24 January 2013

Labour’s potential Trident problem

Last month I noted that it was the fiftieth anniversary of the agreement reached at Nassau under which the US agreed to supply the UK with Polaris and later Trident, and wondered whether it would be remembered in the media as the Cuban Missile Crisis had been a few weeks earlier. I didn’t come across any direct reference, but it was touched on in Geoffrey Wheatcroft’s article in the Spectator on 5 January, America and Britain - a not-so-special relationship. He began with Dean Acheson and his remark in December 1962 that "Great Britain has lost an empire and has not yet found a role” and went on to deal with the way General de Gaulle impeded British entry to the then Common Market. In passing he mentioned Nassau:
Only two days after seeing de Gaulle [at Rambouillet], Macmillan flew to meet Kennedy in the Bahamas. The Americans wanted the British to give up the Skybolt missile, and Macmillan with difficulty persuaded Kennedy to allow the British to have Polaris missiles instead, which was an unmistakable sop.
Some sop. According to Macmillan’s official biographer, Alistair Horne:
In fact, though, Polaris was to turn out an extremely generous and beneficial deal for Britain. Britain got the weapon at a knock-down price that cost less than 2 per cent of the total British defence budget … while France had to struggle painfully and expensively to construct her own underwater deterrent. Rightly or wrongly, the British deterrent was preserved for another generation, and from Macmillan and Polaris to Thatcher and Trident was as from father to daughter. (Macmillan 1957-1986, page 442)
Macmillan had been able to secure for the UK, despite a marked lack of enthusiasm from the Kennedy appointees present at Nassau, McNamara, Ball and Bundy, what was at the time the world’s most advanced nuclear delivery system. Coincidence or not, 50 years to the day after Macmillan’s arrival in Nassau, the Ministry of Defence presented its 2012 Update to Parliament The United Kingdom’s Future Nuclear Deterrent, describing recent progress on the Trident Successor deterrent submarine programme. This phase of the work leads to the main investment decision to be taken in 2016. In January 2013 the Coalition’s mid-term review, The Coalition: together in the national interest was published, including among its many bullet points:
  • We have maintained Britain’s nuclear deterrent, identified £3 billion of savings and deferrals over the next 10 years from the Trident renewal programme and initiated a study into alternatives to Trident.
On 23 January the Guardian published an exclusive interview with Danny Alexander, a Liberal Democrat with a Scottish seat and the Coalition’s chief secretary to the treasury. Alexander is now in charge of the Cabinet Office-led Trident Alternatives Review which is due to be completed and published by June this year. Excerpts:
In his first interview since taking charge of the review, Alexander said nothing he had seen or heard in the last four months had challenged his view that replacing the Trident fleet was unnecessary – and unnecessarily expensive.  
Alexander said he could not spell out the alternatives before the review was published – they remain top secret. But he said he had already seen enough to know that the review would provoke serious debate – and that its findings would surprise people.  
One potential option is for the current fleet of Astute submarines to be equipped with nuclear warheads, or to restrict the number of Successor submarines to two or three, rather than four.  
"I would expect we will be able to set out serious, credible arguments and potential alternatives," he said. "I hope [the review] will open up a wide debate, in the public, among experts and the community, around the approach we take to nuclear deterrence.  
"Is it right in the 21st century that we still need to have submarines at sea, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 12 months of the year? All those things are ripe for being reviewed and considered, and alternatives presented.  
"We have just lived with these assumptions for quite a number of decades, and the notion that there is a different but credible way to think about these things may well be surprising to a lot of people. If you are prepared to take a slightly different approach, then it opens up a wider range of alternatives for consideration.  
"I certainly don't expect the review to come back and say Trident is the only alternative or there is no alternative, which is what some in other parties would say."
The article concluded with:
An MoD source said: "The prime minister and the defence secretary are both committed to maintaining a continuous at-sea deterrent. A part-time deterrent to be wheeled out at a time of heightened tension would be less credible, vulnerable to a pre-emptive strike and its very deployment would risk escalating a dangerous situation. It would be a dangerous and naive road to go down."
This suggests that there would be some circles to be squared after the 2015 election if the outcome necessitated continuation of the Conservative Lib Dem coalition. But what if Labour were the largest party while lacking an overall majority? Andrew Rawnsley raised this possibility in an article in the Observer on 20 January:
At the inception of the coalition, and for some time afterwards, the working assumption among Lib Dem strategists was that the Tories would be the likeliest winners in 2015. This was also the presumption among most Conservatives and quite a lot of Labour people too. Prospects now look very different. The likelihood of the Conservatives winning the next election outright currently seems very slim. Lib Dems only have to talk to their Tory colleagues in government for five minutes to find out how gloomy they are. So the Lib Dems are thinking harder about what they would do if Labour is the largest party.  
On the Labour side, there has been an increase in confidence that the next election could return them to power, but it is not accompanied by a robust conviction that they would win well enough to form a majority government on their own. Another hung parliament could beckon and the Lib Dems could again hold the balance. Their numbers in the next Commons may turn out to be rather larger than is suggested by their bleak ratings in the national polls because their MPs have been historically adept at holding what they already have and exploiting incumbency will be made easier for them by the killing of boundary changes.
What might seem like a piece of Westminster Village hypothesizing is supported by some early betting at Ladbrokes shown in the table below.

