Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Danny Alexander: Reduce our submarine fleet and end continual at-sea deterrence

Writing in the Guardian today, Danny Alexander comments on a report issued today by the British American Security Information Council in response to the future of Britain's nuclear deterrent.

In the piece Danny explains that a like-for-like Trident replacement cannot be justified in terms of cost or security.

The full article is below.

Today's report by the British American Security Information Council (Basic) is a significant addition to the vital debate about the future of Britain's independent nuclear deterrent. The group of respected senior political, military and diplomatic figures have set out thought-provoking questions about how best to configure the nation's deterrent in the future. Their thinking on the possible number of Successor submarines and whether we need to maintain continuous at-sea deterrence merits close consideration.

The defence of the nation is the first responsibility of any government. Because of their immense destructive power, their political significance and their cost and complexity, nuclear weapons have a particular place in defence thinking, and the policies around their deployment have an importance that is hard to overstate.

I recently oversaw the most in-depth government study into the options for Britain's future nuclear deterrent, the Trident Alternatives Review (Tar). This ran for 26 months and took evidence from numerous civilian and military experts in the field. While the Basic report acknowledges that the authors felt unqualified to identify alternatives to Trident and its current deployment patterns, our government review was able to identify future alternatives and options.

I subscribe to the view that Britain should remain a nuclear power and that our deterrent should continue to be submarine based. However, I and my fellow Liberal Democrats do not accept that we should be locked into configuring and deploying our nuclear forces in the future as we have done in the past when the security environment has changed so fundamentally from the cold war era.

During the cold war, there was a credible threat of a surprise massive attack against this country or Nato allies. Our nuclear forces needed to be available within minutes in order to give credibility to our policy of deterrence. This is why we maintained continuous at-sea deterrence; we kept at least one armed submarine on patrol 24/7, 365 days of the year. But the Berlin Wall has been down now for 25 years and the threat of "state on state" attack is much reduced.

This new environment has quite rightly already led to significant changes in the composition and deployment of our conventional forces. However, we still maintain and deploy our nuclear resources as if the cold war were at its height. As well as not matching the security threat, this also fails to meet our wider international obligations to work towards reducing nuclear weapons, as other nuclear nations have attempted. We should end continuous at-sea deterrence, and conduct patrols in a pattern required to match the rising or falling perceived threat. These patrols would be supplemented by extensive and regular exercise patrols. Changing our posture is rational and would show that we are serious about moving further down the ladder of disarmament.

The financial impact of our decisions on nuclear weapons must also be an integral part of the debate. As a coalition, we have had to take some very difficult decisions to stabilise the public finances and, in turn, the defence budget. The scale of the deficit we inherited from Labour is common knowledge. What is less well known is that we inherited from Labour a defence equipment "black hole" which, by the end of the decade, would have equalled an entire year's defence budget.

The coalition has put the defence equipment budget on a sound footing. We also have to consider how the costs of nuclear deterrence fit in with the other, equally important, calls for defence funding from our conventional forces. To put this in perspective, the cost of our nuclear deterrent in the future could equal one-fifth of total defence equipment spending. Reducing the number of deterrent-carrying submarines from four to three would save £4bn over the expected life of the system.

A like-for-like replacement of Trident, deployed in the same way, will unnecessarily stretch budgets and constrain spending on other defence priorities. Something has to give. I see nothing in the Basic report that changes my view that our national security would be best served by reducing the number of Successor submarines from four to three and ending the policy of continuous at-sea deterrence.