Events organised by the Global Strategy Forum are always worth attending, and the Forum's recent lunchtime seminar on nuclear non-proliferation and arms control was definitely on my 'must go' list. With former Defence Secretaries Des Browne (now Lord Browne of Ladyton) and Sir Malcolm Rifkind discussing the question 'Can we really count down to zero', the meeting certainly promised the fresh thinking and active debate that the Forum was set up to provide.
One of the areas where a need for a new approach to current policywas highlighted at the meeting was the UK's commitment to continuous at sea deterrence (CASD): keeping a fully armed Trident nuclear weapons submarine on patrol at sea at all times, regardless of the circumstances. Responding to a question from Lord Hannay, both of the speakers questioned the need for keeping a submarine on constant nuclear patrol.
Lord Browne pointed out that the recently published National Security Strategy gives a hierarchy of threats which face the UK, and that “you have to go a long way down the list before reaching any threats that nuclear weapons could address”. This means that the UK can safely take steps to reduce the salience and numbers of its nuclear weapons without increasing the risks it faces.
The Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) shows how advice given to Ministers can quickly change. Lord Browne told us that during his time as Secretary of State for Defence he had been advised that numbers of nuclear weapons and their deployment were at the minimum practicable number, but just four years later the new government had evidently been given different advice and as a result the SDSR announced a 20% reduction in the number of the UK's nuclear weapons. “The advice I was given as a Minister was that CASD was necessary,” he said. “I don't question the integrity of that advice, but we have seen that advice can change rapidly over time depending on the political context and political leadership”.
Advocates of continuous nuclear patrols within the Ministry of Defence have always based the case for keeping a submarine at sea at all times on two central assertions: the need to maintain operating expertise among crew members, and the risk of destabilising a crisis and making conflict more likely by putting a submarine to sea at a time of tension. However, Lord Browne explained that these views were frequently repeated assertions which usually pass unchallenged by policy makers, and this had been vividly brought home to him when, in discussion with a French naval attaché on CASD, the attaché had used identical words and references to those that he had been given by Ministry of Defence staff to justify CASD. “Political leadership needs to get down to the details and address issues on the basis of the arguments, not assertions,” he said. On the need to keep a submarine at sea at all times, “the time has now come to have this debate”.
Sir Malcolm Rifkind also felt that “we shouldn't get hung up about the need for a submarine to be at sea every day of the year”. During the Cold War the arguments in favour of CASD were apparent, but in the current international context “it wouldn't matter if for some time the UK didn't have a submarine on constant patrol”.
But what about those two reasons which we're always given to justify keeping nuclear weapons on constant alert? Lord Browne again: “The argument about maintaining a skills base is not an argument for keeping submarines at sea at all times”. Crew rota arrangements already mean that crews spend more time on shore than at sea, and alternative arrangements could mean that crews get as much time at sea as currently.
“During an international crisis, what circumstances would cause the Prime Minister to deploy a submarine?” he continued. It's clear that it would have to be an extreme situation, but “just how bad would the situation have to be? What is the margin of deterioration that could make it worse? These are questions that need to be addressed by the advocates of CASD.”
Both Lord Browne and Sir Malcolm Rifkind made it clear that they no longer see continuous nuclear patrols as an essential part of defence policy. And neither do other nuclear weapon states. Only the three NATO nations practice CASD, with neither Russia nor China – often cited as potential nuclear opponents to the UK in the future – doing so. China's nuclear capabilities are believed to be on a similar scale to those of the UK, yet no-one considers that they are not credible because they are not constantly deployed.
The UK government is currently looking for ways to reduce spending on defence, yet maintain the UK's security and at the same time show the rest of the world that it is serious about keeping its promises to move towards disarmament. Civil servants and Ministers need to think more carefully about the benefits of taking Trident submarines off of constant patrol: they might well find that it helps them to meet these policy objectives.