: “I am absolutely clear that a minimum nuclear deterrent based on the Trident missile delivery system and continuous at-sea deterrence is right for the United Kingdom and that it should be maintained.”

A more surprising element of the Defence Secretary’s statement was that “to assist the Liberal Democrats in making the case for alternatives”, there would be “the initiation of a study to review the costs, feasibility and credibility of alternative systems and postures. The study will be led by Cabinet Office officials overseen by the Minister for the Armed Forces” (Nick Harvey, a Liberal Democrat).  While it was part of the Coalition Government’s Programme for Government that the Liberal Democrats could continue to make the case for ‘alternatives to Trident’, an official Government study to examine these ‘alternatives’ was an entirely novel idea.

It is also a worrying one.  Referring to the agreement between the Conservative and Labour Parties on replacing Trident, the Defence Secretary told the House of Commons that “Cross-party support adds greatly to the credibility of our deterrence policy, which is an essential part of the protection of our country.” Given that, for the Government to be carrying out an official study into alternatives to the Trident system risks undermining the credibility of the UK’s deterrence policy, by suggesting that the Government has not yet made up its mind on replacing Trident and that it is not giving this decision the seriousness which it deserves.

The previous decision to delay the Main Gate decision on Trident replacement until 2016, after the next general election, was one of the most worrying in the SDSR. Putting the decision off until after another election raises obvious questions about the very future of the deterrent, and indicates to the rest of the world that the British Government is not certain enough about the future of the deterrent to make a commitment.

The delay of Main Gate

The decision was particularly worrying as Nick Harvey, the Liberal Democrat Armed Forces Minister, had told the Liberal Democrat party conference just before the SDSR that if the decision was delayed, the Liberal Democrats could use the issue at the next election and apply political pressure to try to persuade the other two parties to modify their positions.  He told the conference that a delay would not make a difference to the project but “is of profound political significance. Conservatives know that they are not going to be able to look to the Liberal Democrats to get that through Parliament, so the issue will be a hot potato for Labour.”   He argued that Labour would have a “headache” over “whether they are going to ride to the rescue of the Conservative Party on Trident.” He concluded: “The Liberal Democrats are not going to change our mind. As for Labour, watch this space. This story ain’t over yet, it’s going to run and run.”  This was an extraordinary approach for a defence minister to take to an issue of national security.  It was even more extraordinary that, even after this open warning of the Liberal Democrats’ intentions, the decision was still taken to delay Main Gate.   In fact, there is little rationale to this decision other than an attempt to please the Liberal Democrat members of the Coalition and to put off a difficult and potentially divisive decision, even though the Coalition Programme for Government stated “We will maintain Britain’s nuclear deterrent” and made no mention of a delay.

Following the SDSR, Ros Scott, the Liberal Democrats’ president, e-mailed party members arguing that the delay was a “significant victory”: “the Coalition Government announced that there will be no final decision on the like-for-like replacement of Trident during this parliament. So Trident will not be renewed this parliament – not on a Liberal Democrat watch. Let us be clear, this is a significant victory for Liberal Democrat campaigners, and a fantastic example of what our Ministers can and do achieve in government.”

Alternatives to Trident?

The MP who opened the Liberal Democrat conference debate on Trident stated: “If it was up to me, I would scrap Trident today.” It was clear that many of the delegates supported unilateral and complete nuclear disarmament. However, the official Liberal Democrat position is that to support an ‘alternative’ deterrent to Trident. There is, as of yet, no consensus as to what such an ‘alternative’ would be. The Cabinet Office would study the “costs, feasibility and credibility” of alternatives.

The alternatives which have been suggested thus far in discussions of the replacement of Trident are all deeply problematic.

Any alternative nuclear weapon system would require additional development and testing costs, and would be likely to involve a longer development process than the straightforward replacement of the existing Trident system.  There is no evidence that a different weapon system could offer any improved capability compared to Trident.  The legality of developing a new nuclear weapon system could also be questioned under the Non-Proliferation Treaty.  There is therefore little or no benefit in deciding to replace Trident with a different system.

