The trivialisation of the UK’s nuclear deterrent

By Christy Quinn:

Nuclear Submarine HMS Vanguard Returns to HMNB Clyde, Scotland
Nuclear Submarine HMS Vanguard Returns to HMNB Clyde, Scotland. Photo: MoD, Tam McDonald (CC 2.0)

There is no more serious and pressing question in UK defence policy than the role of the nuclear deterrent. One thermonuclear warhead found in the D5 trident missile has an effective explosive yield up to 100 kilotons of TNT; over 5 times the power of the atomic bombs dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima in 1945. Each D5 missile can carry up to 5 warheads. Each of the four British Vanguard-class submarines carries an estimated 8 missiles at any one time. The destructive power that the UK wields globally on a daily basis is hard to comprehend. What circumstances would allow for the use of such terrible and indiscriminate destruction are equally hard to imagine.

The cost of upkeep is vast and growing. The cost of replacing the four ageing submarines when their service life expires was estimated by the UK Government in 2011 at £25 billion. For comparison, the total UK defence budget in 2016 is £43.1 billion. A report by the Royal United Services Institute have estimated that renewing the UK deterrent will consume up to 35% of the Defence procurement budget by the early 2020s. At the same time, UK defence spending as a share of national income is falling, with the UK likely to miss its 2% of GNI spending commitment as part of NATO by the beginning of the next parliament.

Clearly then, the decision over the future of the nuclear deterrent is one that policymakers across the armed forces, civil service and all political parties have had to grapple with in a serious and thoughtful manner. This makes the recent intervention by the current Secretary of State for Defence and Conservative Party candidate for Sevenoaks, Michael Fallon, difficult to understand.

In an op-ed for Wednesday’s edition of The Times, Fallon suggested that if the Leader of the Labour Party, Ed Miliband, were to be made Prime Minister following the election on 7 May, he would “barter away our nuclear deterrent” in return for the support of the Scottish National Party (SNP) in government, who oppose the renewal of Trident. As Ed Miliband ran against his brother, former Foreign Secretary David Miliband, for the Labour Leadership in 2010, electing Labour as the largest party in the House of Commons would mean that Ed Miliband would be willing to “betray” the UK’s national defence just as he had “stabbed his own brother in the back”.

Ed Miliband has already stated in several recent interviews that he would not negotiate with the SNP over the renewal of the deterrent. But to dismiss these comments as mere electioneering would be to dismiss the serious damage being done to the discussion over defence policy. If suggestion of being able to merely consider whether to maintain the nuclear deterrent in its current form is “betraying” the defence of the realm, then there are many more traitors than Miliband.

Many senior and retired staff in the armed forces have advocated, both publicly and privately, that the running costs and renewal program for Trident is degrading the defence capacity of the UK by draining funds for conventional military spending. There are also serious questions over whether a nuclear deterrent is currently serving the strategic basis on which its existence is justified; deterring aggression from a hostile state. Rory Stewart, Chair of the Commons Select Committee on Defence and a supporter of Trident renewal, has made the point that if the UK is unwilling to meet its commitments of 2% defence spending to NATO, then the deterring ability of Trident will be fatally undermined by demonstrating that Britain is not committed to the collective defence of other treaty members.

Taking the position that agreeing to any discussion of the purpose and utility of the nuclear deterrent is a “stab in the back” will make it harder, not easier, to form a coherent and effective policy of national defence. There is a valuable debate to be had about what place the nuclear deterrent has in a chaotic and unpredictable global security environment. The Secretary of Defence should know better than to trivialise it.

Christy Quinn studied International History at the London School of Economics & Political Science and is currently reading for an MA in Intelligence & International Security at Kings College London. His research interests are cyber security, national security strategy and the Asia-Pacific region. He is a Guest Editor at Strife. Follow him @ChristyQuinn. 

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