Trident Alternatives Review: the elephant in the room

The recent Trident Alternatives Review excludes any consideration of alternative means that might provide effective deterrence and more reliable security for Britain in the 21st century.  It's time for an intelligent public and political debate.

Rebecca Johnson
5 August 2013
Industrial building with policeman standing outside. Workers standing on a balcony.

Main Gate, AWE Aldermaston, where the UK nuclear warheads are made.Photo: Author's (c)

The Coalition government’s long-awaited “Trident Alternatives Review" (TAR) was published on 16 July.  It provided a detailed summary of the costs and problems associated with various kinds of land- sea- or air-based nuclear weapons that might replace the UK’s current Trident system. Though it makes no direct recommendations, the Review points towards a Hobson’s choice of Trident like-for-like, building 4 new submarines that would cling to Cold War doctrines of “continuous at-sea deterrence” patrols (CASD), or “Trident Lite”, with 2 or 3 submarines and recognition that there is no necessity to have a nuclear-armed submarine at sea at all times.

Going back to land-based and air-dropped nuclear bombs was recognised to be foolish. Though some Liberal Democrats expressed interest in dual-capable sea-based cruise missiles, these would be retrogressive, destabilising and prohibitively expensive to develop and deploy, requiring the “Astute” submarine fleet to be adapted. Like Trident, sea-based cruise missiles would leave UK nuclear policy dependent on the United States and probably Scotland as well, since Faslane is also the best-adapted port for Astute submarines, as pointed out in “Worse than Irrelevant”, a prescient Acronym Institute report that analysed all the options before the 2006 White Paper. 

Purporting to project a timeframe out to 2060, the TAR failed to give any thought to international developments that would make Trident replacement utterly pointless, and deliberately excluded analysis of nuclear disarmament and using non-nuclear means to meet Britain’s security challenges for the 21st century. 

A thought experiment: a smoker addicted to high-priced cigars, repeatedly tells the world of his desire to make the world smoke free and dissuade the kids from taking up this dangerous habit.  Sharing this ambition and not liking cigars, the smoker’s spouse suggests that as a first step towards joining the majority of non-smokers, it would be good to analyse the pros and cons, including what cigars actually do and whether something else could be a safer substitute.  Instead, the smoker agrees to a detailed study of other smoking materials – cigarettes, pipes, roll-ups etc., including comparing their prices and the intensity of the comfort level or high they impart (the use of a gendered pronoun is not, in these circumstances, accidental).  Though the doctor, lawyer and many other friends and neighbours encouraged him to consider life without smoking, he adamantly excluded from the study any consideration of alternatives that would provide better highs and more secure relationships with fewer (if any) health, environmental and economic risks.  Having adopted a narrow mandate that permitted consideration of different types of smoking materials only, it is unsurprising that such a ‘Cigar Alternatives Review’ reinforced this smoker’s preference for cigars, though perhaps he could cut down a bit.

Permitted to study only nuclear weapons, but encouraged to consider “value for money”, the TAR adopted a Cold War definition of deterrence and considered what alternative to Trident might provide “a minimum nuclear deterrent capability that, during a crisis, is able to deliver at short notice a nuclear strike against a range of targets at an appropriate scale and with very high confidence”.  Defined like that, it is unsurprising that the Cabinet Office study promotes the Trident devil they already know, though perhaps a bit smaller. The TAR’s basic assumptions expose how outdated UK nuclear policy is.  In a world of economic integration, international interdependencies and shared environmental challenges, UK planners are still bleating on about needing nuclear weapons to convince a potential aggressor that the UK could deliver “unacceptable loss”, which the TAR seems to think is a good thing.  In the real world outside the circular groupthink of nuclear debates in Britain and France,  diplomats in countries ranging from Norway to Mexico, Indonesia to South Africa, are bemused to find these strange, Cold War notions still forming the basis for nuclear decision-making. 

A very different writing is on the wall internationally, epitomised by the decision by the United Nations to set up a new ‘open-ended working group’ on nuclear disarmament at the Palais des Nations in Geneva, and next month's nuclear disarmament ‘High Level Meeting’ of governmental heads of state at the UN Headquarters in New York.  These initiatives follow on from the heightened concerns about the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons raised at the 2010 Conference of states parties to the Non-Proliferation Treaty,  the consensus resolution by the Red Cross and Red Crescent societies which called for nuclear weapons to be prohibited, and a ground-breaking conference in Oslo in March 2013, at which 127 governments and a score of international agencies and experts discussed the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons

Given all parties’ stated commitment to the NPT and apparent policy preferences for multilateral over “unilateral” steps, we might have expected a positive UK response.  But no, the TAR shows this government to be hell bent on unilaterally replacing Trident, in effect sticking two fingers up to the multilateral disarmament efforts of other NPT states.  Worse still, the UK allowed itself to be dragged by other nuclear-armed states, notably France, into boycotting not only the Oslo Conference on humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons but the UN General Assembly discussions on nuclear disarmament as well.

