29 June 2012

Marching on the Moscow Criterion

On 30 May 1962 Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, 1st Viscount Montgomery of Alamein, remarked in a speech in the House of Lords that:
Rule 1, on page I of the book of war, is: "Do not march on Moscow".
Fifty years later it seems that the Liberal Democrats in the UK’s coalition government have decided not to invade Russia but to march on the “Moscow Criterion” instead. In the Financial Times on 18 May under the heading Trident divides coalition partners, James Blitz reported that:
Inside the coalition, David Cameron and the Conservatives have already made their decision. It is that the UK should fully replace the current submarine-based system which launches the Trident D5 ballistic missile. The Liberal Democrats, however, are searching for different options. They are committed to Britain keeping a nuclear deterrent. But instead of spending £20bn rebuilding Trident, they want to explore whether cheaper alternatives – such as launching a warhead from aircraft or from Astute class submarines – could be adopted instead. Nick Harvey, the armed forces minister and a Lib Dem, will soon complete a year-long review inside the Ministry of Defence exploring the alternatives. This review is secret. But it has emerged that Mr Harvey wants Britain to abandon the “Moscow Criterion” – a cornerstone of nuclear weapons doctrine for the past four decades – that defines what the UK’s nuclear capability should be. Under the criterion, UK planners assume if a major world power, such as Russia, were to attack the UK, Britain should be able to retaliate by destroying the independent capability of that aggressor, by destroying targets deep inside that country. The UK therefore needs a nuclear weapons system as expensive and elaborate as the Trident model. It must be undetectable at sea. It must also be able to launch a sufficient number of warheads to overcome the elaborate air defences around a city such as Moscow.
This was backed up with another piece by Blitz and George Parker (the FT’s political editor), UK in cold war doctrine rethink, which stated:
In an internal debate with far-reaching implications for Britain’s future nuclear capability, Nick Harvey, the Liberal Democrat armed forces minister, is questioning the so-called Moscow Criterion, which some see as a relic of the cold war. Britain’s deterrent policy has been based, since the 1970s, on a principle that the nation would possess the nuclear capability to overwhelm the opposing capital’s air defences and destroy its government and military command centre. However, Cabinet Office officials are considering whether the UK’s deterrent threat should be more limited in scope, arguing that Britain could still inflict unacceptable damage on a foe by wiping out smaller cities or military facilities.
In an accompanying opinion piece the senior Liberal Democrat backbencher, Menzies Campbell (a former party leader and foreign affairs spokesman), argued:
[the Moscow Criterion’s] current relevance is undermined first by the end of the cold war and second by the UK’s adoption of the nuclear doctrine of last resort and minimum deterrence. … when the political context provides safe opportunities to reduce the salience of nuclear weapons we should take them, if necessary by “independent” decisions. Britain should take such a decision now, by publicly renouncing the Moscow criterion at this weekend’s Nato summit in Chicago.
He concluded:
Abandoning the Moscow criterion would inevitably affect the current debate about a replacement for Trident. It would underline the question of whether a like-for-like replacement of Trident is necessary or whether minimum deterrence can be provided in some other way. It is no longer enough to plan as if the cold war had never ended and mutually assured destruction, or a variant of it, were still necessary. The answer to the question must reflect the realities of the time.
Not surprisingly the statement Campbell wanted was not made at the NATO summit. In fact, on 18 June the defence secretary, Philip Hammond, announced a £B1.1 contract with Rolls-Royce for the supply of nuclear submarine reactors, and told the House of Commons that:
The Government’s policy is that the Vanguard class will be replaced at the end of its life in the late 2020s by a successor strategic missile submarine carrying the Trident missile, subject to a main gate investment approval for the project in 2016. In the meantime, long-lead items and design work for the successor submarine have been commissioned. I have today announced by written ministerial statement that we are investing £1.1 billion over the next 11 years in a programme of work which includes redeveloping the Rolls-Royce factory in Derby where all our submarines’ nuclear power plants are designed and built, and in maintaining the skills necessary to do so.
In the first FT article the Moscow Criterion was described as “a cornerstone of nuclear weapons doctrine for the past four decades” which is to say since 1970. A recent post here touched on the dates of the Cold War and concluded that 1947-1989 was probably right, so it seemed odd that such a significant benchmark appeared so late on. An obvious source for an explanation is the works of Peter Hennessy, so I consulted the second edition of his The Secret State, published in 2010. Although it contains a wealth of information about “preparing for the worst”, the emphasis is on what could happen to the UK rather than on the response. However, his Cabinets and the Bomb, published in 2007, is more forthcoming and includes a chapter Moscow Criterion 1967-77. Hennessy observes that Harold Macmillan in 1962, very shortly after securing the supply of Polaris missiles from the United States, had stated that “the latest developments in the field of anti-ballistic missile defence made the manufacture of an offensive warhead a very difficult and complicated business”. By 1967 this problem was (in Hennessy's words):
… very much on the horizon. Could and should the Royal Navy’s Polaris missiles be made capable of penetrating an ABM screen around Moscow – a question that became known as the ‘Moscow Criterion’.
Hennessy’s book reproduces many declassified government papers (this chapter alone is over 100 A4 pages) which show the deliberations at the highest levels of government as to whether the improvements to Polaris should be undertaken, as eventually they were. Although none of these documents seems to use the exact expression ‘Moscow Criterion’, the underlying issue of penetrating ABM defences seems to have been of concern for at least five decades rather than four. The FT articles refer to “air defences” but presumably mean the Moscow ABM defences which Macmillan was referring to in 1962. In fact, the warheads from ballistic missiles re-enter the earth’s atmosphere as they approach their targets. Air defences, in the form of surface-to-air missiles like the Russian S-400 and S-500, are more of a problem for weapons like cruise missiles. Anyway this distinction may well be irrelevant because Richard Norton-Taylor reported in the Guardian on 22 June, after Hammond’s statement, that:
Harvey is conducting a review into alternatives to Trident, part of the original coalition agreement. The review is due to be completed by the end of the year. LibDem leaders have been suggesting that Britain should abandon the so-called "Moscow criterion" - ie that the UK should no longer have the capacity to destroy the Russian capital with a nuclear strike. Yet Britain's existing nuclear missiles are unlikely to have had that capability for a very long time.
Whether the Harvey review will ever be published, even in a sanitised form, remains to be seen but leaks and media lobbying, particularly from LibDems, look likely to go on for some time. The coalition agreement stated:
The Government will be committed to the maintenance of Britain's nuclear deterrent, and have agreed that the renewal of Trident should be scrutinised to ensure value for money. Liberal Democrats will continue to make the case for alternatives.
which tends to dash any hope of the issue being concluded in 2012. An example of the consequences of this sort of indecisiveness was Rachel Sylvester’s article in The Times on 26 June:
Meanwhile, the controversial question of the nuclear deterrent is looming. The Conservatives have always seen the commitment to replace the Trident nuclear submarines as evidence that they are hard-nosed on defence. But in fact, the chiefs of staff have little time for “boys’ toys” that are far more about politics and diplomacy than military might. They would prefer the Government to commit extra resources to conventional equipment and troops instead of spending £20 billion on replacing Trident. It may be no coincidence that an internal MoD review is beginning to reach the conclusion that there may be a viable alternative to large dedicated nuclear submarines. One option, which is being looked on favourably by Nick Harvey, the Lib Dem Defence Minister, is to put cruise missiles on the new generation of Astute-class submarines. Although these would have a smaller range than the intercontinental missiles that are used on Trident, they could also allow more speed and flexibility. With a decision not due until 2016, this could easily end up as another area of manifesto “differentiation” between the Tories and the Lib Dems, with the Conservatives on the opposite side to the Armed Forces.
Sylvester didn’t explain how cruise missiles have more “speed and flexibility” than “the intercontinental missiles that are used on Trident”. Doubtless Harvey’s review team has a better understanding of these things than appears in the press.


