The Liberal Democrat partners in the UK coalition government have floated a report proposing to save £4bn by reducing Britain’s commitment to the first strike nuclear deterrent.
Through spokesman Danny Alexander, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, the Lib-Dems propose:
- reduce the Trident submarine fleet from four to three;
- drop the long-standing ‘continuous-at-sea’ deterrence procedure.
Their report also indicates that the Lib-Dem party conference in September will also consider the option of going down to a two-submarine Trident fleet.
The naivety of this position is operational and philosophical.
The point about being in possession of the ultimate deterrent is that it can be delivered at any time from a supposedly unknown position.
If you are not running continuous-at-sea deterrence, you cannot be in such a position.
Any notion that you can reduce the traditional 24 hour patrols in times of lesser tension could hardly be more naive nor more ignorant of the lessons of history.
It is based on an unspoken and unthought assumption that all nations, in peace and in aggression, play by the same rules and don’t go for the element of surprise.
On 6th October 1973, Egypt and Syria together launched a surprise attack on Israel on the Jewish festival of Yom Kippur.
Any serious aggressor will always plan a strike at a time when tensions are low and potential attack unsuspected.
The issue of the number of submarines in the Trident fleet hangs upon continuous-at-sea deterrence.
Four boats traditionally allows for:
- one boat on patrol at sea;
- one boat working up to take over on patrol;
- one boat engaged in training new recruits to the submarine fleet;
- one boat in refit.
This is an efficient guarantee of the potential to keep one boat at sea on patrol at all times. Three boats is not; and two would be wholly inadequate to deliver continuous-at-sea deterrence.
The plan is almost archetypal Lib-Dem fudge.
The reality is that you either have a first-strike nuclear deterrent capacity or you do not.
A part-time capacity is simply astray of the concept.
There is a feasible and respectable case to be made for unilateral nuclear disarmament, with a different approach to defence and to an armed response capacity.
But the Lib-Dems have chosen to go for a watered down nuclear strike capability which neither deters nor arms.
If we went along with this nonsense, judged a period to be one of lower tensions, stood down the continuous-at-sea submarine patrol [which with three boats - or, worse, two boats, we could not deliver anyway], and were caught napping by a determined and well prepared aggressor, we would not necessarily even be able to mobilise what Trident fleet we had in anything resembling a fast response.
When a current Vanguard patrol returns from sea, its weapons are unloaded and taken to the secure storage facility at Coulport. When a boat is readied for sea, it embarks its weapons, delivered from Coulport to Faslane.
If the Lib-Dems are envisaging stood-down Trident submarines berthed at Faslane with nuclear weapons retained onboard, ready to sale at short notice, we should know that now, as there would be clear safety issues involved.
Why on earth did the woolly ones not simply produce a plan based on cutting Trident altogether, going for unilateral nuclear disarmament and proposing a thoroughgoing alternative defence philosophy?
That’s an informed discussion we need to have; and need to have in time not to stagger through the ‘main gate’ of the Trident contract by default.
But the report the Chief Secretary to the Treasury presented was advocating simply having less deterrence. That’s simply silly.
The Lib-Dems had hoped that Labour would support the suggestions of their report and that this might be the basis for a post-electoral pact in 2015, if the General Election in that year proved inconclusive.
Labour’s Shadow Defence Secretary, Jim Murphy has issued a statement understood to be the official party view and reiterating its traditional position: ‘Labour has always said we are committed to the minimum credible independent nuclear deterrent, which we believe is best delivered through a continuous at-sea deterrent. It would require a substantial body of evidence for us to change that, but this review does not appear to offer such evidence.’