How much of an issue will plans to replace the UK's Trident nuclear weapons be during the next general election campaign? Although the election is not scheduled to take place until 2015, the battlelines for the Trident debate are already being drawn.
The announcement in Parliament that the government would be moving beyond the 'Initial Gate' of the Trident repacement programme into the detailed design stage for new submarines was accompanied by a lower-profile announcement that Cabinet Office would also be undertaking an 18-month assessment into alternatives to Trident replacement, led by the Cabinet Office. The review is the brainchild of Armed Forces Minister Nick Harvey, the Liberal Democrat representative in the Ministry of Defence, who will be overseeing the project.
The scope of the review will cover the following questions:
- Are there credible alternatives to a submarine-based deterrent?
- Are there credible submarine-based alternatives to the current proposal, e.g. modified Astute using cruise missiles?
- Are there alternative nuclear postures, i.e. non-CASD [continuous at-sea deterrence], which could maintain credibility?
The review will make an assessment of how alternatives could be delivered, the feasibility, cost and industrial implications, and levels of risk and credibility and will eventually report to the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister.
The Trident Alternatives Review is a Liberal Democrat project which aims to make good on the promises in the Coalition programme for government that “the renewal of Trident should be scrutinised to ensure value for money” and that “Liberal Democrats will continue to make the case for alternatives”. Predictably, the announcement that a review will take place has caused fury among right wing pro-Trident MPs from the Conservative and Labour parties who are keen to see the Trident juggernaut roll ahead as fast as possible before the election, presumably on the principle that the more money has been spent on the project by election time, the harder it will be to cancel it.
Nick Harvey has already described the paper trail justifying the need to replace Trident as “thin”, and the Liberal Democrats are banking on the review's potential to show how weak the case for Trident replacement really is, thus bolstering the anti-Trident position at the next election. But will the review really be enough to convince voters to put their cross in the box for one of the parties opposed to Trident? Opinions differ, with one right wing think-tank describing it as “a cause for alarm” and “ part of a worrying trend away from a firm commitment to renewing Trident”, but Defence Secretary Liam Fox reportedly dismissing it as a joke and a waste of time.
Much will depend on whether the review is conducted in an open and transparent way, and whether it is able to demonstrate with convincing evidence – as opposed to opinion – that the case for a different option would be stronger than the case for replacing Trident. Lessons from the Trident Value for Money Review, conducted as part of the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review process, suggest that the amount of meaningful information that will be released following the Trident Alternatives Review may be strictly limited.
Despite requests by MPs to release the Value for Money Review report, the government has refused to do so “because of the classified nature of much of the supporting paperwork”. Requests under the Freedom of Information Act have received a similar response, although the Cabinet Office has recently released the terms of reference of the review (available for download at the bottom of this article). These show the limitations of the study that was conducted. A letter from the Julian Miller, Director of the Foreign and Defence Policy Team at the Cabinet Office, outlines the following terms of reference:
“The review should assume that the current policy of maintaining the essential minimum deterrent remains unchanged. Against this background, it should examine the following issues:
- any scope to reduce costs through refurbishing and prolonging the life of the current submarines;
- whether to acquire 3 or 4 successor submarines; the balance of cost saving versus levels of risk to CASD;
- the choice between the PWR2 or 3 reactor;
- the scope to reduce the number of missile tubes to fewer than 12;
- the minimum necessary number of nuclear warheads;
- scope to minimise future infrastructure costs;
- the level of spend needed to maintain the minimum essential capability at AWE Aldermaston;
- the level of spend required to maintain the minimum essential capability at Raynesway;
A subsequent letter following completion of the review states: “I should emphasise that the review took as its starting point the criteria set out by Julian in his letter and therefore assumes that we will retain a submarine based nuclear deterrent deploying Trident ballistic missiles, and that our posture will continue to be Continuous At Sea Deterrence (CASD)”.
Although the 2010 review made no effort to investigate whether other options might provide better value for money than replacing Trident, it is notable that, although the previous government had asserted that its nuclear posture represented the absolute minimum necessary to represent a minimum deterrent, the review was able to identify significant scope for lowering standards. In all but two of the non-redacted areas (the number of submarines deemed necessary to keep one on permanent patrol, and the choice of reactor – dictated by safety considerations) reductions in the size of forces and levels of spending were found to be possible.
The likelihood is, therefore, that like the Value for Money Review, Nick Harvey's Trident Alternatives Review will be able to make a strong case that there is no need for 'like for like' replacement of Trident. Whether voters will draw this conclusion will depend on the extent to which the debate is conducted behind closed doors or in the open. Unfortunately the battle is not yet over for Mr Harvey – having persuaded the government to undertake the review, he will now have to persuade reluctant colleagues that its findings must be published in full.
Download a copy of correspondence about the terms of reference of the Trident Value for Money Review, released under the Freedom of Information Act, here: