Thursday, 10 February 2011

The BASIC Trident Commission

Is Trident still an open question?

I attended the launch of the BASIC Trident Commission in Parliament yesterday. Co-chaired by Lord Browne of Ladyton, former Labour Secretary of State for Defence, Sir Malcolm Rifkind, former Conservative Defence and Foreign Secretary, and Sir Menzies Campbell, former Shadow Foreign Secretary, this commission will look at the arguments for and against the long-term maintenance of an independent UK continuous at sea deterrent (CASD) policy and the nature of any replacement for the current submarine-based system.

 Is an open debate on Trident now possible? Certainly, the momentum in the political and military establishment behind a massive £20 billion investment in a new Trident platform is considerable but I would argue that the Trident question is still open and that this is precisely the right time for a full and informed debate. Why?

1) The international context (and in particular the NATO context) is changing; not rapidly, but potentially significantly. For example, it seems that the START Treaty signed in Berlin last weekend is only the beginning of a process. Even before the ink is dry on this treaty, background negotiations for a second phase will get underway. These are likely to be more multilateral in nature.

2) The case for Trident has yet to be argued comprehensively in the UK. Yesterday at the Trident Commission former Defence Secretary Des Browne and Armed Forces Minister Nick Harvey both asserted that the evidence and ‘paper trail’ behind the case for Trident is alarmingly thin. It was suggested that a different set of ministers looking at an assessment of options could easily arrive at a very different set of conclusions due to the inadequacy of the supporting evidence. We heard, for example, that with reference to the possibility of laying up existing submarines and bringing them back into action if international circumstances required, one civil servant allegedly stated that they did not know how long it would take to prepare a submarine under such circumstances as this was not an option that they had examined.

3) Crucially public opinion has changed since the 2007 White Paper, particularly with respect to financial costs. In his memoires Tony Blair admits that the defence/security arguments for Trident are marginal but that neither he nor Gordon Brown could see themselves standing up in front of Parliament pledging to relinquish the UK’s nuclear weapons. Now there are huge pressures on public finances.  Vanguard submarine replacement would represent a sizeable chunk of the MoD budget in the latter part of this decade at a cost to conventional forces. Credible alternatives to an independent UK CASD exist and are likely to be rather more palatable to Parliament and the Ministry of Defence today.

Yesterday, Malcolm Rifkind and other members of the Commission pledged that they are each personally on a journey with project. Where they might end up is uncertain. However, we can expect that, as this Commission is independent of Government, it is likely that the evidence to support arguments for or against Trident replacement will be more transparent and open than has been the case with any previous assessment.

We will follow this Commission's work with much interest over the next year.