The new coalition Government has plumbed new depths of irresponsibility with the announcement that in future the operation of the Trident Missile system will be funded from the Ministry of Defence budget rather than the Treasury. Trident is Britain’s nuclear deterrent, carried by the four Vanguard Class Ballistic Missile submarines of the Royal Navy. One submarine is always at sea, maintaining a 24/7, 365 days a year capability of retaliating to a nuclear strike on Britain.
Trident is – as was its predecessor, Polaris – a political asset, rather than a strictly Defence one. It maintains Britain’s seat at the ‘top table’ of international relations, and acts as something of a ‘big stick’ in foreign policy. Yet it has virtually no value in purely military terms – there was virtually no possibility of Trident playing a part in the Iraq War, for example – the armed forces do not need ballistic nuclear missiles to carry out their core roles, rather they are something that the Royal Navy has operated on behalf of the Government. Hence why it has always been funded out of a special Treasury fund.
The announcement that Trident will be funded out of existing MOD budgets means that in all likelihood the UK can kiss goodbye to a whole raft of future ‘conventional’ projects – the cost implications may mean the cancellation of the new Aircraft Carriers, no Joint Strike Fighters, and a reduced number of surface warships.
Whitehall rumours suggest that the announcement has deeper political connotations. Reportedly there is no love lost between Chancellor George ‘Gideon’ Osborne (young silver-spooned bedwetting ex-public schoolboy) and Defence Secretary Dr Liam Fox (who, like him or not, had been shadowing Defence for a while, so could be expected to know his stuff). By shifting the cost of Trident from the Treasury to the MOD, no money is being saved in the short-term, rather the armed forces are being saddled with an un-necessary burden that will butcher their capabilities. Perhaps it is an attempt to bamboozle Fox’s plans for the armed forces. Also, it is possible that it is a thinly-veiled attempt to push the cost of the replacement for Trident onto the MOD.
The Royal United Services Institute published a far-sighted paper earlier this week outlining the options facing the Government regarding Trident. Their conclusion – which came before Gideon Osborne’s announcement – is that a like-for-like replacement of Trident is increasingly unfeasible. Planning for conventional forces assumes that the UK will not be attacked strategically without extended warning. Yet Trident is maintained at a continuous ‘you never know’ level of readiness, which has not changed since the 1960’s.
The RUSI proposes four alternatives:
1. a ‘Normally-CASD’ Submarine Force,
2. a ‘CASD-Capable’ Submarine Force,
3. a ‘Dual-Capable’ Submarine Force and
4. a Non-Deployed Force.
Tellingly, the RUSI does not even contemplate retaining the status quo of a continual at sea deterrent.
Option 1 would be similar to present, but would accept short gaps in the continuous deployment of Submarines at sea, in the event of mishaps or accidents for example. This might see the fleet of SSBN’s reduced from 4 to 3, but would not realise major savings in the long-term.
Option 2 would see a fleet of Submarines maintained that would be able to deploy a nuclear deterrent, but would – in essence – be mothballed, pending re-activation. This could see the Vanguard Class being retained for longer than scheduled, thanks to reduced wear and tear on the existing ships giving them a slightly longer lifespan. This would also delay the need to replace Trident.
Option 3 would utilise ‘dual purpose’ submarines that are not specifically designed solely for the SSBN role, but could perform it if necessary. This would encompass a single class of submarines to replace Vanguard and Astute, with a hull design capable of being used for SSN or SSBN. This would give a more flexible and more manageable submarine fleet by rationalising the classes of boats, and would bring the strategic deterrent to within the conventional forces.
Option 4 would see the UK abandon a submarine-launched deterrent altogether, and merely maintain a stockpile of nuclear weapons. Although by far the cheapest option, this would leave the country at a severe disadvantage in defence terms. I should add that I am not party to the minute financial details of any of these options – even these are disputed by the various parties and pressure groups, and of course are subject to inflation.
Personally, I see that options 2 or 3 are the most realistic in terms of balancing savings and defence. Essentially, the decision boils down to how what the UK needs in terms of strategic defence, and to what extent the Government is willing to compromise this in the interests of savings. But it is increasingly clear that the status quo is unmaintainable, as we cannot afford to gut every other defence capability to keep an increasingly irrelevant relic of the Cold War.