I went up to London on Tuesday for a lecture at SOAS, where Dr Robert Gallucci, President of the MacArthur Foundation, was speaking on 'Assessing the Nuclear Threat' alongside Professor Sir Lawrence Freedman from Kings College London. The talk majored on the need to prevent terrorist groups from being able to develop a nuclear weapon, but the subject of Trident replacement came up, and whether the UK government's plans to replace Trident were helpful or unhelpful in preventing the spread of nuclear weapons.
Sir Lawrence gave an interesting reply, speculating that plans for a new Trident may well be continually 'pushed to the right' by successive governments as the decision to commit to the replacement programme is repeatedly put off. With a significant delay in the 'Initial Gate' announcement for the programme – originally planned for autumn 2009 but delayed until February 2011 – and postponement of Initial Gate until after the next General Election, this is a plausible scenario. The government might not get round to making a final definite decision, and the programme will peter out when the UK finds it can't deliver on replacing Trident, most likely for financial reasons.
Although this might seem like a happy outcome to disarmament campaigners, there are risks attached to it. As Sir Lawrence pointed out, in this situation the UK would have squandered the major political and international benefits that we could expect from taking a positive decision not to replace Trident: the ability to capitalise on our leadership to prize other arms control measures out of the international community; the boost to the UK's integrity and international repuation; and the financial benefits from cancelling a hugely expensive multi-billion pound project. Failure to deliver the Trident replacement project without a positive decision to cancel it at an early stage would, to many, expose the UK as a has-been power which no longer has the cash or ability to live up to its aspirations.
Both the previous Labour government and the current Coalition government have seemed reluctant to take the plunge and signal full steam ahead on Trident replacement. So far this has been welcome, but the time for dithering is beginning to draw to a close: soon after the next election seems to be the absolute backstop date when politicians must make up their minds for sure on whether the UK should replace Trident. The choice is between committing to the heavy costs and lost opportunities of remaining a nuclear-weapon state for the forseeable future, or taking a significant step forward to a world without nuclear weapons.