Trident is based on the principle of continuous at-sea nuclear deterrence.  It can be used at any time against any target in the world, and is therefore always ready to respond against any threat.  Its location is unknown.  It therefore cannot be pre-empted or neutralised by a potential aggressor.   Any alternative weapon system which ended the principle of continuous at-sea deterrence would leave the UK more vulnerable.  It would reduce the deterrent effect, by opening up the possibility that there was not always a deterrent ready to be used at any time and against any target.  The UK would not therefore be ever-ready to respond to an attack.  A submarine-based deterrent which did not maintain a submarine continuously at sea could create potential ‘windows of opportunity’ for attack in the eyes of an aggressor. If a submarine was deployed at a time of heightened tension or crisis, as has been suggested by some who argue that the UK does not need to maintain continuous at-sea patrols, this could create panic at home and escalate any situation internationally.  It could also be seen as a direct threat or a provocation by an enemy.  In such a situation, such a submarine could be vulnerable to attack as it leaves its UK base.

Other alternatives to Trident also pose problems.  Land-based ballistic missiles would be vulnerable to attack and pre-emption, as well as creating additional domestic security risks and costs.  Cruise missiles do not have the range of ballistic missiles, reducing the UK’s ability to respond.  A cruise missile is also more vulnerable to being shot down, further reducing its deterrent effect.  The UK nuclear warhead is also the wrong size to be fitted to a cruise missile, making such an alternative impractical. An airborne nuclear deterrent is also vulnerable to being shot down, and would only have a limited range.

Nick Harvey has also suggested the possibility of a shared British-French deterrent.   But any system that was not completely independent and controlled by the UK at all times would not be able to provide the same level of assurance as decision-making and responsibility could become confused and controversial, particularly at a time of crisis. Trident is operationally independent.  The warheads are British and the system does not rely on US or other navigation satellites.  The targeting is performed by the UK and firing authority rests with the Prime Minister.

Compared to such alternatives, Trident is clearly the best option for the UK.  Other options would be costly, problematic and inadequate.  Trident is the only system available to the UK which provides continuous at-sea deterrence and is every ready to be used against any target.  Other weapon systems would not be able to guarantee this and would be vulnerable to pre-emption.  There is no indication that any alternative can offer any better capability than Trident.

The BASIC Commission on Trident

Despite this, the announcement of an official study into alternatives may give credibility to the idea that Trident should be replaced by a substantially different system.  The fact that the Cabinet Office is to work under the direction of Nick Harvey, who has made his opposition to Trident clear, and the fact that the study is designed “to assist the Liberal Democrats”, raises questions over its impartiality.

The official study into alternatives to Trident coincides with a new ‘independent, cross-party commission’ to examine Trident renewal and UK nuclear weapons policy announced by the British American Security Information Council (BASIC), an organisation which describes itself as “a small but influential NGO with one very large idea:… a world free from the threat of nuclear weapons.”   BASIC announced that the delay to Main Gate presented a “window of opportunity” for such an exercise. The BASIC Commission intends to examine whether the UK should remain a nuclear weapons state, whether Trident is the best system and what more the UK can do to contribute to global disarmament. BASIC has recruited big names such as former defence secretaries Lord Browne and Sir Malcolm Rifkind, former Liberal Democrat leader Sir Menzies Campbell and former Chief of the Defence Staff Lord Guthrie.

Nick Harvey attended the parliamentary launch of the BASIC Trident Commission, and claimed that he could find  little detailed argument from government officials justifying the UK’s doctrine of continuous at-sea deterrence, saying: “When you looking for the paper trail, it is thin.”   He also complained: “Alternatives didn’t seem to have been given detailed or objective assessments. The debate has been very much yes or no to this single notion of how a credible deterrent can be provided. Supporters of this policy come at it in a very single-minded way and anyone who does not agree is regarded as being implacably opposed to a deterrent of any kind. We now have a period of time for a mature debate about alternatives and approaches and the necessary work to be commissioned.”    Paul Ingram, executive director of BASIC, said that the government’s recent decision to delay the start of construction for the new delay of Main Gate “guaranteed that this would be an election issue and that parties would need to be reconsidering their positions in the next few years prior to writing their manifestos”.

The direction the BASIC Trident Commission is going in is therefore not difficult to discern. The project seems designed to promote the public questioning of Trident and the principle behind it by high-profile figures.  Part of the BASIC Commission terms of reference, for example, is to examine ‘potential defence budget impacts’ and ‘opportunity costs’, promoting the idea that spending on Trident implies resources being taken away from the UK’s conventional armed forces.  This does not take into account the fact that by providing nuclear deterrence against an attack, Trident actually places less of the burden of deterrence on Britain’s conventional forces, or the fact that either an alternative system or disarmament would both be expensive options. Nor would it be wise to make a decision over something as fundamentally important as a nuclear deterrent on the basis of short-term financial considerations. BASIC also promotes the idea that the START treaty between the US and Russia and Barack Obama’s call for a nuclear-free world creates a ‘new context’ in which the British nuclear deterrent needs to be re-examined, despite the fact that a nuclear free-world remains a highly remote and distant prospect, that the other official nuclear weapon states are still retaining larger nuclear arsenals than the UK and that states such as Iran and North Korea show no sign of giving up their development of nuclear weapons.