Harvey was the subject of an interview ("Resolutely down to earth, he’s definitely more Nick Harvey than Harvey Nicks") in 28 June’s The House magazine produced by PoliticsHome:
Harvey is fully signed up to the coalition of the willing that is the current Lib-Con Government. But when he was appointed as the Lib Dems’ man at the Ministry of Defence, one immediate headache was to shape a collective policy on whether to renew Britain’s nuclear deterrent. With his own party’s long opposition at loggerheads with Conservative support, a final decision on whether to increase Trident’s lifespan was conveniently delayed until 2016.  
In the interim, Harvey is leading an 18-month review, which, he says, is “looking at alternatives to a submarine- based system, alternative submarine-based systems, and alternative postures.” Harvey envisages the review, which he will sign off on at the end of the year, “provoking a national debate from early next year through to an election in 2015 and a decision by the government of the day in 2016”, but he refuses to drop any hints as to its recommendations.  
However, he suggests there may be some truth in reports that military chiefs are coming round to the Lib Dem side of the argument. “The Chancellor made it clear at the time of the Comprehensive Spending Review that the future deterrent will be paid for out of the defence budget” Harvey warns, adding. “I would imagine that the armed forces will be viewing this, when it emerges, with more interest for the future if they’re thinking in terms of the opposing costs between what we spend on a future deterrent and what we can spend on the rest of the armed forces.”

