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The British Trident debate: an opportunity for progress?

The nuclear weapons debate in the UK has been steadily diversifying and maturing, but thus far has remained an elite, rather than truly electoral, issue. Tomorrow's publication of the Trident Alternatives Review is significant as austerity hits and defence budgets come under scrutiny.

Whether you support or oppose them, nuclear weapons have become an entrenched part of the British security discussion; periods of major debate – in the 1960s and 1980s especially – have had a lasting impact on the national psyche. But it’s rare that we have the chance to see governments – in the UK or elsewhere – step back and engage in truly forward-thinking, public consideration of why that is the case, and what the alternatives might be. This could be one of those moments for the UK. Could. Whether it will or not, remains to be seen.

On Tuesday, the Coalition government is set to publish its “Trident Alternatives Review” – the “TAR”, for short. The Coalition agreement to launch the TAR process stemmed from the original government-forming deal less than a week after the election in May 2010, in which Liberal Democrat opposition to Trident was formally recognised. As a result, a small team in the Cabinet Office was to explore alternative options to a like-for-like renewal of the UK’s Trident nuclear weapons programme. The review has been much anticipated by those interested in the UK’s nuclear weapons policy, and is set to be debated in Parliament on Wednesday evening.

The fact that this discourse is happening is, in itself, important. For a number of years, the nuclear weapons debate in the UK has been steadily diversifying and maturing. But the dynamics of an emerging coalition government provided a unique opportunity to develop this into a wider and more forward thinking policy discussion. This isn’t always the case: strategic debate on the principles behind nuclear policies can often be severely constrained by divisive domestic or regional politics.

However, what the government chooses to do with this opportunity for strategic discourse remains to be seen. Media reports claim fierce division in advance of the TAR’s release tomorrow. The TAR process itself has been far from public, and the extent to which the government and parliamentarians will openly engage in creative discussion on the issue is not clear. As it is, some may seek to use the report in an attempt to close down the debate, claiming that its outcomes demonstrate a lack of cheaper, credible alternatives to the existing Trident programme, and arguing that we should stop wasting valuable time and money by indecisiveness and simply get on with a like-for-like renewal. Others, including the Liberal Democrats, will most likely seek to use it as a springboard to make progress on alternatives. During the Parliamentary debate, a number of Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs, as well as a handful of Conservatives, are expected to argue against like-for-like replacement on the basis that it is an expensive diversion from other real and pressing security concerns.

The TAR is not focused solely on the defence budget. Certainly, when the TAR was first conceived in 2010, the Liberal Democrats were driven by a desire to cut the UK’s nuclear weapons spending. But they were also looking for ways to increase the future flexibility of the British nuclear force, in order to create options for the UK to take further steps down the nuclear ladder before finding itself forced into a decision to abandon its nuclear weapons entirely.

The Liberal Democrats initially pressed to explore alternative options to the current system of nuclear weapons delivery – for example, by introducing dual-use submarines (submarines which have capacity to carry both nuclear and conventional weapons) based upon the already existing cheaper Astute attack-class submarines.

However, this drive to explore alternative platforms (the submarines and planes used to carry nuclear weapons) and delivery vehicles (the missiles used to carry the warheads) has shifted, mainly on the grounds that the savings to be had from such changes looked either insufficient or uncertain. Attention has moved to exploring different approaches in the use of the dedicated ballistic missile submarines.

As it stands, the UK’s ballistic missile submarine fleet rotates in a state of continuous patrol. Four submarines provide a near-certain guarantee that this patrolling can be maintained. The TAR is expected to consider options for moving away from this “continuous at-sea deterrence” posture – and, consequently, reducing the number of ballistic missile submarines in the UK’s fleet. The upshot would be a saving on both capital and running costs (although it’s worth noting that, through the magic of accounting, cutting the actual fleet or number of patrols by half would not result in a proportionate 50% reduction in costs. The level of savings to be had from reducing continuous patrols is, in effect, likely to be small compared to the savings from abandoning the patrolling mission entirely).

But coming back to the question of why we are discussing this in the first place: there are real incentives to start looking at Britain’s nuclear arsenal differently. The Cold War, which was a key determinant in the shape and scope of the UK and others’ nuclear arsenals, is now a quarter of a century in the past, and we exist in a distinctly different geopolitical era. The UK has for some time believed it faces no strategic military threat from any state. And what is more, it has made clear international commitments to moving forward on disarmament and non-proliferation under the terms of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. So, for the UK to invest over a third of its defence procurement budget over the coming decade to pay for the new submarines at a time of austerity seems both strategically and politically untenable.

The option still exists for Britain to choose not to renew its nuclear weapons programme at all, and to consider adopting a non-nuclear posture - with the caveat that, for some time, the UK would retain the capacity to reconstitute a nuclear weapon should the security situation dictate. But for most, this still feels like a distant prospect.

Public opinion polls in the UK, reviewed in a BASIC report by Nick Ritchie and Paul Ingram published today seem to suggest an even split between those who want to give up nuclear weapons; those who want like-for-like; and those who want to find a cheaper option. But the overwhelming evidence suggests that electoral preferences are rarely impacted by the issue. In other words, unless there is a dramatic change in the strategic environment, or an effective communications campaign, the electorate is likely to have little impact on the government’s decision, leaving the elite to decide upon other grounds.

Where public opinion could come into play, however, is in the context of the independence debate in Scotland. The Scottish National Party (SNP) has stated that, should Scotland become an independent state following the referendum set for September 2014, it would demand the removal of the UK’s nuclear weapons from Faslane and Coulport – the two sites just north of Glasgow currently home to the UK’s nuclear submarine fleet and nuclear warhead armoury.

Media reports last week suggested that the Ministry of Defence were looking at the option of declaring Faslane and Coulport sovereign bases – similar to Cyprus – in the event of Scottish independence. The SNP response was swift and condemnatory. But No.10 has been equally quick to distance itself from the reported MoD planning, for fear of stirring up anti-Unionist sentiment among Scottish voters.

At this stage, the referendum looks highly unlikely to result in a “yes” vote for independence. But if it did, the consequences would clearly be significant for Britain’s nuclear weapons possession, and could spell the end of the Trident renewal programme. It is also equally unclear, unless the “no” vote is absolutely decisive, how the uncertainty caused by publicity arising from the debate might impact the Trident renewal discussion over the next twelve months, and the long term confidence in the existing bases.

Later this year, BASIC will also publish the results of the Trident Commission’s findings – a cross-party group of leaders who have led an independent inquiry into the alternatives to Trident replacement. The government’s decision on Trident renewal – the “Main Gate” decision – is due in 2016. So the issue will undoubtedly feature heavily in 2015 election campaigning. In an environment of austerity fatigue, the argument for maintaining investment in a decreasingly relevant deterrent, with no clear adversary, is likely to be hard to maintain.

But for now, we can expect a flash of debate on the Trident Alternatives Review before Parliament breaks for the summer. Let’s hope the government and Parliament can break away from Cold War era thinking, and make good use of this opportunity for a strategic and forward looking discussion on the immediate future of the UK’s Trident programme.

About the author

Rebecca Cousins is Program Director for BASIC in Washington D.C., before which she was a career diplomat with the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office.  She was recently awarded an MBE for her role in the UK's consular in-country response to the 2011 Japan earthquake and subsequent Fukushima nuclear incident.

Rebecca's column on openSecurity explores perspectives on nuclear weapons policy and disarmament.