A Scottish Conservative press release shows local Highlands and Islands MSP, Jamie McGrigor and his colleage, the party’s candidate for the 2016 Scottish Election,Donald Cameron, calling for new national Labour Leader, Jeremy Corbyn, to clarify the opposition’s position on Trident and NATO membership.
Their concerns centre on the impact of any change of policy on the renewal of the UK’s Trident submarines, based at Faslane in Argyll, on national defence and on the local economy of Helensburgh and Lomond.
The questions they raise betray fundamental misunderstandings which have long been fostered by the pro-nuclear lobby and centre on issues which themselves require clarification.
The questions emerging from the released statement are:
- the nature and costs of the different stages of the Trident renewal contract;
- the relationship of Trident renewal to the sustainability of the Faslane base;
- the relationship of a non-Trident Faslane to the local economy;
- the relationship of Trident to the nation’s defence capability;
- the relationship of Trident to national support for NATO membership.
The contract phases in Trident renewal
There are three stages in major defence procurements: Concept [design]; Initial Gate [development & assessment]; and Main Gate [construction].
In March 2007 the UK Parliament approved the commencement of the Concept design stage by BAE Systems. Just short of £1 billion was spent during this phase.
In May 2011 the Initial Gate stage commenced, with BAE Systems working with the MoD to develop and assess the design of the submarines – ending with a detailed hull form and systems; and the ordering, ahead of manufacture, of items with a long lead time on delivery. It is estimated that £3.5-4 Billion will be spent during this stage – which, due to the postponement of the Main Gate contract stage [for electoral reasons] – to 2016, from 2014 when it was due for signing, the Initial Gate stage has had an additional two years at its disposal. The MoD offered placation of criticism here saying that the successor submarine’s design would be around 70% complete by the end of this Assessment phase, saving time and cost by enabling manufacturing to commence after the Main Gate investment stage, without the need for redesign. [They say.]
Main Gate of the contract is now to be signed in 2016, probably in May, the month of the Scottish Election on 5th May. At this stage the government will decide whether to order three or four successor submarines; and whether to order full production. The issue here is balancing cost against the ability to guarantee the key strategic issue around the notion of ‘first strike nuclear deterrence’ – Continuous At Sea Deterrence [CASD]. Deterrence is not deterrence if there are periods when you may not be able to deliver a first strike. CASD has therefore traditionally been assured by the use of a four-boat fleet. At any time, one submarine is in refit; one is working up after refit; one is preparing to take over patrol; and one is on patrol.
In the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition government of 2010-2015, there were internal debates about the cost of and alternatives to Trident. The Liberal Democrats proposed a two-boat fleet – where the Conservatives substantially preferred the traditional four-boat approach but were willing to consider a three boat fleet, whose rotations could be configured to achieve CASD – but with no contingency. It is clear that a two-boat fleet could not deliver CASD – and therefore first strike deterrence. Such a fleet would raise the issue of whether there was any point in Trident at all.
The Main Gate stage is likely to cost over £25 Billion, with the overall contract in the area of £30 to £40 Billion. The MoD’s annual budget is around £34 Billion.
Trident renewal and the sustainability of the Faslane base and the local economy
This has become a dog whistle alarm issue, with virtually no foundation.
Faslane is the UK’s national submarine base and for as long as the UK stays together will certainly continue to be so because of the strategic value of its location and its prevailing cloud cover.
If Trident were cancelled, the UK would have to reconfigure the contribution to national defence of its submarine fleet, replacing the intended Trident successor submarines with new conventionally armed ones, possible ordering more of the new Astute class Hunter killers.
Losing Trident would not mean losing Faslane – or a smaller Faslane. It would simply mean a change to the types of submarines operating out of the national base there.
The single threat to the sustainability of Faslane is not Trident but Scottish independence.
Trident and the nation’s defence capability
There is no rational defence argument for Trident. It is the deterrent which deters its possessor from using it – provided the possessor is responsible and humane.
First strike nuclear deterrence – given the destructive potency of nuclear arms and the long term damage they cause to survivors and the environment? We are never going to launch that first strike. Even if we had justification, we would be the aggressor causing unthinkable devastation.
And if our intelligence or our judgment was wrong? There will always be dodgy dossiers to suit some nut case politician or other – we would be a pariah state for a century at least.
If we were hit first and struck in retaliation, that would be nothing other than retribution delivered against the countless innocent. Were it to be used in mutual conflict, this is a weapon that makes losers of everyone.
Today’s most dangerous hostilities do not involve gigantic forces moving against each other and into confrontation. They are strategic hit-and-runs and while they bring deaths, they major on the impact of fear on a population rather than on their destruction. The toxins they disperse come via the news media.
Rationally, a strategic reallocation of the budget for Trident would see this nation’s armed forces so much better equipped and deployed in the reality of the jobs they have to do.
Trident and NATO membership
This is another dog whistle alarm.
There are many members of NATO who do not have nuclear weapons – and there would be fewer had the US not ‘shared’ its nuclear weapons with Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Italy and Turkey. That was a neat way around the nuclear weapons Non Proliferation Treaty [NPT].
As an organisation, NATO needs the UK, with or without Trident. A UK which did not continue with Trident would not be a nation withdrawing support for NATO. The two are not mutually exclusive.
The heavy odds are on the UK going ahead with Trident renewal. A look at the contract stages above makes it clear that Initial Gate not Main Gate is the effective point of no return.
A Labour government [under Prime Minister Tony Blair] took UK Trident renewal to an approved Concept stage. A Conservative/Liberal coalition government took the UK though the contract’s Initial Gate; and the current majority Conservative government has every intention of taking it through Main Gate next year. That will get through a Commons vote. Mr Corbyn is the opposition leader.
And that’s the reality, The time for determined action was back in 2007 when Tony Blair locked us into the Concept stage.