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Tony Blair informed the House of Commons on 4th December that in an uncertain world with states like North Korea and Iran seeking nuclear weapons, it would be ‘unwise and dangerous’ for the United Kingdom to divest itself of its nuclear weapons. He said ‘it is not utterly fanciful’ to ‘imagine states sponsoring nuclear terrorism from their soil. We know this global terrorism seeks chemical, biological and nuclear devices.’ Although the Cold War is over, Mr. Blair said no-one could say whether any new threats would emerge. The decision to replace Trident is a significant decision with enormous financial, political and security implications. Fundamentally, Mr. Blair asserted the decision to replace the British nuclear deterrent ‘is a judgment, a judgment about possible risks to our country and its security; and the place of the deterrent in thwarting those risks.’ It is a judgement deserving the nation’s full support.
The plan outlined in the government’s White Paper to renew the United Kingdom’s nuclear deterrent is sound. Mr. Blair is correct to emphasise that even though the Cold War is over, altering the geo-political landscape and balance of power across the globe, Britain cannot be certain in the years ahead, that a major nuclear threat to British strategic interests would not emerge. When no present nuclear power is or is even considering unilateral nuclear disarmament, it would be folly for Britain, alone of any of the nuclear powers, to give up its independent nuclear deterrent. Not only are there security implications linked to Britain’s status as a nuclear power, but the retention of Trident ensures Britain a continued place at the top table of global diplomacy. It also guarantees that two of the European Union’s Member States can provide a protective umbrella for all the rest, and help share in the defence of the wider democratic community.
This is prudent policy. Our nuclear deterrent is Britain’s ultimate insurance policy. The logistics of building a replacement system would take many years, so it is appropriate that the debate and decision is taken now. As the Shadow Defence Secretary, Liam Fox, has remarked, a nuclear deterrent cannot be ‘conjured up’ overnight. David Cameron is right to say Trident is a ‘vital matter of national security’ and the Conservative Party’s support for plans to renew Trident is greatly welcomed. This should be a non-partisan issue supported by all. The cost of renewing the nuclear deterrent, including overall design and manufacture costs – of between £15-£20 billion – will be spread over three decades and amounts to only fractions of a percent of one year’s economic output by Britain. Or, more specifically, on average, this is equivalent to just three percent of the defence budget, and is projected to peak in the early 2020s. Yet this does not mean that conventional defence spending will be harmed; the government has said that extra funding would be made available. And by joining an American programme to extend the life of the American-made D5 Trident missiles into the 2040s and then building a new generation of submarines in Britain, the nuclear deterrent will be able to carry on at minimal cost for decades to come.
Of the other major nuclear powers, the United States has submarine, air and land-based capability. Russia has all three capabilities and has the largest number of nuclear weapons. Indeed, in May 2006, President Putin spoke of ‘substantially upgrading the strategic nuclear forces over the course of the next five years with modern long-distance aircraft, submarines and launching facilities for the special missile forces.’ With the help of North Korea and Russia, Iran has been building ballistic missiles that are capable of targeting all the Gulf States, the Arabian Peninsula, Israel, and American and British forces in the region with little warning. This, coupled with the Iranian nuclear programme, is deeply troubling. Meanwhile our European partner, France, has both submarine and air launched capability and has a new class of submarines in development the last of which is due to come into service in 2010. China has a smaller number of land based strategic nuclear weapons, and is modernising its capability including submarine based nuclear ballistic missiles. Israel has long been a nuclear power, while India and Pakistan have recently acquired nuclear weaponry. And Japan’s potential acquisition of the bomb, in light of North Korea’s belligerence, cannot be ruled out. What is certain is that more nuclear powers are set to emerge in the coming century, some of which may be profoundly dangerous and unstable states. So at this very moment, it would make no strategic, political or diplomatic sense to do away with Britain’s nuclear deterrent.