As a CND poll demonstrates massive public opposition to US Star Wars plans, it seems the nuclear log-jam in Britain may be moving. On 17 June, the Liberal Democrats became the first mainstream political party to reject the replacement of the Trident nuclear weapon system with a similar nuclear submarine-intercontinental ballistic missile system.
After seeing estimates of the total costs of Trident replacement in the region of £100bn in 2009 figures (10% of the military budget), Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg said that with the public finances in the state they were, and with the realities of the post-cold war world, “like-for-like replacement for Trident is just not right”.
The Lib Dems might adopt a submarine-launched nuclear cruise missile, or have a stockpile of fissile material on standby for constructing a nuclear bomb in months, instead. Clegg was elected leader of his party after scorning his opponent Chris Huhne’s call for Trident to be scrapped – a policy Clegg said was: “possibly illegal, costly and unstable”.
And the Tories?
At the beginning of May, the Guardian reported that an intense debate was going on inside the Conservative party over Trident replacement, with the shadow chancellor George Osborne and some senior party strategists arguing that air-launched nuclear cruise missile might be an acceptable alternative.
On 31 April, Conservative leader David Cameron said his party supported the “forward defence programme”, but “that doesn’t mean in these difficult circumstances that you don’t have to look.… when you are reviewing spending you have to review all spending.”
Cameron is hoping to defer any difficult decisions to the strategic defence review he has promised on taking office, assuming he wins the general election.
A mid-June report from the all-party Commons foreign affairs committee called for a full debate on Trident in the autumn before the government begins spending millions on design work for the Trident replacement submarines.
The committee also asked the government, in the light of upcoming US-Russia disarmament talks, to say “whether there are circumstances under which the UK would be prepared to suspend the Trident renewal programme” – if there were significant cuts in superpower warhead numbers.
Admiral Lord Boyce, former chief of the defence staff, told The Times that if a future government decided to scrap the Trident replacement, “then it should order the Trident submarines home” immediately.
The admiral said: “You can’t have a government announcing the end of the deterrent from 2024 but still maintain the Trident patrols until the end of their service. Once such a decision is made not to replace Trident, it will undermine the raison d’être of the Trident crews.”
The people say
A YouGov opinion poll at the end of May showed almost three-fifths (58%) of British people agreeing that the siting of components of the US Star Wars missile defence system in the UK and Europe will increase international tension between the US and Russia and, as a result, increase the threat to UK and European security.
Over half (53%) of the public agree that the Obama administration should cancel the plans for Star Wars bases in Europe, compared to 20% who disagree.