The Liberal Democrat heavyweight on security matters, Sir Nick Harvey, told an NPT meeting in Geneva that the UK boycott was a “serious strategic error”.  Initially appointed as Defence Minister in the Coalition government, charged with leading the TAR, Harvey had suggested that the Review could map out a way for the UK to “step down” the nuclear ladder.  Following his ignominious dismissal from this post (with an apparently compensatory knighthood), the Liberal Democrats had to put a brave face on the situation, as David Cameron set the TAR back on the Tories’ preferred track – a PR exercise to reinforce the pro-Trident lobby. 

Never underestimate the military-industrial stranglehold by defence contractors such as BAE Systems (which demands new submarine contracts for the Barrow shipyard despite being behind and over cost in its delivery of the current Astute submarines) and US arms giants Jacobs Engineering and Lockheed Martin, which (together with SERCO) comprise two-thirds of the privatised management consortium that runs the UK’s “Atomic Weapons Establishments” (AWE) at Aldermaston and Burghfield.  These companies, together with Rolls Royce in Derby, and a few others, stand to profit from Trident replacement. The jobs involved are few and far between compared with the jobs that are being lost due to the cuts in the armed forces, health and other areas of manufacturing that are currently being decimated.  They will be the main beneficiaries of this TAR, from which the Tories excluded any consideration of alternative means that might provide effective deterrence and more reliable security for Britain in the 21st century.  As a result, the no-replacement option, coupled with active engagement in multilateral disarmament efforts, is the elephant in the TAR’s room, as a recent CND report makes clear. 

Had the Coalition government been willing to take into account international proliferation, security and disarmament developments over the past few decades, the Cabinet Office might have recognised that the best option for British security and cohesion would be to let go of nuclear weapons dependency.  The UK would then be able to take the lead in multilateral efforts to ban and eliminate nuclear weapons, thereby strengthening the non-proliferation and disarmament goals that the UK claims to support in the NPT.

Yet, British media and the Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat Parties seem bent on suppressing debate on the real options for UK nuclear and security policy.  Instead they act as if Scottish independence is the main problem. This is short-sighted.

In a weird twist, both UK Prime Minister David Cameron and Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond (leader of the Scottish National Party) seem keen to portray a vote for independence as a vote for getting rid of Trident, though Cameron of course calls it “the British deterrent”.  Either way, this equation isn’t automatically correct. Opposition to Trident in Scotland is currently running at more than twice the level of support for independence.  If, despite the efforts of some of its members, NATO continues to be a nuclear-dependent alliance, then an independent Scotland seeking to join NATO (as the SNP leadership recently decided in the teeth of strong opposition from the party’s grassroots) might come under pressure to lease Faslane to the UK. On the other hand, pressure to make Scotland nuclear free would be likely to intensify if the SNP lost the independence vote, scheduled for 2014. Any Scottish government would have to weigh the deep unpopularity of acceding to pressure from the UK or NATO to lease the Faslane base for nuclear weapons in the future. With over 80 percent of Scots opposed to the continued deployment and storage of nuclear weapons at Faslane and Coulport, Trident's days are numbered with or without Scottish independence. 

In a world where nuclear weapons are being progressively stigmatised and eliminated, it is ridiculous to reduce the important decisions on UK nuclear policy to the Scottish vote on independence or the number of nuclear submarines the  government might or might not be able to afford. This TAR, like the sham 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR), is a lost opportunity to generate an intelligent public and political debate about the role and consequences of nuclear weapons for the UK and internationally.

The UK needs a debate that doesn’t get reduced to submarine numbers and an internecine “angels on a pinhead” debate over Continuous at-Sea Deterrence (CASD) and other doctrinal articles of deterrence belief that have been irrelevant (albeit expensive) for the past 30 years already.  To bring about a genuine debate to assess the role of nuclear weapons in UK and international security,  Ed Miliband has to move Labour beyond the fears engendered by the historically false but deep-seated belief that nuclear disarmament is a vote loser.

This is the first of a series of articles by Rebecca Johnson on the UK nuclear debate.

Read more articles by Rebecca Johnson on the events and debates on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament

Get 50.50 emails Gender and social justice, in your inbox. Sign up to receive openDemocracy 50.50's monthly email newsletter.


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData