Comment: Trident’s renewal is an expensive vanity project

By Norman Baker

What can you do with £20 billion?  You could buy 280 Chinook heavy lift helicopters, or around 3,000 Challenger 2 tanks, or you could buy over 1,000,000 bullet proof vests – far more than our service men and women would ever need.

Or, you could spend it on a vanity project. The reason I ask is because that is the estimated initial cost of replacing the Trident nuclear programme, not even including the ongoing maintenance costs over its lifetime. Over its lifetime, well that is closer to £100,000,000,000.

In 1980 the UK government announced its intention to replace Polaris with the Trident programme. The world was in the grip of a period of tension with the Soviet Union, with nuclear attacks seen as a real and present danger. The Vanguard submarines to carry the missiles were built between 1984 and 1986, with the first patrol beginning in December 1994 (years after the collapse of the Soviet Union incidentally) and it has been patrolling the seas of the planet ever since.

The case for and against the Trident programme has been passionate ever since it was created and with the programme up for renewal that debate has reached a crescendo. In 2016 we will reach the 'Main Gate' final decision and prior to that every political party in their 2015 manifestos will have to set out their stall.

In my view the question that needs to be answered and the argument that every party needs to engage is quite simple. When we face a new threat to our country from terrorist organisations, destabilised regions of the world or cyber attacks, is a nuclear deterrent designed for the Cold War era still relevant? And, crucially, is it still value for money or is it merely a vanity project stuck in a bygone era? How each party answers that question and sets out their position will be a big issue for debate at the next general election.

The Lib Dem position on the renewal of Trident has long been clear. Indeed, our 2010 manifesto ruled out the like-for-like replacement of Trident and committed us to looking at alternatives. That remains our position and we will continue to make the case for alternatives that reflect the reality of the modern day threats that our country faces.

By contrast, Labour's 2010 manifesto was far more nuanced and their current policy remains unclear.  The Conservatives, on the other hand, reiterated in their manifesto their support for a submarine based nuclear deterrent and have subsequently made it clear that they are committed to replacing the fleet come what may, recently citing the escalating situation in far away North Korea as a legitimate argument for renewal.

In line with the coalition agreement, the coalition government announced that there would be a "review of alternatives".  My Lib Dem colleague in the Treasury, Danny Alexander MP, has been overseeing this Cabinet Office review and as a member of the "quad" his oversight has shown how seriously we are taking this review.  The review is seeking to answer three crucial questions:

1.    Are there credible alternatives to a submarine-based deterrent?

2.    Are there credible submarine-based alternatives to the current proposal, such as a modified Astute-class submarine using cruise missiles?

3.    Are there alternative nuclear postures, for example non-continuous at sea deterrence, which could maintain the credibility of the UK's nuclear deterrent?

As an MP, I recognise that the first priority of the government is to ensure the safety of British citizens. We therefore have a responsibility to take very seriously our decisions on the country's military defence and we must formulate policies, backed up by thorough evidence, that best achieve that. Pre-empting the "review of alternatives" is therefore the wrong thing to do.

A defence policy for our country that targets the new threats that we face from terrorist organisations, cyber attacks and destabilised regions around the world is what we must seek to achieve. Can this be achieved through a £100,000,000,000 vanity project? I believe the answer is no.

The fact is that the world has changed, Britain has changed and the threat to Britain has changed. The irony is that modernising our nuclear fleet is only going to make us more outdated in our ever-changing world.

Norman Baker is the Liberal Democrat MP for Lewes.

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