Trident and the Alternatives Review: Two costly exercises in irrelevance

Author(s): Dr Rebecca Johnson
16 July 2013

The government's Trident Alternatives Review" (TAR), an edited version of which was made public Tuesday 16 July failed to resolve the fundamental differences between the Conservative and Lib Dem coalition partners over nuclear policy.  Undertaken in response to Lib Dem pressure, the Review's terms of reference were then narrowed down to deliberately exclude the key question that the Lib Dems had raised before the election, which concerned what alternatives to nuclear weapons could be considered to fulfil the UK security and deterrence missions that are assigned to (and claimed for) Trident.

Instead of addressing important questions about the role and future of nuclear weapons in relation to Britain's security and defence, and the UK's international responsibilities and commitments, the TAR was constructed to support the Conservative-led dash for Trident replacement by only being allowed to consider alternative types of nuclear weapons. It was to take into account "value for money" but not allowed to analyse the UK's actual security needs.  Unsurprisingly - particularly after Sir Nick Harvey (Lib Dem) was dismissed from his role as the Defence Minister leading the TAR last September - this PR exercise reinforced the pro-Trident lobby.

The TAR spent a long time and a lot of money coming to the same conclusion regarding various nuclear weapon alternatives as the Acronym Institute's influential 2006 study of Britain's nuclear options, titled 'Worse than Irrelevant'.  The TAR does not make any direct recommendations but its analysis makes clear that it would be foolish and dangerous to go back to land-based and air-dropped nuclear bombs, and it would be retrogressive, destabilising and prohibitively expensive to develop and deploy nuclear weapons on sea-based cruise missiles.  Like Trident, any cruise-missile option would be completely dependent on the United States.

Unlike Acronym's study, which went into more depth about Britain's security needs, and analysed alternative nuclear futures in relation to proliferation, disarmament and Britain's international and treaty obligations, the TAR appears to see the only real choice as one between Trident like-for-like (with 4 submarines and Cold War doctrines of continuous at sea deterrence patrols (CASD) in place) or Trident Lite (with 2 or 3 submarines and recognition that the subs do not have to maintain CASD).    

Presenting the fundamental decision on the role of nuclear weapons for the future of British and international security as a toss up between 2, 3 or 4 subs is like obsessing over how many deckchairs Titanic needs.  By failing to analyse non-nuclear options for deterrence and security, the UK is flying in the face of international and domestic developments, deliberately blindfolding ourselves to avoid seeing what is ahead.   A global treaty banning nuclear weapons on humanitarian grounds is already being put on the international diplomatic agenda, based on growing understanding that any use of nuclear weapons would cause a humanitarian catastrophe.  And with over 80 percent of Scots opposed to the continued deployment and storage of nuclear weapons at Faslane and Coulport, Trident's days are numbered with or without Scottish independence.

The UK and some of the other nuclear-armed states appear to think that by ignoring international efforts to ban nuclear weapons they can stop this happening.  Just this year, the UK joined a joint nuclear-weapon-state boycott of two important multilateral initiatives.   One was an international governmental conference hosted by NATO ally Norway to consider the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons. They then boycotted the UN General Assembly's "Open-Ended Working Group" (OEWG) which has been holding multilateral meetings on nuclear disarmament at the UN's Palais des Nations  this year.

The published Review does little more than expose the illogic of Trident replacement. While critiquing the risks and problems of the various nuclear weapon options, regardless of whether they are deployed by land, air or sea, the TAR reinforces - and demonstrates - the outdated thinking behind Trident replacement, a pointless and costly irrelevance in today's world.