Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Part-Time Deterrent

As part of today’s conference debate F32Defending the Future – UK Defence in the 21st Century (Defence Policy Paper), (pages 50-53) in lines 49 to 72, the leadership advocate reducing the Trident nuclear-carrying submarine fleet from the current four Vanguard-class boats to two Successor-class boats and ending the Cold War policy of Continuous At Sea Deterrence – known as CASD.  It would include such subterfuges as openly going to sea with unarmed missiles but having a stockpile of real weapons ready that can be primed in times of international stress (lines 57-58) and “surging” with armed patrols in the case of the international situation deteriorating (59-60).

It is obvious from these examples that the paper’s authors do not give any credence to Toby Fenwick’s paper Dropping the Bomb (Centre Forum 2012), in which he outlines the problems of such a part-time deterrent.

Such a part-time deterrent is dangerously escalatory.  First, the act of sailing a ballistic missile submarine in a crisis would be a major escalation just at the time when governments are attempting to de-escalate.  Second, as the UK’s only nuclear weapon system, a part-time deterrent in port provides a major incentive for an adversary to mount a pre-emptive strike to disable or destroy the Trident submarines in port or to ambush them on sailing, again increasing the incentives for an adversary to escalate a crisis more rapidly.  A part-time deterrent is dangerously escalatory in a crisis, and must be rejected.”

In his paper, Fenwick also dismisses the “Cruise Missile” option, with multi-role submarines, as it runs the risk of giving the hypothetical enemy a confused signal.  In the twenty minutes it takes from launch to impact, are those cruise missiles carrying nuclear or conventional weapons?  Should the enemy launch an all-out nuclear retaliation or assume that we Brits are the good guys and would never launch nuclear weapons first?

There are therefore only two real choices as far as a credible policy on nuclear weapons are concerned.  We should either maintain enough capacity for CASD deployment, thus backing Conservative and Labour policy to replace the Vanguard boats with Successor, or to end the United Kingdom’s ownership of nuclear weapons altogether. 

What the author’s of today’s paper are really trying to do is maintain economic and expert capability in the fields related to nuclear weapons, hence the call for continuous training and practice (61-62) and dual-usage submarines (64).  They know that holding on to a Cold War stance is not credible but in their view neither is the stark alternative of unilaterally disarming.  Thus the fudge that conference is being asked to approve today, a case of when the cart is being put before the horse if ever there was one. 

The best that Conference can do today is support the amendment which calls for the cancellation of the Successor programme and thus leads to the retirement of Trident within the next decade.   Just in case one is tempted to support the paper as it stands though, just remember this one thing.  In the 2030s, the Trident missiles themselves will be at the end of their lives and will need replacement too.  So if one were to think that any form of support for the Successor programme is viable, think again.   In spending all these billions of pounds, the decision is only being put back 20-25 years and then the nation will be facing exactly the same debate as we have today, but with even less control of the outcome because Trident is almost exclusively US-made.

Today, end support for Successor and let Liberal Democrats lead the way with the truly credible and realistic outlook on nuclear weapons.