(My emphasis above.)
ADDENDUM 5 September

David Cameron, presumably consulting with the Lib Dem deputy PM, Nick Clegg, as appropriate, reshuffled the Coalition cabinet and other ministers on 4 September, an event which Patrick Wintour covered the following day in the Guardian. His report included the following:
It is also strange that Nick Harvey – the respected Lib Dem armed forces minister – has been sacked by Clegg, meaning they have vacated the defence department entirely. Harvey's dismissal came out of the blue and has hit him hard since he was intimately involved in drawing up a policy on the replacement for trident nuclear submarine programme [sic] due to be published next year.
Harvey had good relations with the defence secretary Philip Hammond, but was told by Clegg that he wanted to focus his finite ministerial resources on those departments from which they could get most media traction, and argued it was more important for a green party such as the Liberal Democrats for the first time to have a minister at the department of environment.
The stronger counter argument is that with Davey as energy secretary, the Lib Dems' green agenda was well covered, and Harvey was using his base to propose a serious alternative to Trident renewal. 
Harvey expressed some of his unease, telling the Guardian: "I hope very much that the absence of a Lib Dem voice in the Ministry of Defence does not make it more difficult to ensure that the review comes up with the options we would like".  
Clegg has told Harvey that he will personally oversee the review through the cabinet office where David Laws will also be present. Harvey regarded Trident, and the knowledge base of the ministry of defence, as critical to the Liberal Democrats.
ADDENDUM 6 September

It was the FT back in May that revealed Harvey’s taking aim at the Moscow Criterion. So their account today (£) of his departure (by Blitz again and XX) is obviously of interest:
Senior Liberal Democrats have criticised Nick Clegg for pulling his ministers out of both the Foreign Office and Ministry of Defence, warning that it may jeopardise the party’s attempts to find an alternative to replacing Trident missiles.
… One senior MP said: “It appears that Nick Clegg is not as interested in Trident as we thought.”
… Mr Harvey had been leading the Lib Dem review, and was due to make his recommendations early next year. Following his departure, the review will be taken over by David Laws, who has returned to government as an education minister and roving adviser to Mr Clegg. The senior Lib Dem MP said: “David Laws and Nick Clegg will have a lot on their plates. I am not sure either of them have the time to man-mark this issue or prosecute it.”
… Concerns over Trident reflect a broader worry that the party is retreating from security policy. Mr Clegg chose to sacrifice his ministers in the Foreign Office and the MoD in return for one in the Department for Environment and Rural Affairs department and one in the Department for International Development. One Lib Dem minister said: “This could be seen as a promotion of parochial interests. We won’t be in either of the key departments if we decide to go to war, for example. But the truth is we need to focus on winning rural seats, which is why we wanted a minister in Defra.”  
… A spokesman for Mr Clegg said: “The decisions on defence, on Trident, on Europe, on all big important foreign affairs issues, are taken by Nick Clegg. The idea that we are going to retreat from those issues is frankly absurd.”
Somehow I wouldn't be at all surprised if  the "senior Lib Dem MP" turned out to be Menzies Campbell!





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