In a Time of Austerity, UK Plans to Spend $565 Million on New Nuclear Weapons
November 10, 2012
Al Jazeera & The Guardian
Two decades after the Soviet Union's collapse, the UK government this week took a big step towards replacing its current submarine-launched Trident missile system with a like-for-like successor that would take to the seas by 2028. In an era of austerity, the announcement that the British government plans to spend an extra $565 million for "improved nuclear weapons capacity" has left many baffled, shocked and outraged.
UK Nuclear Deterrent Plan Triggers Divisions
Simon Hooper / Al Jazeera
LONDON (November 6, 2012) -- At an unknown location somewhere deep beneath the world's oceans, a British submarine sits primed to launch up to 40 nuclear warheads with a collective destructive power almost 300 times greater than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945.
Since the late 1960s Britain's nuclear deterrent strategy has required that at least one of the Royal Navy's four-strong fleet of Vanguard submarines be operational and fully armed at all times, providing, according to the navy's website, a "round-the-clock insurance policy".
Only a British prime minister has the authority to order a nuclear attack.
But, in the event that a submarine commander loses radio contact and suspects his homeland has been wiped off the map, orders contained in an onboard safe reputedly offer a choice to either "let them have it" or "sail to New Zealand if it's still there", according to documents unearthed by Peter Hennessy, a veteran historian of British state secrets.
Conceived in response to the perceived threat of a surprise Soviet assault on western Europe, Britain's deterrent remains a classic throwback to the nuclear brinkmanship of the Cold War.
Yet, two decades after the Soviet Union's collapse, the UK government this week took a big step towards replacing its current submarine-launched Trident missile system with a like-for-like successor that would take to the seas by 2028.
"Our nuclear deterrent is the ultimate safeguard of our national security. We have made a clear commitment to maintain that deterrent," said Philip Hammond, the British defence minister, announcing an additional $565m in spending -- on top of $4.8bn already committed to the project -- for design work on a next-generation replacement for the Vanguard fleet.
Hammond's announcement immediately stoked divisions between his own ruling Conservative Party and their Liberal Democrat coalition partners by seeming to fly in the face of government policy postponing the final decision on a replacement until 2016, pending the results of a Liberal Democrat-led study into possible alternatives.
Nick Clegg, the deputy prime minister and leader of the Liberal Democrats, responded by questioning the wisdom of "spending billions and billions of pounds on a nuclear missile system designed with the sole strategic purpose of flattening Moscow at the press of a button".
Hammond also drew the ire of nationalists in Scotland by presuming the continuing presence of a British nuclear arsenal at the Faslane naval base on the country's west coast beyond a 2014 referendum on independence.
With the Scottish National Party committed to banning nuclear weapons in the event of it winning power after a split from London, a parliamentary committee warned this week that the UK's deterrent could be "unilaterally disarmed" within days of secession.
Yet, even disregarding the immediate political fallout, many defence experts now argue that a replacement deterrent is something that the UK neither needs nor can afford.
Defence chiefs are under concerted political pressure to cut spending, even with the armed forces already overstretched by the war in Afghanistan and other commitments.
Limited Defence Resources
Meanwhile, the 2005 London bombings and similar attacks against western targets seemed to point to a new paradigm in which the main security threat comes from nebulous networks rather than rival nation states, rendering traditional deterrent strategy as redundant as the cavalry charge.
"No one's got a crystal ball. You can never categorically rule out fanciful scenarios of a revanchist Russian state and that kind of 'Cold War redux' scenario," said Nick Ritchie, a lecturer in international security at the University of York.
"But when one looks at the strategic security environment we're in, it's very difficult to make the case that if we didn't have nuclear weapons now we would survey the scene, and make a judgment that we categorically must have them."
While the government has estimated the cost of a replacement system at about $32bn, critics argue that the final bill could be upwards of five times that amount.
"In the land of serious policy planners it's very hard to argue for us remaining in the nuclear weapons business," added Ritchie. "You have to ask, is this the best way to spend limited defence resources?"
Others argue that the money would be better diverted instead to bolstering public services struggling under the weight of the government's austerity measures. "Obscene that government plans to spend hundreds of millions on nukes, while slashing welfare & benefits," tweeted Caroline Lucas, a Green Party member of parliament.
Yet the role of Britain's nuclear deterrent is linked to the political and military establishment's perception of the country's place at the world's top table. It's a matter of pride for some that the UK is one of five recognised nuclear-armed states in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty along with four other permanent members of the UN Security Council: the US, Russia, China and France.
