Sir Richard Dannatt questions need for nuclear deterrent

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Britain may no longer need its independent nuclear deterrent in five or 10 years' time, a former head of the army said today.

Former Chief of General Staff General Sir Richard Dannatt said the judgment that the UK should press ahead with renewing the Trident deterrent was right at the present moment, but only "on a very narrow points decision". Future changes in global conditions could render it unnecessary within a matter of years, he suggested.

Gen Dannatt also called for the decision on when to hold a strategic review of national defence needs to be taken out of the Government's hands, favouring a system like the quadrennial review in the US, which automatically triggers a process every four years.

Former prime minister Tony Blair won Parliament's backing in 2007 for the £20 billion renewal of the submarine-based Trident nuclear missile system, which expires in 2024.

But Gen Dannatt - who is a defence adviser to the Conservatives, who also back Trident replacement - today said that the need for the Cold War-era deterrent may have disappeared by the time the date for its renewal comes round.

He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "None of the major parties seems to have an appetite for not continuing with an independent nuclear deterrent at the present moment. On balance - on a very narrow points decision - that is probably right for now.

"It might not be right in five or 10 years' time.

"We have to evaluate every major issue like that in the circumstances of the time. We can't predict where we will be in five, 10 or 15 years' time - whether the world will become more proliferated or we will have a greater move towards non-proliferation.

"At the present time, I think the judgment is right that on balance we should continue with an independent nuclear deterrent."

Both Labour and the Conservatives say that they will hold a strategic defence review soon after this year's general election if they win - 13 years after the last one in 1997.

But Gen Dannatt said that politics should be taken out of the process of planning Britain's future defence needs by making the reviews a regular event.

"One of the things that must come out of this defence review is a realisation that only having defence reviews when the government of the day says we ought to have one is probably a mistake," he said.

"The American system of a quadrennial - once every four years - defence review makes a lot of sense."

"It takes the politics out of defence, because the point about having regular reviews is, as the world circumstances and situation change, you can decide and decide again."

Gen Dannatt added: "A number of us feel that defence of the realm should stand above political, inter-service and industrial (issues)," he said.

"This debate has to focus on the character and nature of future conflict. What are the likely threats our country is going to face?

"Allied to that, what is our national ambition? Do we want to stay as we are or become more ambitious or less ambitious? That will lead us to what capabilities our defence should have, what our force structure should be and what our equipment programme should be and that will tell us where we should spend our limited resources."

Recent public comments by the heads of the Army and Royal Navy have indicated a struggle developing within the military over whether the constrained finances likely to be available in the coming period should be spent on getting "boots on the ground" in places such as Afghanistan or investing in expensive pieces of kit such as aircraft carriers.

Gen Dannatt insisted the forces chiefs were "80%-85%" in agreement on what was needed.

But he added: "(Afghanistan) has predominantly been fighting by our land forces... It is logical to say there should be an uplift in those resources we need to be successful in Afghanistan."

And he warned that the nature of fighting in Afghanistan was unlikely to be an "aberration" but a signpost to how Britain's military capabilities will be needed in the short to medium term.

That suggested that spending should concentrate on the land-based forces and helicopter lift capacity which have proved most vital to success in Afghanistan, while investing "to the maximum extent possible - but less than we would probably like - in some of those other and rather more expensive capabilities that would give us a full balance force."

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