February 28, 2013
There is no magic alternative to Trident — Britain has got to keep it
We must have the ability to deter the threat posed by nuclear weapons
Defence policy is based on the analysis of risk and the willingness to commit the resources to meet them. All of us are aware that the risks to our national security are changing. Iran's secret plutonium programme, reported by the Telegraph this week, offers yet more proof of this. We are all acutely conscious, too, that we live in straitened times.
But this must not lead us to draw the wrong conclusions about the future of our own independent nuclear deterrent — something that has underpinned our national security since the dawn of the nuclear age.
Above all, context is important: over the lifetime of the system, the costs of renewing our minimum nuclear deterrent will take up a very small fraction of the UK's defence budget.
The argument that we no longer need our current level of deterrence because it cannot deter cyber attacks or terrorist atrocities is a red herring. Trident was never designed to meet these threats. The nuclear deterrent is designed for a different purpose.
As the military historian Sir Michael Howard has said, the "nuclear dragon is asleep, not dead". This is a crucial insight. The Russians, as one example, are now deploying two new types of submarine-launched ballistic missiles, a new class of ballistic submarine, a new type of intercontinental ballistic missile, a new bomber and long-range cruise missiles. With this in mind, the question we should address is long term: "What kind of deterrence should we maintain for the next 50 or 60 years?"
We understand the argument that the scarcity of military resources means we need to prioritise. But let us not deceive people with false promises. Developing an alternative weapon system to Trident — such as a submarine — launched cruise missile — would be much more costly. Trident remains the most cost-effective system for the UK.
The option of continuing with a Trident replacement programme but abandoning our continuous at-sea deterrent doctrine (CASD) would be equally unwise
CASD provides a deterrent that is immune to any first strike and so provides the maximum amount of assurance against the risks of either nuclear attack or blackmail. There is no use having this insurance policy if it only applies for some of the time. The idea that at times of tension we could scale up our patrols is also flawed. Such an escalation in the UK nuclear posture would itself only serve to heighten tensions both at home and abroad.
Dropping CASD could have serious operational implications for the Royal Navy, too. This could easily contribute to a decline in the vitally important professionalism and expertise of our nuclear-equipped forces.
We should have a debate about the nature of Britain's nuclear defence strategy. But let us avoid the fantasy that there is some kind of halfway house — where we scale back on our deterrent and yet magically incur no extra risk to our national security.
For those who say that the risks of nuclear attack or blackmail are now so small that we can afford to change our nuclear posture, we would ask them to explain on what basis they can confidently predict the nature of threats we might face 50 to 60 years from now. No one can do this.
One fact is absolutely clear: nuclear weapons pose an existential threat to our country. We must have the ability to deter such threats now and in the future. If we lose this ability, we will have fundamentally compromised our entire defence and security policies. That is a risk too far.
Baron Hutton of Furness is a former defence secretary; Baron Robertson of Port Ellen is a former defence secretary and was the 10th secretary-general of NATO