Returning from a bruising encounter with the US secretary of state in 1946, and perhaps feeling acutely conscious of Britain's fading status as a world power, Ernest Bevin, the British foreign minister, declared that the UK had to have the bomb at any cost, adding: "We've got to have the bloody union jack on top if it."
The same sentiment can be perceived 60 years later in a passage in Tony Blair's memoirs in which the then-prime minister admitted that he could clearly see the "common sense and practical argument" against renewing Trident even as his government laid out plans to upgrade the system in 2006. "In the final analysis I thought giving it up too big a downgrading of our status as a nation," he concluded.
"There is a strong sense that for us to be a nuclear weapons state is almost part of who we are on the international stage," said Ritchie. "That's not a sentiment that's held by the British public. But certainly in the upper echelons of the security and defence establishment I would say there is a feeling that if we were to relinquish a nuclear capability we would somehow not be Britain anymore."
Dominic Sandbrook, author of a series of histories of Britain since the 1950s and presenter of a forthcoming television series on the Cold War, agreed that the UK's possession of nuclear weapons had long been "more a matter of national virility than national security". He pointed out, however, that the Trident system and its predecessors' dependence on US technology, including the missiles themselves, belied the idea of an entirely independent British deterrent.
There had been broad public support for the country's possession of nuclear weapons throughout the Cold War, he said. When the Labour Party adopted a policy of unilateral disarmament during its 1983 election campaign, it was promptly trounced at the polls by Margaret Thatcher's Conservatives and its manifesto subsequently derided as the "longest suicide note in history".
"Public opinion then was much more hawkish on defence, partly because people had been persuaded of the Cold War case," said Sandbrook. "And, by and large, the relatively uninformed voter saw the possession of nuclear weapons as a sign that you're a big power. And the third thing is that the average British punter didn't care that much about the issue.
They didn't think about it. It was just part of the wallpaper of life."
But some now detect a significant shift in public attitudes -- and a political opportunity for a Labour Party bold enough in opposition to shatter the cross-party consensus on the need for a UK deterrent and look once again at the case for disarmament.
Nick Ritchie said that polls canvassing public opinion on replacing Trident had swung from about 60-40 in favour in 2006 to about 60-40 against more recently. When framed as a straight choice between warheads and missiles or extra nurses and more affordable homes, opinion swings even more sharply in favour of giving up the weapons.
Kate Hudson, the general secretary of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), said that opinion polls showed a majority of the British public opposed replacing Trident and said proposals to spend "ludicrous sums" on a new system at a time of "acute economic hardship" had served to reinforce opposition.
"Scrapping Trident is a vote-winner waiting to be seized by a party with the initiative to see beyond the dogma of nuclear deterrence," said Hudson. "Labour must be bold in rejecting entirely a weapons system which serves no purpose but to threaten civilian lives internationally and destroy public services domestically."
Sandbrook, meanwhile, sees irony in the continuing debate over the future of Britain's nuclear deterrent even as other vestiges of the country's Cold War military defences, such as the secret bunkers to which key workers would have retreated in the event of a Soviet attack, have been consigned to the past.
"The Cold War infrastructure has become part of our national heritage, part of our history," he said. "It's extraordinary at the very time we are converting these sites into museums that the very idea of our need for these weapons has not become a museum piece in itself."
UK Continues Big Spending Before Official Nuclear Submarine Decision
LONDON -- The British Ministry of Defense has made a "firm commitment to maintaining continuous at-sea [nuclear] deterrence for future decades" by signing a $562 million contract for the development of a new generation of nuclear-armed submarines. However, the Liberal Democrats, junior member of the coalition government headed by the Conservative Party, noted that a final decision on the replacement of the Trident nuclear weapons system will not be made until 2016.
Bill Kidd, a member of the Scottish Parliament and vice-president of Parliamentarians for Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament, said, "For the UK government to boast about spending hundreds of millions of pounds on weapons of mass destruction -- while at the same time implementing brutal welfare cuts and slashing investment in the economy -- is obscene."
Richard Norton-Taylor and Patrick Wintour, "Tories snub Lib Dems over Trident future," The Guardian, October 28, 2012.
Tories Snub Lib Dems over Trident Future
Richard Norton-Taylor and Patrick Wintour / The Guardian
LONDON (October 28, 2012) -- Philip Hammond, the defence secretary, will reignite the argument over Britain's independent nuclear deterrent on Monday when he announces a further multimillion-pound contract for a new generation of nuclear missile submarines, making it clear he plans to press ahead with a Trident replacement.
The Ministry of Defence said the £350m contract would sustain 1,200 UK jobs, adding that the investment made "clear the government's firm commitment to maintaining continuous at-sea deterrence for future decades".
