Gordon Brown’s decision to reduce the number of submarines from 4 to 3 is welcome, but it certainly does not amount to even the beginning of a process of scrapping the renewal of Trident. The fourth submarine always had the role merely of providing an insurance policy against all the odds, and its removal will not reuduce the nuclear capability of 168 warheads or their deployment. It will cut the costs of the renewal package by some £3bn, but David Miliband has rightly made clear that a decision to downgrade or scrap Britain’s nuclear force should be made exclusively on grounds of overall defence strategy, not as a mere cost-cutting exercise. By that criterion this decision represents little change. The motive appears to be to offer a contribution to Obama’s drive to reduce the overall number of nuclear warheads in preparation for next year’s review of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, but on that count the dropping of the fourth submarine fails to meet the objective.
Is it then motivated by the goal of cost-cutting wihtout in any way altering the underlying strategy? Maybe, although a reduction of some £3bn against this year’s (and next year’s) budget deficit of £175bn is fairly tiny. The cost of going ahead with Trident renewal, including its full lifetime costs, will still be over £70bn, and Greenpeace has in the last week set out the detailed figuring which suggests that the total cost of the project over its lifetime will actually be about £97bn. If the cost of the two new proposed aircraft carriers were added in, plus the hugely increased price tag for the F35 planes that they will carry and the cost of building a fleet to protect them at sea, then they estimate that the total cost rises to no less than £130bn. Chopping the fourth submarine would then amount to a cut in MoD’s nuclear funding of just 2.3%.
Sadly it coudl then be argued that this latest move by Brown falls between all the stools. It does not reduce the number of warheads. It represents a tiny saving – only 1.7% of the current budget deficit. And it is highly unlikely to impress the non-nuclear States next year that Britain is making the decisive change which might persuade them to stick with the Non-Proliferation Treaty and not go nuclear. Not three cheers, Gordon, and not even one cheer out of three.