Causes for concern over the future of Trident

The BASIC Trident Commission is likely to contribute to an intellectual and political atmosphere in which Trident is increasingly called into question, despite its advantages.  Criticisms of Trident will be, and are, used by those who want to promote unilateral nuclear disarmament.  The potential alternatives to Trident lack credibility and, thus far, any details.  Rather, they seem to be more of a distraction aimed primarily at undermining the idea of Trident and at blocking or delaying its renewal, rather than serious suggestions for future nuclear deterrence.

The Defence Secretary is confident that the new study will reaffirm that Trident and continuous-at-sea-deterrence remain best for the UK and that the alternatives are not credible.   However, the fact that he was recently criticised within the Government for ‘bigging up’ Iran’s nuclear ambitions,   while the SDSR merely says “We cannot discount the possibility that the number of states armed with nuclear weapons might increase”, suggests that the Government is unwilling to publicly share his sense of urgency and certainty on nuclear issues. Taken after the postponement of the Main Gate decision until after the next election, the announcement of the new study into alternatives to Trident appears to be part of a worrying trend away from a firm commitment to renewing Trident. Given the insistence of the Defence Secretary and the Prime Minister that they remain committed to Trident and that the Government’s policy is clear, and given all the other challenges facing UK defence policy, there is no justification for Government resources to be devoted to a study of alternatives to Trident which is intended to help the Liberal Democrats make the case for alternatives. This means that a political party are to be given official help to lobby against Government defence policy and to undermine the renewal of the nuclear deterrent.  The UK’s nuclear deterrent is far too important for decisions to be taken based on party political considerations.  National security should outweigh party political sensibilities.


i Hansard, 18 May 2011 : Column 351, http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201011/cmhansrd/cm110518/debtext/110518-0001.htm#11051871000003
ii HM Government, ‘Securing Britain in an Age of Uncertainty: The Strategic Defence and Security Review’, http://www.direct.gov.uk/prod_consum_dg/groups/dg_digitalassets/@dg/@en/documents/digitalasset/dg_191634.pdf
iii Lib Dems accused of “playing politics” over Trident’, BBC News, 22nd September 2010,
iv HM Government, ‘The Coalition: Our Programme for Government’, http://www.direct.gov.uk/prod_consum_dg/groups/dg_digitalassets/@dg/@en/documents/digitalasset/dg_187876.pdf
v “We’ve stopped Trident” brags Liberal Democrat President in email to party supporters’, Tim Montgomerie, Conservative Home, 19th October 2010, http://conservativehome.blogs.com/leftwatch/2010/10/weve-stopped-trident-brags-liberal-democrat-president-in-email-to-party-supporters.html
vi UK and France should build nuclear deterrent together, says minister’, Patrick Wintour & Allegra Stratton, The Guardian, 1st April 2010, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/apr/01/uk-france-build-nuclear-deterrent
vii BASIC Trident Commission leaflet, http://www.basicint.org/sites/default/files/Commission-leaflet16.pdf
viii UK defence minister: case for Trident is “thin”‘, Julian Borger, The Guardian, 9th February 2011, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/julian-borger-global-security-blog/2011/feb/09/trident-liberal-conservative-coalition
ix Coalition split on post-Trident nuclear deterrent’, Richard Norton-Taylor, The Guardian, 14th February 2011, http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2011/feb/14/coalition-split-on-trident-replacement
x BASIC Trident Commission launch event’, http://www.basicint.org/tridentcommission/events
xi Liam Fox: Liberal Democrat Trident review is a joke’, Nicholas Watt, The Guardian, 19th May 2011, http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/wintour-and-watt/2011/may/19/liamfox-trident
xii David Cameron rebukes Liam Fox over ‘bigging up’ of Iran’s nuclear ambitions’, James Kirkup, Daily Telegraph, 28th February 2011, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/david-cameron/8350973/David-Cameron-rebukes-Liam-Fox-over-bigging-up-of-Irans-nuclear-ambitions.html

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