Defence Secretary Liam Fox Offers New Thoughts on Trident Replacement

Jul 15, 2010

 By Oliver Bloom


At Chatham House on Tuesday, British Defense Secretary Liam Fox offered new insight into the current government’s plans for the future of the British nuclear deterrent (a subject which has been up for debate for years but took on new importance in the wake of the recent British elections and Britain’s fiscal austerity measures). In his prepared remarks, Fox reiterated his Government’s belief that
nuclear deterrent is of course fundamental to our ability to deter the most destructive forms of aggression
and therefore
            the current policy of maintaining the UK’s essential minimum deterrent remains unchanged.
Fox acknowledged the cost concerns about the Trident successor program, but argued that the estimates of £20bn over ten years would be a tiny fraction of the British Governments £650bn annual budget, making any Trident successor program a “pretty good value.” Nevertheless, Fox reiterated his government’s plans to scrutinize the programs costs and ensure value for money, plans to include
whether this policy can be met while reducing the cost of the successor submarine and ballistic missile systems, including by shifting the balance between financial savings and operational risk.
This work will cover the programme timetable; submarine numbers; numbers of missiles, missile tubes and warheads; infrastructure and other support costs; and the industrial supply chain.
In the question and answer session, audience members pressed Fox on the cost saving measures. Fox reiterated that the Government has
no intentions of moving to different systems, simply to see that within the current Trident replacement program we can find a better value for the hard-pressed taxpayer’s money. 
In spite of the coalition Liberal Democrats’ hope for an alternative nuclear deterrent, it seems clear that this Conservative-dominated Government has embraced the findings of the 2006 White Paper on the future of the nuclear deterrent (as well as outsideanalysis) that found there to be no equally effective but cheaper alternatives to Trident.
Instead, Liam Fox discussed the possibility of financial savings by increasing operation risk, specifically with regards to the number of British submarines. As the BBC described,
[Fox] said the government would follow the steps taken by the previous Labour government and investigate whether technology would be able to play a role in dispensing with the fourth submarine while ensuring at least one was kept in the sea all the time.
Specifically, Fox said
that reality is still there. We would have to look at what technology is available to use and what risks we were taking as we came to make that decision, probably on that fourth submarine sometime in 2014/2015.
Liam Fox’s remarks come in the wake of a recent Chatham House/YouGov poll of both the general public and leading opinion-formers that found
only a minority of both groups think Britain should replace Trident with a broadly comparable nuclear-weapons system.
In particular, only 22% of leading opinion-formers and 29% of the general public supported the option to “renew the deterrent with a broadly comparable, submarine-based ballistic nuclear-weapons system.” Seventy-two percent of the leading opinion-formers and 50% of the general public supported the option to either “replace the Trident fleet with a cheaper system: a smaller number of boats, or a different form of submarine-based system, or an alternative nuclear weapons system altogether (e.g. an aircraft-borne system)” or the option to “not renew the deterrent and give up nuclear weapons altogether.” Granted, many of those polled may not be aware that alternative systems would likely be both less effective and more costly, and thus, their support for alternative systems may diminish, but it’s unclear whether such individuals would continue to back a British nuclear deterrent if they realized that no matter the system, the costs would remain high. 
The partial disconnect between British popular opinion and government policy reflects the fact that the British public has never been able to hold a dicussion on the nuclear deterrent issue alone. Instead, whenever the nuclear deterrent issue comes up for government review, the general public is also considering a host of other issues (many of which may be more important to them than a British nuclear deterrent), and thus, their votes, and the political majorities that form, may not represent the public will on issues like Britain’s nuclear deterrent. What’s more, the idea of a British nuclear deterrent seems so engrained in the minds of the majority of British politicians (even though, as the YouGov poll shows, it’s not engrained in the minds of leading opinion-formers), that it will be difficult for there ever to be a serious reconsideration of the issue. The nuclear deterrent topic is important enough to have effects on a whole range of British policy, but not quite important enough to be the lead electoral issue (like say, the economy). 
But Britain has a precedent for public referenda on important issues (primarily on EU-related affairs), and given the importance of the nuclear issue not only for the global disarmament movement, but also for decades of British defense policy, it certainly seems like it is a possible referendum topic. While a public referenda would be an expensive and elaborate procedure, and would require parties to go out and seriously discuss the issues and the alternatives, if nothing else, the mere talk of a referendum would force the issue up in political affairs. Despite the widespread popular and cross-party support for a revision of the Trident replacement program, little seems to change. But perhaps Fox’s announcement of the possibility of three boats instead of four boats will be a first step. The question remains—will the Government’s decision to consider three boats instead of four be enough to satisfy the public’s desire for defense cuts, or will even more have to be done? 





//Mattbr under a Creative Commons License