1 March 2013

Labour’s Trident problem realised

In a post here at the end of January, I suggested that the Lib Dem interest in an alternative to Trident might pose a problem for Labour if a left of centre coalition had to be formed after the 2015 election. In so far as the results of 28 February’s Eastleigh by-election can be interpreted at all, Labour’s indiffferent showing suggests that they will not find it easy to pick up seats in the South. On the other hand, the Lib Dems demonstrated their ability to hold on to what they have. Certainly the odds against a Labour/Lib Dem coalition after 2015 have not gone up. But the shape of Labour’s Trident problem is beginning to surface like a submarine at the end of its patrol.

On 27 February, Lord West, former Chief of the Naval Staff and Minister for Security and Counter Terrorism in Gordon Brown’s Government of All the Talents, provided an opinion piece in the Independent, Discarding Trident would not aid global nuclear disarmament; it would only imperil UK security, which made it clear that in his view:
A debate is emerging within the Labour Party over its position on the nuclear deterrent. It is imperative that such discussions should be driven by national security needs and not short-term political considerations.  
… Numerous studies over the past 40 years have reaffirmed that a submarine based ballistic missile system is the best option if UK is to remain a nuclear weapon state. Having looked at other options in detail it is quite clear that none of them are as cheap or practical as their supporters claim. Labour must not lapse into the belief that an alternative to Trident is better at all costs. I firmly believe that any alternative would undermine our national security. The options of land or air-based systems need hardly be taken seriously. Both are highly vulnerable to pre-emptive strike and would entail massive infrastructure and platform, delivery and weapons development costs. Similar concerns over cost and vulnerability make a surface ship-based system another thing of foolish fantasy.  
… What seems a seductive plan for Labour with a post-2015 coalition in mind is in fact highly dangerous. Nuclear deterrence is too important to get wrong. Trident has been underwritten by the US until 2042 and provides the most effective, affordable option for the UK’s nuclear deterrent capability. The sooner the Labour Party agrees the better.
An Independent news item on the same day by Andrew Grice followed suit:
Labour will fight the next general election on a pledge to retain Britain's independent nuclear deterrent, senior party sources have said. Although some advisers to Ed Miliband want him to opt for a scaled-down, cheaper alternative to the current Trident system, there are growing signs that Labour will join the Conservatives in backing a £25billion "like-for-like" replacement.  
… Lord West, who was directly responsible for Trident as head of the Navy, believes such [Lib Dem alternative] options are deeply flawed. But he is worried that Labour might be tempted into taking a decision based on short-term political calculations – building bridges with the Lib Dems – and making savings that would not materialise.
Predictably the Independent’s revelation was not greeted with joy in some Labour circles and by the end of the day, Sunny Hundal posted reassurance, Has Labour already committed to renewing Trident? No, on the Liberal Conspiracy blog:
The Independent today had a big ‘exclusive’ story titled: ‘Labour to join Tories in backing a £25bn deal to renew Trident fleet‘. … The story was unsurprisingly picked up by many across the left and criticised from within the party and outside. But the actual contents of the story didn’t seem to match the headline, so I made a few calls. A source from the the shadow defence team told me that the headline was essentially jumping the gun: no final decision had been made.  
… Labour say the decision on whether to renew Trident will be based on three factors: capability of such a deterrent, whether it is cost-effective and save money on the current Trident bill, and thirdly – allow the UK to downgrade our current stockpile and warheads deployed. The Labour spokesperson said Labour’s decision will also be based on the work that Des Browne is doing on the matter.
(For Browne’s likely views, see the 6 February update to my January post.)
So why the Independent article? It seems to have been prompted by Lord West raising concerns about the alternatives to Trident. How seriously that intervention should be taken is up for debate. But I was told in no uncertain terms that a decision had not been made on like-for-like renewal of Trident. So when will a decision be made? That depends on when the Trident alternatives review is published (which should be this spring, and could be as late as September).  
It also depends on what the review says. If it says there aren’t many viable and cost-effective alternatives then Labour may be backed into a corner. If, however, the review offers a range of alternatives and sufficient level of detail on how they could work, there would be more momentum to opt for an alternative.
On 1 March, Labour’s difficulties in accommodating the Lib Dems were made more acute by another opinion piece, this time in the Daily Telegraph, from John Hutton and George Robertson, both former Labour defence secretaries: There is no magic alternative to Trident – Britain has got to keep it. Pointing out that:
The Russians, as one example, are now deploying two new types of submarine-launched ballistic missiles, a new class of ballistic submarine, a new type of intercontinental ballistic missile, a new bomber and long-range cruise missiles. With this in mind, the question we should address is long term: “What kind of deterrence should we maintain for the next 50 or 60 years?”
They warn:
… let us not deceive people with false promises. Developing an alternative weapon system to Trident – such as a submarine-launched cruise missile – would be much more costly. Trident remains the most cost-effective system for the UK.  
The option of continuing with a Trident replacement programme but abandoning our continuous at-sea deterrent doctrine (CASD) would be equally unwise. CASD provides a deterrent that is immune to any first strike and so provides the maximum amount of assurance against the risks of either nuclear attack or blackmail. There is no use having this insurance policy if it only applies for some of the time. The idea that at times of tension we could scale up our patrols is also flawed. Such an escalation in the UK nuclear posture would itself only serve to heighten tensions both at home and abroad. Dropping CASD could have serious operational implications for the Royal Navy, too. This could easily contribute to a decline in the vitally important professionalism and expertise of our nuclear-equipped forces.
and conclude:
… One fact is absolutely clear: nuclear weapons pose an existential threat to our country. We must have the ability to deter such threats now and in the future. If we lose this ability, we will have fundamentally compromised our entire defence and security policies. That is a risk too far.
But a successor to Trident with enough submarine hulls to ensure CASD will not come cheap. Professor Malcolm Chalmers has been examining future defence expenditure for the RUSI think tank. He thinks that:
From 2016/17, the MoD will face a sharp rise in annual spending on the new class of nuclear missile submarines, a level of spending which will then be sustained through to the late 2020s. In contrast, procurement spending on combat air, air support, helicopters and surface ships is due to fall significantly. In order to fund increased successor spending up to 2025/26, while maintaining investment in new conventional capabilities, it may be necessary to extend the government’s commitment to annual real increases in equipment spending (a commitment that currently expires in 2020/21).
and that:
If the defence cuts announced in the 2013 spending review [due to be completed by June] are nearer to the pessimistic level of expectations, some may argue the case for a ‘mini- SDSR’, revisiting the capability plans made in 2010 in order to bring the defence plans back into balance with the reduced budget. Such a review would show that the government was prepared to take the hard decisions that are necessary in order to prevent a return to the over-programming that blighted defence planning until recently.  
Yet holding such a review in the latter half of an electoral term, while still retaining the commitment to a further post-election SDSR in mid-2015, would create its own uncertainties. It could, moreover, risk refocusing attention on the successor deterrent programme, a subject on which there is no prospect of the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats agreeing before the next general election.
And cloudy prospects of a Labour and Lib Dem agreement after!

