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Why the military is divided over Britain’s nuclear deterrent

Britain’s nuclear deterrent is attached to four Vanguard-class submarines. Ben Curtis/PA

One thing was very striking at the recent Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) Land Warfare Conference, where current British Army personnel including top brass and Ministry of Defence officials were heavily present. The issue of replacing Trident, the UK’s sea-based nuclear deterrent, was not discussed at all.

This conference was taking place a few months ahead of Conservative plans to renew the deterrent like for like. This was guaranteed by the party’s victory at the general election in May, and has since been reaffirmed by Michael Fallon, the defence secretary.

Yet when it comes to Trident, the British military are “split on this issue as never before”. That was the conclusion of a report by the Nuclear Education Trust and Nuclear Information Service that was published at the end of June. So why the difference in views?

The need for UK nuclear weapons

Admittedly the report tends to emphasise the minority views in the data, coming from one organisation whose fundamental goal is to “make nuclear issues accessible to all regardless of age and ability” (Nuclear Education Trust) and another that is dedicated to disarmament (Nuclear Information Service). It also represents a mere snapshot of the views of mainly ex-military personnel based on 35 in-depth interviews. That said, it undoubtedly offers an insight into the variety of views on Trident that exist within UK defence circles.

It will be no surprise that most interviewees favoured UK nuclear weapons and replacing Trident. And those who demonstrated concerns were not opposed per se, but raised issues of costs and effectiveness. What was interesting, and may shed light on the silence at the RUSI conference, is that the majority of military personnel interviewed had “little interest in Trident” at all.

The report noted that army personnel are the “least supportive” as they have the “least to gain” in contrast to the Royal Navy, which feels Trident justifies its claim as the senior service responsible for the strategic defence of the United Kingdom. These grievances (some may call it tribalism) should presumably be understood in terms of materials and priorities as the cost of Trident limits investment in the conventional capabilities of the army and RAF.

No single weapons system can protect against all threats, of course. Even with the continuous at-sea deterrent provided by Trident, the UK would still remain vulnerable to threats below the nuclear threshold such as climate change, cyber war and nuclear terrorism. Yet there may be greater threats above the nuclear threshold if the UK were to unilaterally reduce its nuclear capability. Russia’s recent nuclear sabre-rattling is a case in point.

Deterrence can fail, of course. It is also ill-suited to many of today’s security threats, and accidents can happen – as one whistleblower recently augured. Yet most realists will still tell you that the very destructiveness of nuclear weapons helps to decrease the probability for war between great powers.

Costs and strategy

A related issue is the balance of costs between nuclear and conventional defences. Although most interviewees in the report favoured “high-priority” government spending on the nuclear deterrent, they didn’t want this to undermine conventional capabilities and said the cost of replacing Trident should fall outside the Ministry of Defence budget. Yet this logic assumes that savings from either abandoning nuclear weapons or reducing our current deterrent would be reinvested in conventional forces. There is no guarantee of this.

The report demonstrated an increasingly common argument: Trident is useless as a military tool and frivolously wastes billions on a symbol of strength. The fact that it is arguably more of a political tool used to be reflected in the fact that the Treasury met the cost of the deterrent. In 2010, however, it was moved over to the defence budget.

It is estimated that the cost of replacing the four Trident-equipped Vanguard-class submarines will consume 10%-12% of the defence budget during the procurement stage but will be reduced to 5%-6% once the next generation of submarines comes online in the late 2030s. According to the ministry, it will cost £17.5bn to £23.4bn at 2013-2014 prices to procure the replacement system. (Though it has been claimed by the likes of the Scottish Nationalists that the total costs of procurement and the running costs of the replacement deterrent “over its lifetime” will reach £100bn.)

Defence review: Michael Fallon. Joe Giddens/PA

Later this year, the government will conduct its strategic defence and security review. We are told it will be a full-scale review of all the threats and the capabilities facing the UK. But given the commitment to like-for-like replacement that I mentioned earlier, it is unlikely that this review will see Trident as no longer key to Britain’s security.

This is at a time when the UK’s defence budget is facing another 5% or £1bn cut. Couple that with the sizeable cost of Trident renewal and it can only have an effect on the UK’s conventional forces.

As one young army officer so eloquently put it at the RUSI conference, we may have the manpower and the equipment but will we have the money left to do anything with them? A pan-military conference might feel understandably awkward about airing its divisions in public, but the rest of us must not. How much faith we put in nuclear weapons as a traditional deterrent in an age of fluctuating threats is a public debate that needs to take place.

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