General Sir Richard Dannatt is an interesting chap. As a former Chief of Defence Staff he gained a reputation for being an outspoken campaigner on behalf of the armed forces. Since his retirement he's been co-opted by the Conservatives as an adviser on defence matters, and has also dropped a number of hints that he's not as enthusiastic on replacing Trident as some of his new political colleagues.
General Sir Richard was speaking today at a seminar organised by the Global Strategy Forum, and I thought it was worth going along to find out more and see whether he could be drawn into saying more about his views on Trident replacement.
The subject of the seminar was in itself a highly topical issue: challenges for defence over the next decade. Not surprisingly, General Sir Richard spoke at length on the forthcoming defence review which each of the major parties wants to see happen after the next election – an area on which he can speak with some authority, having been head of the Defence Programme Staff during the last Strategic Defence Review in 1997. On this matter he went to great lengths to emphasise the need for the defence review to be driven by foreign policy and not by resources, and to take account of broader security factors – recognising that there are limits to what military intervention can achieve and that a wide range of government departments need to be involved in addressing modern security threats.
One of Sir Richard's more interesting perspectives was the view that a review of defence needs should be led primarily by current threats – at the moment the war that NATO is fighting in Afghanistan – should only hedge against future uncertainties within affordable limits. Of course, British nuclear weapons are seen by the government as a hedge against an uncertain future – a hedge against uncertainty which comes with an extremely high price tag attached.
Asked about this, Sir Richard said that none of the major parties seemed to have an appetite for not continuing with nuclear weapons at the present moment. On balance he felt that was right for now – but only just, “on a points decision”. However, in five to ten years time we might know more about current uncertainties, and decide that we no longer need to retain nuclear weapons. A programme of regular five yearly defence reviews would allow such matters to be revisited on a rolling basis.
Significantly, Sir Richard felt that the forthcoming defence review should include a look at nuclear weapons policies. The two main political parties, still stuck in the mindset of the Cold War, are refusing to include this within the scope of the review. Sir Richard's view was that, as with other elements of our military commitment, the decision on nuclear weapons will largely depend on how Britain sees its role in the world.
I came away from the meeting convinced that the more the government's decision to replace Trident is exposed by public debate, the more obvious it becomes that the decision was made far too prematurely. The economic climate was far more rosy when Parliament took its vote back in 2007 and the prospects for global nuclear disarmament were much more bleak. The solution is simple: the government should freeze the programme to replace Trident for five years and review the decision then.
[See also my letter on this issue in the Daily Telegraph.]