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Whither Trident?

On 16 July, the government published its international strategy in the lead-up to the NPT Review Conference next May. Called “Road to 2010”, the document was overshadowed in the media by an informal briefing given by cabinet office officials later that afternoon suggesting the government was to delay the next development step for the new Trident nuclear missile submarines until after the NPT review conference.

There had always been a suspicion that the rush into this project was driven more by Blair’s desire for a personal legacy, and for industrial reasons, than by an urgent strategic deadline. At BASIC, in 2007 we had attempted to cost Tony Blair’s rush to replace Trident, and estimated it would amount to several billion pounds. More importantly, a delay of the “initial gate” decision scheduled for this autumn connected so explicitly to the NPT review conference would send the message that Britain was ready to engage in multilateral disarmament in line with the rhetoric used by the prime minister.

The delay “announcement” was an informal briefing, denied the next morning by the prime minister’s official spokesperson. We interpreted this as a “kite” – testing out the waters of opinion before any official statement. If so, the kite had flown well – no-one (Tories or critical journalists) had shot at it, let alone scored any hits. Surely, then, the government would follow through on the idea?

Apparently not. On 14 August, the government published a response to the Foreign Affairs Committee report suggesting that the Trident programme was bang on track. Private discussions with officials suggested that initial gate was timetabled as planned. There has still been no public confirmation either way that the decision has been made. Yet again, we’re all left in the dark.

Rob Peter to arm Paul
Meanwhile, there has been a healthy public debate around major defence procurement spend, most recently stoked by Bernard Gray’s report, commissioned by the Ministry of Defence (MoD), suggesting the MoD wastes £2bn a year through inefficiencies in its procurement programmes (total budget around £11bn), and that there is a massive black hole in defence procurement so that it is unable to afford a third of its equipment commitments this coming decade.

Throughout the nuclear debate confusion has been sown over “opportunity costs”. During the debate in 2007, government ministers claimed that replacing Trident would not have any impact on the procurement of conventional equipment… but, as night follows day, the money has to come from somewhere. While in that part of the recession the government may have been looking to spend its way out, everyone is now predicting sharp cut-backs in public spending across the board over the next 5-10 years as a result.

Spending on Trident replacement cannot come out of the general public purse – cuts are already dramatic elsewhere. With the hole in defence procurement, spending on new submarines has to come from cutting other equipment deemed essential for armed forces elsewhere. But here’s the rub. The big spend for Trident replacement comes after the final big stage in the decision-making process (“main gate”), when metal is cut and the production begins. The annual spend on the project is likely to jump from around £500m to £1,500m in two years at that point. Right in the heart of deepest holes in both defence and more general public budgets. Yet, it’s still five years away. By then, will we be in the grip of the “Concorde fallacy” – that there has been too much invested to abandon the project?

Over the last six months there have been indications that politicians, including senior Tories and even Gordon Brown, are waking up to the issue. Brown suggested in New York that Britain might reduce the order from four subs to three (incidentally raising much more negative reaction than the earlier kite, as commentators pointed to the possible abandoning of the policy of having a sub out at sea at all times).

Strong messages

What are we to make of this? Should we welcome such scale backs as movements in the right direction, even if for weak (financial) reasons? There are dangers in pursuing disarmament policy for reasons of financial prudence, rather than the recognition of its own merits. It is reversible if financial prospects brighten. We may end up with cheaper systems that are equally or more destabilising. Disarmament gets a reputation for being a sign of weakness and poverty, and conversely, possession or rearmament a sign of wealth and power.

It is important that the broader peace movement communicates clearly, here and abroad, that disarmament is a move towards stronger and more reliable security for all. In times of tough budgets, the need for clear communication by peace movements – and by governments – on these matters is all the more important.

Paul Ingram is executive director of British American Security Iinformation Council.
In June BASIC led an all party parliamentery delegation to Washington DC to promote non-proliferation and disarmament.

Topics: Nuclear Weapons