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Trident Oped by David Davis MP, 23 July 2009

Trident can live to deter another day, by David Davis, Financial Times, 23 July 2009.

The current pressure on national spending plans mean we have to challenge every government spending decision from fundamental principles. This is particularly true of the big programmes, no matter how politically difficult. One of the obvious, but controversial, big programmes is the proposed Trident upgrade, estimated to cost about 20bn ($33bn, 23bn).

Do we need a nuclear deterrent? There is no denying that the world's political climate has changed in the half century since we became a nuclear power. Our threats are no longer principally from rival large-scale nuclear powers, but from rogue states. They may even be from terrorist groups, against whom retaliation would be an irrelevance.

In January, Field Marshal Lord Bramall, former chief of the defence staff, General Lord Ramsbotham and General Sir Hugh Beach described it as "virtually irrelevant" and argued for the funds behind it to be used to provide the army "with what they need to meet the commitments actually laid upon them".

I do not agree with this argument. It seems to me perverse that we have a nuclear deterrent when we face one or two hostile nuclear powers, both with stable (albeit unpleasant) governments, but abandon it when we have a proliferation of relatively unstable nuclear antagonists.

But that does not mean we should squander money on an upgrade. The reason we decommissioned the cheaper air-dropped WE177 nuclear bombs in the 1990s and kept Trident was because the Trident system was designed to survive an all-out Soviet attack with sufficient power to retaliate. That threat is much reduced, and the bigger threat is of one or two probably inaccurate nuclear weapons from a rogue state.

On that basis what we have now is more than enough and certainly does not require an upgrade. We simply have to consider how to keep what we have viable. In its 2006 white paper, the government announced plans to buy into the US scheme to extend the life of the Trident missiles until 2042, and continue co-operation with a new design of missile. On the face of it, this is the most economically viable choice.

A more pressing problem is the renewal of the four Vanguard-class submarines. In the white paper, the government was adamant that because the Vanguards were only designed to last 25 years, essential components, including parts of the nuclear propulsion systems, could only be renovated to last a further five years, and that at disproportionate cost.

This is nonsense. Richard Garwin, former chair of the US government's science advisory committee, told our defence select committee that inexpensive engine repairs could easily extend the life of the Vanguards for 15 years, and save the government making what he described as a "premature and wasteful decision".

The US Ohio-class submarines were designed at the same time as the Vanguards with the same life expectancy. Now they have had their lives extended to 40 years. Do we build poorer submarines? Or is it just the Ministry of Defence's procurement executive doing its trick of putting service politics before the truth?

It should be an obvious choice to extend the Vanguards' life, at least to coincide with that of the D5 missiles. Although cabinet ministers now appear to be dithering over plans to design and build a new generation of submarines, the official public stance is still to press ahead with a Vanguard replacement. This project faces a glaring problem: what if the new missiles, to be introduced less than halfway through its lifespan, don't fit? The MoD claims to have US assurances that any new missile will be compatible, but the public accounts committee has rightly noted that "there is no guarantee it will".

Another considerably less-expensive option would be to convert an existing Astute-class hunter-killer submarine. While this carries the same non-compatibility risks as a whole new submarine design, it would waste considerably less money if the worst-case scenario occurred.

In this era of tight budgets it is evident that we should save the 20bn on an upgrade and make the Trident system last. The debate should be not about that, but about whether in this era of diffuse, lower-grade threat, we should save billions more by having three, not four, boats.

The writer is an MP and former chairman of the public accounts committee

Source: Financial Times, www.ft.com.

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