Thursday, 4 August 2011

Scrapping Trident would boost the UK’s military capacity – A reflection on yesterday’s publication of a report from the Defence Committee

Let me from the outset state that I am not advocating that the UK be more engaged militarily overseas. I note the stated ambition of Strategic Defence and Security Review (Oct 2010) to see more resources put into conflict prevention and we wait for flesh to be put on these bones.

However, the coalition government has set itself the challenge of maintaining “full spectrum” defence capabilities while reducing defence spending in real terms. The Ministry of Defence has announced lay-offs of 25,000 civilian personnel by 2015, the retirement of Harrier jump jets, withdrawal of Nimrod MRA4 maritime surveillance, and the closing of military training bases in Germany by 2020. “Future Force 2020” is the name given to the new-look Army, Navy and Air Force that will be slimmer, less top-heavy and, it is claimed, more fit for purpose.

Yesterday the Defence Committee published a report of their inquiry into the Government’s Strategic Defence and Security Review. The Defence Committee examines whether “Future Force 2020” is indeed likely to maintain the full spectrum capabilities that the government claims. It concludes that it is not convinced that the Armed Forces will maintain the capability to undertake all that is being asked of them. At the end of the day it comes down to money. One estimate suggests that the MOD projected overspend between now and 2020, even after the reductions achieved by the Strategic Defence and Security Review, is still £15 billion.

The Strategic Defence and Security Review (and therefore the Defence Committee Inquiry) has controversially not addressed Britain’s nuclear weapons and the huge £26 billion cost of building new Trident submarines. A decision on this will be taken after the next General Election in 2015 which is rather late for Future Force 2020 planning. Trident renewal would require considerable capital expenditure from the Defence budget over the same period for which funds are required to develop our Future Force 2020 capabilities.

Last week the Baptist Union of Great Britain, the Methodist Church, the United Reformed Church and the Quakers made a submission to the BASIC Trident Commission. This covered both ethical and strategic arguments in relation to the proposed renewal of Trident after the expiry of the current submarines in 2028. In our submission to the Trident Commission we recall that the 2007 White Paper on Trident Renewal stated “the investment required to maintain our deterrent will not come at the expense of the conventional capabilities our armed forces need”. This is quite simply not true. The cost of Trident renewal will not come from a separate Treasury ‘pot’ but from the Defence budget and, as far as we can see, this was always the intention.

Trident has no value in the theatre of war. Militarily, it is ‘useless’ in every sense of the word. Cancellation of the Trident submarine replacement programme (plus further savings that could be achieved in the operation of the current nuclear weapons system) would go a long way bridging the gap between the defence budget and the demands being asked of our armed forces.