A responsible government must re-examine Trident

Tomorrow night?s foreign policy Leaders? Debate will cover a lot of ground, and Trident will no doubt be discussed. Nick Witney argues that a post-election defence review that does not include Trident is irresponsible and absurd.

Senior Policy Fellow

Amongst their many other virtues, the British military have a genius for fantastical improvisation. Hence the JEWT, as practised on Salisbury Plain (jungle exercise without trees) – or indeed the NEWD (night exercise without darkness). But new heights of absurdity have now been reached by Britain’s two main political parties, who – as we will no doubt hear again in tomorrow night’s leaders’ debate on foreign affairs – both promise a post-election defence review without Trident. But the case for Trident must be reconsidered if the defence review is to be serious.

The refusal to revisit the case for Trident is deplorable on two main grounds. The first, as the Lib Dems have highlighted, is cost. The 2006 White Paper, following which Tony Blair shoved the decision to renew Trident through Parliament on the back of Tory votes, insouciantly declares: “The investment required to maintain our deterrent will not come at the expense of the conventional capabilities our armed forces need.” Well, that was then – and the days when the opportunity cost of a new nuclear system could be so happily disregarded now seem almost prehistoric.

Even within the Trident option, there is scope for massive cost-saving by abandoning the anachronism of ‘continuous at-sea deterrence’ – the practice of keeping one boat out on patrol at all times. This Cold War relic requires not just more missile submarines, but more attendant attack submarines and maritime aircraft into the bargain. The White Paper notes that the practice is “good for motivation and morale”; but is ‘the Navy like to do it’ any longer an adequate reason?

The second reprehensible aspect of treating Trident as a sacred cow is the casual attitude it betrays to the whole question of nuclear weapons. Even in the depths of the Cold War, when the original Trident decision was taken, serious men engaged in thoughtful debate about the morality as well as the wisdom of Britain staying in the nuclear game. ‘Because we’ve always had them’, or ‘because we can be trusted with them and those proliferators can’t’ were recognised as inadequate arguments for maintaining a capability which, if used, must inevitably cause the death of tens or hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians.

The then government’s case for going ahead was tightly tied to the particular circumstances of the Cold War stand-off – if London as well as Washington had a nuclear deterrent, then the Soviets would have a further incentive to hold back from invasion of Western Europe. In this light, UK nuclear weapons could be argued to help shore up the whole of the precarious peace in Europe (an argument unavailable to potential proliferators elsewhere).

Such arguments were cursorily redeployed in 2006; they carried little conviction then, and none now. The hypothesis of major Russian aggression, whether as an overwhelming conventional invasion or as a nuclear ‘bolt from the blue’, is simply no longer credible – which requires Trident renewal advocates to explain why sauce for the UK goose should not equally be sauce for the Korean, Pakistani or Iranian gander (tip: racist arguments not allowed). And this at a time when President Obama has not only evoked the vision of  a world free of nuclear weapons, but has just secured some positive steps in that direction. ‘I’ve started so I’ll finish’ is just not good enough as justification for pressing ahead with Trident renewal when to do so seems so at odds with the needs of global security.

It may well be that a pared-down Trident would be worth the cost, and that a decision to go ahead could be justified, even in 2010, on both political and moral grounds. But to assume such answers without testing them is simply irresponsible. And a strategic defence review which excludes them from its ambit will be about as plausible as a jungle without trees.

For more on the British election…


Mark Leonard on what the British Conservatives think about foreign policy. Click here for the audio.

Daniel Korski on the start of the British election campaign. Click here for audio.  

ECFR experts available for press interviews and analysis on the European and foreign policy aspects of the British election. For ECFR’s press office, call +44 7787 431 820 or email [email protected] 

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.


Senior Policy Fellow

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