In many ways (eg Europe) a Lab/Lib Dem coalition agreement in 2015 should be easier to formulate than a renewed Conservative/Lib Dem one, but Trident Successor appears at present to be a significant point of difference. In 2013 it is far from clear who the leading personalities would be on the Lib Dem side of negotiations in two years’ time, but Alexander’s involvement (assuming he retains his seat) seems likely. A compromise on an alternative to the current Trident Successor plan might well have to be found in the Trident Alternatives Review, even if “part-time”, “dangerous and naïve”. In June Labour’s reaction to the Review might well have to be framed by the possibility of having to accommodate Lib Dem sensitivities in 2015.

Of course, there are budgetary pressures to consider whoever is in government. In a Commons debate on the nuclear deterrent on 17 January, Alexander’s predecessor as leader of the Alternatives Review, former Lib Dem defence minister, Nick Harvey, pointed out that the cost of Successor:
… in today’s money will be approximately £25 billion to £30 billion on the capital investment in a further generation of submarines. On top of that, we have to factor in the running costs of a nuclear deterrent on this scale for 30 or more years of through-life costs—more than £3 billion a year in today’s money. Beginning to total that out and factoring in decommissioning at the end, we are talking about an expenditure of more than £100 billion. We need to look closely at whether that is justified in the context of the size of our defence budget, and what we are able to make available for other forms of defence and security in an increasingly dangerous and changing world.  
... In the same period of time, we will have to put the joint strike fighter aircraft on to the two new aircraft carriers and build the Type 26 frigate. Whatever the next generation of remotely piloted air systems and whoever we do that with, it will fall in the same time frame. Bearing in mind that HMS Ocean is due to leave service in 2018, any future generation of amphibious shipping will have to be paid for in exactly that time frame; and whatever we equip the Army with for the 21st century—it has been the poor relation in the equipment budget for many years—and bearing in mind how little seems to be left of the original future rapid effect system, as conceived by the previous Government, again, it will fall in that time frame. If we decide to give the nuclear deterrent a bye and think it has some magic claim on the money, an opportunity cost will have to be paid across the rest of our defence systems.
Quoting cost figures without any comparisons is not particularly helpful. However, and purely as example, the consultancy Oxera has estimated for the Commons Transport Committee that a new four-runway hub airport for London could be expected to cost £50 billion (Paragraph 4.7). Again, a running cost of £3 billion a year is rather less than the BBC licence fee expenditure of £3.85 billion. Perhaps Harvey’s point was made more succinctly in the Bahamas Meetings Joint Communiqués in December 1962:
The President and the Prime Minister agreed that in addition to having a nuclear shield it is important to have a non-nuclear sword. For this purpose they agreed on the importance of increasing the effectiveness of their conventional forces on a world-wide basis.


At the end of a debate on nuclear disarmament in the House of Lords on 24 January, Baroness Warsi, (Senior Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office) stated that:
The Trident Alternatives Study referred to by my right honourable friend the Chief Secretary to the Treasury is intended to help the Liberal Democrats to make the case for alternatives to this system, as agreed in the coalition programme for government. The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Bramall, asked whether we needed a successor to Trident. It is too early to speculate about the conclusions of The Trident Alternatives Study. The study is ongoing and is due to report to the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister in the first half of this year. As we announced in the Government's mid-term review, an unclassified document will be published in due course.
During the debate Lord Browne (Labour Secretary of State for Defence to 2010) stated (my emphasis):
… we have to work harder to strengthen the grand bargain at the heart of the non-proliferation treaty or risk losing it. We are becoming dangerously complacent about it. All states have a responsibility here, but the nuclear weapons states bear a special responsibility. Successive Governments have reduced the number of warheads in the UK arsenal, but we need to do more. Formally, we are committed to the like-for-like renewal of Trident and the operational posture of continuous at-sea deterrence. The Government and all Members of this House need to reflect further on this position. Are we telling the countries of the rest of the world that we cannot feel secure without nuclear weapons on continuous at-sea deployment while at the same time telling the vast majority of them that they must forgo indefinitely any nuclear option for their own security? Is that really our policy? If so, do we expect the double standard that it implies and indeed contains, to stick in a world of rising powers?
UPDATE 4 February