UPDATE 10 March

Mary Riddell “keeps a watchful eye on centre-left politics” for the Daily Telegraph. On 6 March e most of her article about future Labour policy, How Labour can fire a missile the Tories’ way in this cuts war, was given over to Trident replacement:
… If Labour is to ring-fence the NHS and overseas aid, as Mr Balls has undertaken, and if it will not plunder the welfare budget, then it must stray into the areas that the Tories will not touch. One obvious example is staring it in the face. Between now and 2016, Britain must decide whether to spend £25 billion replacing the four submarines that carry nuclear-tipped Trident missiles. If that like-for-like replacement goes ahead, it will swallow at least one third of the defence budget after 2020.  
While this lavish project has attracted some cross-party criticism (the former Tory defence secretary, Michael Portillo, calls it “a tremendous waste of money… done entirely for reasons of national prestige”), Labour’s view is coloured by a unilateralist, CND-badged past that it would rather erase. Despite that blip, every Labour government since the Second World War has backed the nuclear deterrent. Ernest Bevin’s endorsement of a British bomb – “We’ve got to have this thing over here, whatever it costs” – has become an article of faith for all his party’s leaders. Mr Miliband may be about to break with that.  
The Trident question is preoccupying Labour. With the Lib Dem review on alternatives due this month, protagonists are speaking out. Lord West, the “simple sailor” who advised Gordon Brown, deems the full replacement programme essential. The same case has been made in these pages by two former Labour defence secretaries, Lord Robertson and Lord Hutton. The latter is the one-time MP for Barrow, where the Vanguard submarines would be built.  
Meanwhile, a third former MoD incumbent, Lord Browne, argues that like-for-like replacement is neither strategically sound nor economically viable. Lord Wood, one of Mr Miliband’s senior strategists, has made an excellent Lords speech explaining why “multilateral disarmament is… vital to the world’s safety and security”. Assorted military figures think it beyond madness that, in an age of stateless terrorists and cyber-warriors, Britain insists on having a Cold War reliquary of armed submarines constantly at sea, their never-to-be-used missiles targeted at nothing, when even Russia has abandoned such extravagant posturing and President Obama is looking to slash the US missile stock. Lord Browne is not proposing that Trident be scrapped or that any Lib Dem plan for bargain-basement nukes be embraced. His modest suggestion is that Britain should look again at the need for Continuous At Sea Deterrence (CASD). Defence experts say that were that requirement to be reduced, the lifespan of the current fleet might be extended and Britain could ultimately make do with two new Vanguards instead of four.  
With the clashes growing more heated, Mr Miliband is reported to be signed up to backing Tory replacement plans. I am told that is “categorically” not the case. Although no decision has been taken, the Labour leader is said to be sympathetic to the ideas of Lord Browne. The Browne proposal, with its multilateralist insistence that a credible deterrent be maintained, should satisfy shadow cabinet members, defence spokesman Jim Murphy included, who proclaim themselves open to sensible alternatives.  
Trident may yet prove a defining issue, offering savings far beyond the symbolic to a leader aware that he must counter public indifference on a range of issues.  
… With the regular soldiers in the British Army reduced to the lowest number since the Napoleonic Wars, Labour might more usefully promise golden elephants on plinths for every barracks than pledge to match the Tories’ nuclear bonanza. A more modest Trident programme, though only a start, would signal that Mr Miliband can avoid the fate of social democrats, such as France’s François Hollande.
No doubt Riddell has good sources in the Labour Party, but she is less well-informed when she says that “Russia has abandoned such extravagant posturing”. Although the Bulova missile and a new class of submarines have been some time coming, these new Russian systems are now in operation.  Whether its is possible to make significant savings in the Trident replacement programme and still put to sea a deterrent worth having remains to be seen.

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