Hammond, who will visit the Trident submarine base at Faslane on the Clyde on Monday, said: "Our continuous submarine-based nuclear deterrent is the ultimate safeguard of our national security and the government is committed to maintaining it, both now and in the future.
"This latest expenditure for the next generation of nuclear-armed submarines is an investment in UK security and the British economy, sustaining high-quality jobs and vital skills."
He added: "We are confident that the Scottish people will choose to remain part of the United Kingdom."
The remarks are likely to be viewed as a sign that Hammond intends to ignore a government-commissioned study into a Trident replacement if it fails to support a like-for-like replacement. The Cabinet Office study is due early next year, and Liberal Democrats had been hoping that senior military officials in the MoD might be persuaded to back a cheaper replacement than like-for-like renewal if a cogent case was assembled.
There were hopes that senior figures in the army might also oppose such an expensive commitment. But in a blow to those hoping that the MoD could be persuaded from within, it was decided by the deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, to sack the armed forces minister Nick Harvey in the autumn reshuffle, and leave the MoD without a Lib Dem minister.
Responsibility for the study has now been handed to the Treasury chief secretary, Danny Alexander.
Clegg has insisted the reshuffle did not indicate any lessening of his commitment to find a cheaper replacement for Trident. He told his party conference: "I am more determined than ever to find the right alternative to such a monumentally expensive replacement for a cold war deterrent."
A Lib Dem official said on Sunday that discussion about the replacement for Trident was still needed. "No final decision on the replacement of Trident will be made until 2016. Instead of blind faith in a cold war relic costing billions of pounds, we should be having a debate on how best to maintain our nuclear deterrent in the modern world." The official added: "The review being led by the Liberal Democrats in government will inform that debate when it reports next year."
Other senior Lib Dems were concerned that the defence secretary was using his status to insist on a full replacement. Menzies Campbell, the former leader, said: "There is no doubt about the terms of the agreement between both parties in the coalition that the 'main gate decision' on a replacement for the nuclear deterrent is not to be made until 2016. Danny Alexander and, before that, Nick Harvey have been tasked to look into alternatives to a like-for-like submarine. Liberal Democrats, including myself, would expect that agreement to be maintained."
Hammond, who succeeded Liam Fox as defence secretary in October last year, will frame the announcement of extra spending on a possible Trident replacement as a boost for those opposing an independent Scotland, as the successor project sustains hundreds of jobs on the Clyde. The £350m contract is part of the £3bn awarded last year to BAE Systems to pursue work on a new Trident fleet.
To drive home the point, Hammond will announce government plans to make Faslane the base for the UK's fleet of nuclear-powered but conventionally armed Astute and Trafalgar class attack submarines, as well as for Trident. The move will create a further 1,500 jobs in addition to the existing 6,500 at Faslane.
Admiral Sir Mark Stanhope, the head of the navy, made clear he strongly supported plans to build a new fleet of Trident submarines, officially estimated to cost up to £25bn, despite the lack of a joint agreement by the coalition government to press ahead.
"One of the core roles of the Royal Navy, the continuous at-sea deterrent, remains an enduring strategic capability, underpinning our nation's commitment to the preservation of peace in our uncertain world," Stanhope said.
BAE Systems, which has shed jobs in the fast jet aircraft market, will say on Monday that it is now looking for mechanical, electrical power, propulsion, quality and safety engineers, and naval architects to fulfil the latest contract.
The Scottish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (SCND), which obtained new figures from a Freedom of Information Act request to the MoD, said Labour and the Conservatives were trying to scare the public by exaggerating the economic implications of nuclear disarmament. Just 520 civilian jobs at Faslane and nearby Coulport were directly dependent on Trident, the SCND said.
Stephen Boyd, assistant secretary at the Scottish Trades Union Congress, which commissioned an expert study along with SCND into the economic consequences of cancelling Trident, told the Sunday Herald that suggestions as many as 11,000 jobs would be lost in Scotland if Trident were not replaced were inaccurate.
Britain's nuclear weapons system is made up of four Royal Navy Vanguard submarines, based at the Faslane naval base on the Clyde, which can deploy Trident ballistic missiles carrying nuclear warheads.
SNP MSP Bill Kidd, a vice-president of the international organisation Parliamentarians for Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament, said: "For the UK government to boast about spending hundreds of millions of pounds on weapons of mass destruction -- while at the same time implementing brutal welfare cuts and slashing investment in the economy -- is obscene.
"More than that, Philip Hammond's weak attack on the Scottish people's choice in the independence referendum continues to use fantasy figures relating to the number of jobs associated with Trident at Faslane."
Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.