Trident replacement: losing its vocation?

Britain’s departure from the EU may make the case for its nuclear deterrent replacement harder to sustain.

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Six days after becoming Prime Minister last July Theresa May took time out of the chaotic aftermath of the Brexit vote for a House of Commons debate on the replacement of Britain’s aging nuclear deterrent. A strange priority, it might seem. But the divided Labour opposition provided a perfect opportunity for Tory MPs – still shell-shocked from their Brexit civil war – to reunite and score a political victory before the summer holidays.

For Brexiteers, heady with the prospect of Britain recovering its lost glories after breaking the chains of the EU, the case for Global Britain to remain a nuclear power indefinitely is simply self-evident. The proposal to press on with the like-for-like replacement of Trident with four new Dreadnought-class submarines was approved overwhelmingly last July, and they must feel that the debate is now done and dusted.

They may be right. But Brexit fall-out may re-surface the issue as one for serious discussion. And if it does then Britain’s departure from the EU may make the case for Trident replacement harder to sustain.

Breaking the bank

The fall-out is basically financial. Despite their breezy public optimism, the Government are understandably alarmed at where the economy and public finances are headed. The recent U-turn over the Chancellor’s proposal to raise National Insurance Contributions for the self-employed illustrated the government’s concern at the erosion of the tax base, but also their unwillingness to tackle it if opposed by hard-line Tories and their tabloid press allies.

So don’t expect the government to cut the Ministry of Defence any budgetary slack if Dreadnought programme costs escalate even further than the current estimates of £31bn capital and £2.3bn annual running costs. Given the gargantuan cost over-runs on the MoD’s last three major naval procurements – the Type 45 destroyers, the Astute hunter-killer submarines, and the two new aircraft carriers – it requires uncritical faith to believe that the current £10bn contingency reserve will be enough. And with sterling’s fall against the dollar inflating the cost of US imports (like the F35 aircraft to fly off the carriers), the defence budget is quickly slipping out of control.

All of which could yet be dwarfed if the developing row over Scottish independence makes the continued basing of a UK nuclear submarine force on the Clyde untenable. English alternatives – probably Plymouth – are possible, but the costs of building new infrastructure (you do not leave nuclear missiles lying around in sheds) would be eye-watering.

All in all, Brexit fall-out could easily turn the Trident replacement programme into a monstrous cuckoo in the country’s defence nest, forcing the cancellation or postponement of less high-profile but much-needed programmes for the Army and Air Force, not to mention the surface fleet.

Yet, ironically, apart from Brexit, much of what has happened in the world of late would seem to strengthen the strategic case for Trident. Since the end of the Second World War, Europe’s security has ultimately rested on the US nuclear guarantee – the perceived willingness of the US president to risk the destruction of Chicago in order to defend Berlin. ‘Perceived’ is the key word here – what ultimately matters is the risk calculus performed by the man in the Kremlin. And if I were he, I would dismiss the notion of President Trump risking Chicago for Berlin as laughable.

A good many Europeans have evidently reached the same conclusion – witness the recent call by Polish eminence grise Jaroslaw Kaczynski for the EU to acquire its own nuclear deterrent and – more significant and much more surprising – the surfacing of much the same ideas in Germany.

What is new here is that such notions are now getting a public airing. But the idea of a European nuclear deterrent has been discussed, sotto voce, among ‘experts’ for many years (I wrote about it myself in the early ‘90s). The obvious way to achieve it – the way now being canvassed in the new German debate – is well known. Briefly, it is the explicit extension of a joint Franco-British nuclear umbrella over their European neighbours.

The politics, practicalities, and plausibility of any such plan are of course hugely convoluted. Here, I want to make just two points:

  1. ‘Extended deterrence’ of this kind has long, if sporadically, been discussed between London and Paris. A ghost of these discussions appears in the preamble to the 2010 Lancaster House Treaty, in the words “Bearing in mind that they do not see situations arising in which the vital interests of either Party could be threatened without the vital interests of the other also being threatened”. Threats to ‘vital interests’ are those that could elicit a nuclear response, so this is code for saying ‘our national interests are now so intertwined that don’t mess with either of us without reckoning on a nuclear response from both’.
  2. Guardians of the British nuclear flame have always wanted the British nuclear deterrent to be seen not as a national self-indulgence, but as something put at the service of non-nuclear allies – an important contribution to the overall deterrence posture of the West. It was not by accident that, for example, the latest (Warsaw 2016) NATO summit declaration notes that “the independent strategic nuclear forces of the United Kingdom and France have a deterrent role of their own and contribute to the overall security of the Alliance”. British drafters have been putting this sort of formula into NATO documents, and national white papers for decades.

On the face of it, the fact that no sane European would trust Trump to provide the ultimate back-stop for their security looks like manna from heaven for advocates of Trident replacement. At long last there is the real prospect of a non-self-serving rationale for Britain to remain a nuclear power, with grateful Europeans urging us to do just that (and perhaps even ready to contribute to the costs).

All of which would be fine, but for Brexit. For, no matter how often the British government insists that its commitment to NATO remains iron-clad, what looks like mattering from here on in is the perceived readiness of the British prime minister to risk everything in defence of European partners and allies. Except that those Europeans will soon be ex-partners. Is it really credible – in other European capitals or in the Kremlin – that the Brits will really feel their own ‘vital interests’ to be bound up with the fate of those across the Channel when they have torn themselves out of the European Union?

If not, and if and when the financial chickens come home to roost, the case for pressing on with the Dreadnought programme may have little to rest on except blow-hard assertions about national exceptionalism and Global Britain. For, in hard security terms, it will be pointed out that north Atlantic islands are blessed by geography with remarkable safe environments – to the point where Ireland feels safe with minimal armed forces, and Iceland with none at all.

I know, I know, I am talking my own country down, and revealing myself as fundamentally unpatriotic. Actually, I remain instinctively supportive of retention of the British nuclear deterrent. But I do not see how Britain will come out of Brexit other than diminished in the world – and I am not convinced that instinct unbacked by reason will be enough to see the Dreadnought programme through the storms ahead. That Trident replacement vote of last July may come, in retrospect, to look like premature triumphalism.

Nick Witney was UK Ministry of Defence Director of Nuclear Policy in the early 90s.

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


Senior Policy Fellow

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