The tectonic plates are beginning to move under Trident. A new report from the IPPR, with authors including Labour’s former Defence Secretary George Robertson and former Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown, argues that Britain cannot afford much of the defence equipment needed and should revisit plans to renew Trident. Ashdown says “we can no longer afford to maintain museum Cold War armaments”, while Robertson contends that “in the post-9/11, post-financial crisis world, we must be smarter and more ruthless in targeting national resources at the real security risks”. They suggest instead reviewing possible alternatives to Trident or extending the life of the current system. Nor is this such a dramatic development. Over 2 years ago 4 key members of the US defence Establishment – Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, Sam Nunn and William Perry – used the pages of the Wall Street Journal on 4 January 2007 to advocate moving towards a world free of nuclear weapons and calling for progress towards disarmament. In addition the financial meltdown and deep economic recession are also now pushing in the same direction.
Even the MOD, which of course insists it is still committed to Trident replacement, is caught in a vicious squeeze. Can it really allow a huge part of the defence budget (£25bn replacement plus £1.5bn per year maintenance for a 35-year lifespan, total £75bn) to be swallowed up by a weapon which will almost certainly never be used? Can it do that, with even more acute political embarrassment, when British soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq, and even before that in the Balkans, are deprived of essential equipment they need but which MOD cannot afford?
Moreover the wider landscape is now moving strongly against Trident replacement. President Obama has outlined a number of positive steps he wishes to take leading to the ultimate goal of global nuclear abolition. As to Britain, it is widely recognised that it cannot join in such a programme while simultaneously replacing Trident, which would ensure that Britain remained nuclear-armed till 2050 and beyond. Even the recent FCO paper ‘Lifting the Nuclear Shadow’ is urging multilateral disarmament, yet the latest polls show that 54% of the British population oppose Trident replacement whatever other countries may do. And now senior UK military figures are openly declaring that Trident is irrelevant to our security needs and should be scrapped.
The report on the first phase of the replacement process is due from the MOD in September this year. The MOD will put this Initial Gate report to government while Parliament is in recess (hardly a coincidence), and the government then proposes to give the go-ahead for the next phase without Parliament being able to scrutinise the report. The recent Foreign Affairs Select Committee argued that Parliament should be able to debate and vote on the issue before the Initial Gate decision is taken. This could be a test case of Gordon Brown’s repeated commitment to frank and transparent governance as well as for the Constitutional Reform Bill presented to Parliament on the last day before the recess.