Discarding Trident would not aid global nuclear disarmament; it would only imperil UK security

It is imperative that discussions on the nuclear deterrent be driven by national security needs, not short-term political considerations

Share

A debate is emerging within the Labour Party over its position on the nuclear deterrent. It is imperative that such discussions should be driven by national security needs and not short-term political considerations. Recent nuclear tests in North Korea, Iran’s nuclear programme and its implications for proliferation in the region and the upgrading by China and Russia of their nuclear systems demonstrate why Labour is right to reject unilateralism. Fears over global proliferation are increasing, and there is no indication that the UK’s admirable world lead in cutting numbers of nuclear systems as well as warheads has had any impact on the behaviour of other nuclear and would be nuclear weapon states. Indeed I think it fair to say that independently discarding our own deterrent would imperil UK security and not accelerate global disarmament.

The renewal of Trident was a decision for this Parliament. Instead, for political reasons, we await the result of a [Liberal Democrat-led] “alternatives review” cynically embarked on to delay the clash between Conservatives and Lib Dems over the future of our Nation’s deterrent.

The focus of the debate has rested on what form our deterrent should take and it is important that it is based on fact and evidence. Numerous studies over the past 40 years have reaffirmed that a submarine based ballistic missile system is the best option if UK is to remain a nuclear weapon state. Having looked at other options in detail it is quite clear that none of them are as cheap or practical as their supporters claim. Labour must not lapse into the belief that an alternative to Trident is better at all costs. I firmly believe that any alternative would undermine our national security.

The options of land or air-based systems need hardly be taken seriously.

The options of land or air-based systems need hardly be taken seriously. Both are highly vulnerable to pre-emptive strike and would entail massive infrastructure and platform, delivery and weapons development costs. Similar concerns over cost and vulnerability make a surface ship-based system another thing of foolish fantasy.

The most-often cited ‘alternative’ is Astute submarines carrying cruise missiles, but no such missile exists. The UK would have to develop, test and bring into service a new weapon. Even allowing for the triumph of optimism, such a programme would be complex, fraught with risk (we have not developed such a missile before) and extremely expensive. Cruise missiles have crashed and been shot down; for deterrence to work we need to show we can fire with a guarantee of success. We would have to embark on a new warhead development programme. This would be hugely expensive and could even breach the terms of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.  The new missiles and weapon system would have to be regularly and rigorously tested on all measures of performance. At present the US provides all the facilities for Trident test firings, so all of this would be a further cost to our exchequer.

How many Astute class submarines and missiles would be required and should every submarine carry nuclear missiles? Furthermore, cruise missiles will inevitably have less range than ballistic missiles,  thus submarines carrying cruise missiles would need to get closer to a target, with consequent risk of detection and destruction. Nuclear-tipped cruise missiles would constitute a growth in our stockpile of weapons ready to fire and could be seen as a reversal of our steady downward pressure on weapon holdings.  It may also contravene the Non Proliferation Treaty. If an Astutue class submarine fired a cruise missile, how would an enemy know that it was not a nuclear variant? Would he wait to find out? 

The answers to these questions have implications for cost and capability  which have not been thought through.

The review will challenge [Trident’s] continuous at sea deterrence. This makes little sense. It saves the UK next-to-nothing financially, and having no ballistic missile submarine permanently at sea would make us vulnerable to a pre-emptive strike. What is more, having to take the decision to arm and deploy our deterrent to sea in a period of tension would risk escalation at the critical moment. Such a decision would also impact immediately on our current deterrent force.

Crucially, the “alternatives review” must identify a clear way forward. To present alternatives ‘for debate’ is unsatisfactory. We are dealing with our nation’s ultimate safeguard in a highly dangerous and chaotic world. The British people will never forgive us if we get this wrong and they expect our guidance. What seems a seductive plan for Labour with a post-2015 coalition in mind is in fact highly dangerous.  Nuclear deterrence is too important to get wrong.  Trident has been underwritten by the US until 2042 and provides the most effective, affordable option for the UK’s nuclear deterrent capability. The sooner the Labour Party agrees the better.

