Britain should retain its Trident nuclear weapons system but delay the decision on replacing it until after 2016, according to the findings of a Commission led by two former defence secretaries and a former leader of the Liberal Democrats.
The BASIC Trident Commission concluded after a three year study that Trident nuclear weapons are needed to prevent “nuclear blackmail”, but rejects arguments that nuclear weapons are necessary to provide an "insurance policy" against an uncertain future or to maintain Britain's political or military status in the world.
The Commission's report also suggested that continuous Trident submarine patrols could be relaxed and stressed that the UK must also show it is serious about working towards further international disarmament and establish a “glide-path down towards disarmament”.
The Trident Commission was established by the British American Security Information Council (BASIC) to contribute to a deeper debate on the UK's nuclear weapons, and brought together former diplomats, generals, and civil servants under the leadership of Lord Des Browne, Sir Malcolm Rifkind, and Sir Menzies Campbell, representing the three main political parties.
"If there is more than a negligible chance that the possession of nuclear weapons might play a decisive future role in the defence of the UK and its allies in preventing nuclear blackmail, or in affecting the wider security context within which the UK sits, then they should be retained," the Commission's report stated.
Co-chair Lord Browne conceded at the report's launch that the Commission's grounds for concluding that Britain should retain nuclear weapons were “narrow” and held only “for now”.
The Commission's report identifies three scenarios in which threats could arise; from a long-standing nuclear state with an "aggressive posture"; from an existing or emerging nuclear state which "enters into direct strategic competition with the UK"; and a "massive overwhelming" threat involving weapons of mass destruction. Critics have argued that such scenarios are unconvincing and that resources should instead be targeted on addressing more realistic security threats.
The Commissioners believe that the UK's Vanguard class submarines, which carry Trident missiles, could remain in service for longer than originally planned, allowing the decision on replacing them to be further delayed. This could be achieved if the current posture of always having one submarine at sea at any time is relaxed, although the Commission was divided on whether this was advisable or not.
The Commission considered that alternatives to the submarine-based Trident system should not be contemplated "simply on the basis of possible but speculative cost savings", because Trident alone was able to guarantee meeting "criteria of credibility, scale, survivability, reach and readiness".
The Commission said that the UK must do more to support international efforts to further the cause of nuclear disarmament and discourage proliferation, and should consider a further reduction in missile and warhead numbers, enhanced verification procedures and commitments to control or decrease stocks of fissile materials.
It recommends that the Ministry of Defence should “study the steps down the nuclear ladder more thoroughly to give greater confidence to the international community that we are considering such steps seriously in preparation for multilateral disarmament negotiations."
The Commission's report suggested that the government should state that the UK would only ever use nuclear weapons in the event of a nuclear attack, and not in response to biological, chemical, or conventional weapons, and advocated that nuclear armed states should declare “no first use” policies to held build confidence between themselves.
The report also concedes that the UK's nuclear weapons programme is heavily dependent on support from the USA, and concludes that "If the United States were to withdraw their cooperation completely, the UK nuclear capability would probably have a life expectancy measured in months rather than years."
The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) criticised the Commission's support for the replacement of the Trident nuclear weapons system as a “rehash of Cold War thinking” and pointed out that public and international opinion was against the replacement of Trident. CND has prepared its own report highlighting an alternative disarmament approach to the Commission's views.
Alongside its 43 page concluding report the Trident Commission has also published a set of background papers which helped inform some of its conclusions. BASIC has also published its own guide which helps interpret the Trident Commission’s conclusions and draws out the principal messages.