The Defence Secretary, Philip Hammond, has made the MoD position on Trident clear in an article in the Sunday Telegraph:
… But not having a submarine permanently at sea would make us vulnerable to a pre-emptive strike. What is more, having to take the decision to arm and deploy our deterrent at sea in a period of tension would risk escalation at the critical moment. And although it may seem counter-intuitive, the evidence points to a replacement for Vanguard being a lower-cost solution than the proposal for a less capable option based on Astute submarines with nuclear-tipped cruise missiles.  
… The cruise alternative would mean designing new warheads and missiles, without American partnership, as well as making major modifications to the launch submarines – and the greater vulnerability of cruise missiles means we would need many more of them to deliver any meaningful effect. A cruise-based deterrent would carry significant risk of miscalculation and unintended escalation. At the point of firing, other states could have no way of knowing whether we had launched a conventional cruise missile or one with a nuclear warhead. Such uncertainty could risk triggering a nuclear war at a time of tension. So, the cruise option would carry enormous financial, technical and strategic risk.
Defense Industry Daily is providing a helpful “push-down” chronology of the UK Successor programme with numerous links.

UPDATE 6 February

The Daily Telegraph today gave space to Des Browne (aka Lord Browne, see above) and Ian Kearns to make the case for alternatives to Trident:
It has become clearer, for example, that a set of long-term threats has emerged, to which deterrence, nuclear or otherwise, is not applicable: not only climate change, which can be addressed only through coordinated international action, but also cyber-attacks and nuclear terrorism. Attacks of both kinds will be difficult to trace. Since deterrence only works against those with a known address, it is not a viable strategy for meeting this category of threats.
Recent research also shows that large-scale use of nuclear weapons by either the US or Russia would be suicidal, not because of a retaliatory response but because global agriculture would collapse as a result, leaving the population of the attacking country to starve. The same research shows that even a small-scale nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan would affect at least a billion people and usher in colder temperatures than at any time in the past millennium.
These facts do not mean that nuclear weapons are totally irrelevant to all future security threats. The weapons may still play important psychological roles in inhibiting wars between major powers; our position is not, as a result, a unilateralist one. What these factors do mean, however, is that nuclear deterrence is decreasingly effective. We could pursue like-for-like renewal of Trident and still perish as a result of a nuclear incident not directly involving the UK.
… While it might make sense to invest a huge portion of the British defence equipment budget, around 25-30 per cent in 2020-2030, into a nuclear system that provides insurance against every eventuality, it makes less sense to invest so much into one that provides less and less insurance against a narrowing range of threats. Given unlimited resources, this would be less of a problem but since 2006 we have also experienced a recession. The defence budget is being cut and reductions in conventional capability are ongoing.
… Some of the supporters of like-for-like Trident renewal argue that anyone questioning the current approach is irresponsible. But in the circumstances outlined, Trident’s advocates also have serious questions to answer. They want to pour limited national resources into a increasingly ineffective nuclear system while being unwilling either to call for higher defence spending to meet conventional shortfalls or to scale back the UK’s level of international ambition. They want a gold-standard nuclear deterrent while under-investing in everything else.
… Given the range of challenges before us and the limited resources at our disposal, if the Government’s Trident Alternatives Review reveals an effective alternative to like-for-like renewal of Trident, such as stepping down from continuous at-sea deterrence and the building of fewer submarines, we should pursue it.
This adds little to what has already been said. No link to the “Recent research” was given . There was no mention in the article of cruise missiles. If Labour has to look for common ground with the Lib Dems after the Alternatives Review, it would seem to be in the abandonment of continuous at sea deterrence (CASD) with consequent savings in the number of Successor submarines required.

UPDATE 20 February

On 16 February the Daily Telegraph carried an interview with Jim Murphy, Labour’s shadow defence secretary by Mary Riddell and Tim Ross. This extract is towards the end of their report:
One way for Labour to save money on defence would be to find a cheaper alternative to Trident. Though more hawkish than some in his party, Mr Murphy claims to be open to suggestions, saying: “No one loves nuclear weapons. No one fetishises them.” Even so, he is dismissive of the claim by Danny Alexander, George Osborne’s Lib Dem deputy, that a like-for-like Trident replacement is unaffordable. Mr Alexander, he says, is “not engaged”.

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