Lord West of Spithead is a former Chief of the Naval Staff and  Minister for Security and Counter Terrorism

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Humanities and Economics Teacher - January 2015 - Malaysia

£18000 - £20400 per annum + Accommodation, Flights, Medical Cover: Randstad Ed...

SEN Teaching Assistant needed for long term assignment

£45 - £55 per day: Randstad Education Preston: We are looking for an experienc...

Primary Teachers Required in King's Lynn

Negotiable: Randstad Education Cambridge: Primary Teachers needed in King's Ly...

Primary Teachers needed in Ely

Negotiable: Randstad Education Cambridge: Primary Teacher needed in the Ely ar...

Day In a Page

Read Next
<p><b>Mock the Week</b></p>
The newest of our quiz shows was created by Created by Dan Patterson and Mark Leveson, who also made 'Whose Line is it Anyway?'. This is more of a 'quiz' format, and for me, the best part about it is that it introduced me to Frankie Boyle.  

Shows like Mock The Week can’t understand why Ukip has so many supporters

Nigel Farage
The appearance of Miguel Arias Canete at a Brussels hearing last Wednesday caused 100,000 people to sign a petition to prevent his appointment  

TTIP is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the EU's suspect relationships with corporations

Lee Williams
Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

A Syrian general speaks

A senior officer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime talks to Robert Fisk about his army’s brutal struggle with Isis, in a dirty war whose challenges include widespread atrocities
‘A bit of a shock...’ Cambridge economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

‘A bit of a shock...’ Economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

Guy Scott's predecessor, Michael Sata, died in a London hospital this week after a lengthy illness
Fall of the Berlin Wall: History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War

Fall of the Berlin Wall

History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War
How to turn your mobile phone into easy money

Turn your mobile phone into easy money

There are 90 million unused mobiles in the UK, which would be worth £7bn if we cashed them in, says David Crookes
Independent writers remember their Saturday jobs:

Independent writers remember their Saturday jobs

"I have never regarded anything I have done in "the media" as a proper job"
Lyricist Richard Thomas shares his 11-step recipe for creating a hit West End musical

11-step recipe for creating a West End hit

Richard Thomas, the lyricist behind the Jerry Springer and Anna Nicole Smith operas, explains how Bob Dylan, 'Breaking Bad' and even Noam Chomsky inspired his songbook for the new musical 'Made in Dagenham'
Tonke Dragt's The Letter for the King has finally been translated into English ... 50 years on

Buried treasure: The Letter for the King

The coming-of-age tale about a boy and his mission to save a mythical kingdom has sold a million copies since it was written by an eccentric Dutchwoman in 1962. Yet until last year, no one had read it in English
Can instilling a sense of entrepreneurship in pupils have a positive effect on their learning?

The school that means business

Richard Garner heads to Lancashire, where developing the 'dragons' of the future is also helping one community academy to achieve its educational goals
10 best tablets

The world in your pocket: 10 best tablets

They’re thin, they’re light, you can use them for work on the move or keeping entertained
Lutz Pfannenstiel: The goalkeeper who gave up Bayern Munich for the Crazy Gang, Bradford and a whirlwind trawl across continents

Lutz Pfannenstiel interview

The goalkeeper who gave up Bayern Munich for the Crazy Gang, Bradford and a whirlwind trawl across continents
Pete Jenson: Popular Jürgen Klopp can reignite Borussia Dortmund’s season with visit to Bayern Munich

Pete Jenson's a Different League

Popular Klopp can reignite Dortmund’s season with visit to Bayern
John Cantlie video proves that Isis expects victory in Kobani

Cantlie video proves that Isis expects victory in Kobani

The use of the British hostage demonstrates once again the militants' skill and originality in conducting a propaganda war, says Patrick Cockburn
The killer instinct: The man who helps students spot potential murderers

The killer instinct

Phil Chalmers travels the US warning students how to spot possible future murderers, but can his contentious methods really stop the bloodshed?
Clothing the gap: A new exhibition celebrates women who stood apart from the fashion herd

Clothing the gap

A new exhibition celebrates women who stood apart from the fashion herd
Fall of the Berlin Wall: Goodbye to all that - the lost world beyond the Iron Curtain

The Fall of the Berlin Wall

Goodbye to all that - the lost world beyond the Iron Curtain