The Coalition government is embarked upon a ‘strategic’ security and defence review but Trident renewal has apparently been decided in advance and excluded from it. In taking this stance the government claims to be doing no more than agreeing with and continuing the policy of the previous Labour administration. But this isn’t good enough. As the Secretary of State for Defence responsible for committing Labour to the renewal of Trident in 2007, I know how much the world has changed since we made our original renewal decision.
In recent years we have endured and are now dealing with the consequences of the worst financial crisis since the 1930s. Treasury statements to the effect that the full cost of Trident will now have to be met out of the core defence budget rather than from a Treasury reserve set aside for Trident as a ‘national strategic asset’ have enormous implications for the rest of our defence capability. There is no way of examining the necessary trade-offs between nuclear and conventional capability in this defence review if Trident is left out of the process.
In addition, the international environment has also changed markedly. The US and Russia have recommenced strategic nuclear arms control negotiations after a gap of almost two decades. The signing of the New START Treaty in April means both countries will now reduce the size of their nuclear arsenals and there is a good chance of further deals being done with even deeper reductions to follow. President Obama has ignited a global movement to attain, through multilateral negotiation, a world without nuclear weapons. In my view, it takes a particularly inward looking government to conclude that now is the time to automatically renew Trident without a pause for further reflection. We ought now to be asking, what more can the UK do to contribute to the international momentum on disarmament and non-proliferation?
The combination of diplomatic opportunities and financial constraints faced today puts Trident renewal in a new context. Increasingly, the decision not to re-visit it looks both financially untenable and strategically unwise.
Without prejudice to the outcome of the review, Trident renewal should be included in the defence review process and the questions we need asked in relation to it are these:
- What is the current strategic case for the UK maintaining an independent nuclear deterrent beyond the life of the existing Trident system?
- What will be the full costs of Trident renewal and any potential opportunity costs for non-nuclear portions of the defence budget?
- If the case for an independent deterrent is re-affirmed in principle:
- What might be the options for the UK partially stepping down the nuclear ladder, such as ceasing the practice of continuous at sea deterrence, and moving to fewer platforms, delivery vehicles and warheads, and could any of these options be pursued without compromising our national security?
Nuclear policy is strategically and ethically complex. Critical, deep and frequent reflection is a friend to good policy-making here more than in any other area of policy. Now is not the time to turn our backs on it.
The Rt Hon Des Browne was Defence Secretary from 2006-2008 and will enter the House of Lords as Baron Browne of Ladyton this week