Prime Minister David Cameron has claimed that “we need a nuclear deterrent more than ever” because the nuclear threat facing the UK has “increased” since the end of the Cold War, and the country may be at risk from a nuclear attack from regimes such as North Korea.
Writing in the Daily Telegraph newspaper, the Prime Minister said that “evolving threats” to the UK's security from Iran and North Korea meant that now was not the moment for the UK to abandon the Trident replacement programme.
“Last year North Korea unveiled a long-range ballistic missile which it claims can reach the whole of the United States”, he said. “If this became a reality it would also affect the whole of Europe, including the UK. Can you be certain how that regime, or indeed any other nuclear armed regime, will develop? Can we be sure that it won’t share more of its technology or even its weapons with other countries?”
At a question-and-answer discussion session about his article he said of North Korea's weapons: “They can reach Europe. They can reach us too”.
Mr Cameron said: “We need our nuclear deterrent as much today as we did when a previous British Government embarked on it over six decades ago. Of course, the world has changed dramatically. The Soviet Union no longer exists. But the nuclear threat has not gone away. In terms of uncertainty and potential risk it has, if anything, increased.”
Mr Cameron described Trident as “an insurance policy that the United Kingdom cannot do without”, but admitted that “the deterrent is not cheap – no major equipment programme is”. He stated that the UK's nuclear weapons programme costs on average “around 5-6 per cent of the current defence budget”.
Although the Trident Alternatives Review led by Danny Alexander, Liberal Democrat Chief Secretary to the Treasury, has not yet been completed, Mr Cameron says he has seen no evidence of cheaper ways to provide a “credible alternative”.
Mr Cameron's article reinforces the Conservative Party's current policy of replacing Trident, although he avoided giving a firm commitment to a “like-for-like” replacement of four submarines on constant nuclear patrol. The final decision on ordering new submarines to replace the current Vanguard class vessels will not be taken until 2016, after the next general election.
Labour defence spokesperson Kevan Jones agreed with Mr Cameron, saying "It is absolutely right and necessary that the UK retains an independent nuclear deterrent. World events demonstrate that in an unpredictable era our country needs the ultimate security guarantee. The precise nature of the deterrent must be judged on meeting military capability requirements and cost."
But Sir Malcolm Bruce, a senior Liberal Democrat MP, disagreed, saying: "The cost of a nuclear deterrent is extremely high and there are many people inside the Ministry Of Defence and the armed forces who desperately want to ensure that we have the latest and most up-to-date conventional equipment and would be extremely concerned if that was prejudiced by a very heavy commitment to a budget for replacement of a nuclear deterrent which by definition is not used, as opposed to weaponry which they need. If that's compromised then other defence commitments would be undermined."
The Prime Minister's article was timed to coincide with a visit to Scotland, where he was winched aboard the Royal Navy's submarine HMS Victorious from a helicopter as it returned from the 100th Trident patrol undertaken by a Vanguard class submarine. He also visited the Thales company factory in Govan, where submarine periscopes are made, to draw attention to Scotland's defence industrial sector, which he claimed employs over 12,600 people and has annual sales in excess of £1.8 billion.
However, he also admitted that defence would not be spared further cuts in the Government’s forthcoming spending review, telling workers at Thales that “defence cannot be exempted altogether from difficult decisions.”
The Prime Minister's suggestion that the UK was at risk from a nuclear strike from North Korea provoked surprise and widespread scepticism. The claims were dismissed as 'absurd' by former Conservative Defence Secretary Michael Portillo.
“It remains to me absurd to believe that the United Kingdom would use its nuclear weapons against North Korea,” he said. “To say we need nuclear weapons in this situation would imply that Germany and Italy are trembling in their boots because they don’t have a nuclear deterrent, which I think is clearly not the case."
Crossbench peer Lord Ramsbotham, a former army officer, said “There is no evidence at all to suggest the North Koreans possess a weapon which the Prime Minister suggested could pose a threat to Europe or indeed to us.”
Mark Fitzpatrick, Director of Nuclear Non-Proliferation and disarmament at the International Institute for Strategic Studies agreed, saying “North Korea does not have any missile capabilities that could hit Britain and it is difficult to envision circumstances when North Korea ever would want to attack the UK even if they could.”