Toby Fenwick is the author of the CentreForum paper

Comment: Trident would make the UK weaker

Comment: Trident would make the UK weaker

There is a real paradox in investing at least £25 billion in Trident when the rationale for it melted away two decades ago.

By Toby Fenwick

2012 provides two contrasting anniversaries: it is 30 years since victory in the Falklands when against all the odds we saw the Union Flag once again flying over Stanley and it is 20 years since the Red Army's withdrawal from eastern Germany following reunification and the implosion of the Soviet Union.

The world is a better place because of the role Britain plays internationally through aid, diplomacy and, when necessary, using force sanctioned by international law. It is worth remembering the many Libyans and Sierra Leoneans are alive today because of the actions of Britain’s forces.

Yet as the government prepares to spend at least £25 billion on replacing Britain’s Trident nuclear submarines – starting in 2015 – it is making cuts to the conventional forces that make such interventions possible.

These are cuts on a monumental scale: £74 billion of defence cuts to date, with another £3 to £5 billion due to be announced before the Easter recess.

So there is a real paradox in investing at least £25 billion in Trident when the rationale for it melted away two decades ago. As General Sir Mike Jackson recently pointed out, Britain’s conventional forces have been cut so far that we could not credibly retake the Falklands if Argentina staged a successful invasion. Given our assurances that we will not threaten non-nuclear states, Trident is of course useless in defending the Falklands.

We should be grateful that as a result of Liberal Democrat insistence, the primary investment decision on Trident ('main gate') has been postponed until 2016.

It is also good news that armed forces minister Nick Harvey has successfully pushed for a study of the alternatives to Trident. However, we believe this study should be significantly expanded to explicitly consider the alternative of getting rid of Britain’s nuclear weapons altogether.

Whether Britain needs nuclear weapons is the subject of a new CentreForum report 'Dropping the Bomb: a post Trident future' which was published on Monday.

Our conclusion is that there is no credible threat to the UK now or in the foreseeable future where British Trident missiles would make a contribution to our security. This is as true for Iran, Pakistan and North Korea as it is for Russia and China.

Reasonable people can differ about whether there was a need for Trident in the depths of the 1980s Cold War, but there is simply no strategic – much less financial case – for replacing Trident today. And to those who want to have Trident as well as the full spectrum conventional capability, the answer is clear: the current – and any likely future – MoD budget precludes this.

Our report examines in detail the alternatives to Trident, including the cruise missile option, and found that they are technically unproven, fiscally uncosted, militarily ineffective, strategically destabilising or a combination of all four – as the Sunday Times pointed out a fortnight ago.

Our analysis concurs with that of the Royal United Services Institute (Rusi). The UK has a real choice between two options: a like-for-like replacement of Trident with continuous-at-sea-deterrence (known as CASD) or non-replacement. Where we break new ground is in assessing that we don’t need Trident now, and won’t for the foreseeable future – and this being the case, why waste money on it until 2028?

What do we propose instead?

We propose a costed plan of eight interlocking recommendations, which:

1) withdraws Trident from service immediately

2) re-roles the existing Trident submarines to carry conventional cruise missiles for long-range power-projection;

3) converts HMS Queen Elizabeth to take the new F-35C Joint Strike Fighter;

4) refocuses Aldermaston’s work on disarmament verification technologies

5) invests 100% of the savings in the conventional forces to allow the UK to meet its global commitments;

6) meets the NATO target of two per cent of GDP for defence spending;

and 7) increase defence equipment expenditure by one per cent per annum in real terms through the next parliament.
This would lead to a balanced UK military to maximise our ability to be a force for good worldwide. In the very unlikely case of a new Cold War, it would provide Britain with the option to return to fielding nuclear weapons.

The old aphorism is that to govern is to choose. So let’s make informed, forward looking choices that will facilitate Britain playing its full and active international role. The world is a much better place with a fully engaged Britain than being "Switzerland with rockets". Many in the military privately agree.

And, if the worst were to happen, having the ability to retake the Falklands is a lot more useful than a weapon to deter the threat posed by the long extinct Group of Soviet Forces Germany.

Toby Fenwick is the author of the CentreForum paper 'Dropping the bomb: a post Trident future'

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