Alternatives to Trident take centre stage as senior politicians question need for new nuclear weapons

In an interview with the Guardian newspaper, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Danny Alexander, has warned that the government does not have “a magic pot of money” to pay for a replacement to the UK's Trident nuclear weapons system, and has said that the review currently underway into alternatives to Trident would provoke serious debate – and that its findings will surprise people.

The Liberal Democrat minister, who is currently leading the Cabinet Office-led Trident Alternatives Review, told the Guardian that the UK cannot afford a 'like-for-like' replacement to Trident costing billions of pounds at a time of economic austerity.  "Given all the financial pressures across the whole of the public sector, all the things the government has to do and wants to pay for, and all the pressures in different areas, I just think the idea that somehow, out of thin air, we can carve a multibillion pocket to pay for this, that is not financially realistic," he said.

Mr Alexander stressed that the Government will not provide the Ministry of Defence (MoD) with extra cash to pay for new submarines and that money for the Trident replacement programme must come from existing funds.  "We are in a position where the costs of the Successor have to be paid for from within the MoD budget. There is no magic pot of money that is going to be created out of thin air to go on top of that. As a government, we have been very clear about that. Certainly myself and the chancellor.

"That very financial imperative is one of the reasons why I think this review is so important. We have already set out that it is going to take another three years to deal with the deficit. That means budgets across the board naturally have to be squeezed, including defence."

Significant debate

Mr Alexander gave some tantalising hints about how the Trident Alternatives Review, which is expected to report this spring, is shaping up.  The review was set up in 2011 by former Armed Forces Minister Nick Harvey, with Alexander taking charge of the study when Harvey left the MoD in last September's government reshuffle.  

"I would expect we will be able to set out serious, credible arguments and potential alternatives," he said. "I hope [the review] will open up a wide debate, in the public, among experts and the community, around the approach we take to nuclear deterrence.

"The more I have got into it the more I have got a sense of the real significance of this debate for the future of our country, and I suspect it might be influential internationally too."

Alexander told the Guardian that he could not spell out the review's conclusions before it is published.  However, it is likely to set out seven or eight alternatives to replacing Trident and give the UK an opportunity to step down from a posture of maintaining constant round-the-clock patrols  by its nuclear weapon submarines.

"My hope would be that politicians of all parties, including Labour politicians, will look at this review when it comes out with an open mind. Obviously I think every political party needs to be facing up to the challenges, not least to the financial challenges facing the country over the next few years. I suspect that the review will influence the debates within parties about what should go in their General Election manifestos."

He said: "The final decision isn't made until the country has taken that Main Gate decision in 2016. That gives the British people a chance to have a say on this subject and politicians of all parties to formulate or reformulate their views. I hope the review will be influential in that respect. This isn't just a debate for Liberal Democrats and our supporters, it's a debate for the expert community, for the thinktanks, and it's a debate that I think many members of our armed forces are interested in."

Mr Alexander said he had already seen enough to know that the review would provoke serious debate.  Nothing he had seen or heard since taking over the review had challenged his view that replacing the Trident fleet was unnecessary and hugely expensive.

“When budgets are under pressure, and when the assumptions that our current approach are based on are very much cold war assumptions, and we are in the 21st century and the world is changing, that this is absolutely the right time to have a serious, considered, objective look at the way in which this policy is constructed.

"We need to see if there are different ways of doing this that are more cost effective. This is the first time for a very long time these questions have been asked. We do need to ask fundamental questions about our posture.

"Is it right in the 21st century that we still need to have submarines at sea, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 12 months of the year? All those things are ripe for being reviewed and considered, and alternatives presented.

"We have just lived with these assumptions for quite a number of decades, and the notion that there is a different but credible way to think about these things may well be surprising to a lot of people. If you are prepared to take a slightly different approach, then it opens up a wider range of alternatives for consideration.

"I certainly don't expect the review to come back and say Trident is the only alternative or there is no alternative, which is what some in other parties would say."

Mr Alexander insisted it would be possible for a new government to take a decision as internationally significant as cancelling the Trident replacement programme.  "Of course its possible," he said. "I anticipate the review will set out a clear, credible, compelling, set of arguments for alternatives.

He denied that the military would resist changes to the UK's long-standing policies on nuclear weapons.  "If the country had a different policy, they would apply exactly the same skills and dedication and ingenuity to delivering that policy”, he said. “That is something that actually gives me confidence that whatever posture we take as a country it can be successfully delivered.

"Most of the (military) people I have spoken to have said, quite rightly, that this is a debate for politicians to have, this is a debate for parliament, so I think I am not going to challenge them to engage in that debate. It is quite properly in the realm of politics and government."

"It is the first time for a very, very long time the British state has engaged in this debate in this way and so it is quite a significant moment. If anything, the fact that I have taken on the leadership of this review as a member of the 'quad' [the four senior ministers responsible for financial decison making] just demonstrates the level of importance and seriousness with which we are continuing to treat this review. The circumstances the country is facing reinforces that policy. It does not diminish it.  The economic and financial circumstances reinforce the wisdom of our policy."

Over recent days other senior political figures have also questioned the need for replacing Trident.  Sir Nick Harvey, writing in the Guardian in support of Danny Alexander, said that the UK was “still too configured for state-on-state warfare” and that  it was “absolutely essential” that the Trident replacement programme “must take its place alongside all those other items – far more relevant to the action we really will be involved in – on the table for debate”.

“If we give Trident an automatic bye we will become even less capable of protecting our real interests through joining in international action to tackle and pre-empt real threats. If replacing Trident like for like on its cold war scale comes at the expense of the rest of the Royal Navy's capabilities, this would have a devastating impact on our global reach,” Sir Nick said.

Lords raise questions

In a debate on nuclear disarmament in the House of Lords, former Defence Secretary Lord Browne of Ladyton said that the government “need to do more” in taking steps towards nuclear disarmament.  

Lord Browne, who was Defence Secretary when the previous Labour government decided to replace Trident in 2006, said it was becoming clear that deterrence as a cornerstone of defence strategy was “decreasingly effective and increasingly risky” and that those who argue otherwise were “dangerously overconfident”.

“The time is now right, in my view, to change our posture and to step down from continuous at-sea deterrence. This would demonstrate that nuclear weapons are playing less and less of a role in our national security strategy”, he said.

A former Conservative Defence Secretary, Lord King, told the Lords that having nuclear weapons no longer guarantees the UK a place at the "top table" of nations.  Lord King said ministers had to think "very carefully" whether a like-for-like replacement for Trident was strategically necessary or affordable.

The UK faced threats from extremism, piracy and cyber crime, he said, but "against none of those does nuclear weapons look like God's gift to solving the problem".

"Certainly it is not obvious to me that there is any need any longer for a major nuclear system based on 24-hour, seven day a week availability," he said.

"I think in the current world we live in, top table credibility comes from availability to help in peace-keeping, in conflict resolution and having armed forces that can exist, co-ordinate and co-operate in the new high-tech, highly sophisticated systems."

"Playing our part in the world means that we must review very carefully to see whether we can find an alternative way forward which preserves our defences adequately but not at such an appalling expense," he concluded.

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