Published in World Politics Review on September 14, 2010.
When George Osborne, Britain’s new chancellor of the exchequer, recently announced that the Ministry of Defense (MoD) must now pay for the modernization of the Trident submarine-based nuclear deterrent out of its own day-to-day budget, it marked a stark change from previous policy, by which the Treasury has traditionally footed the bill for nuclear weapons development. Though the plans are not new, the announcement caused a public row between Defense Secretary Liam Fox and Osborne. Fox has warned that with the MoD’s budget already in tatters, it will be impossible to maintain the MoD’s other capabilities if it has to meet the full cost of the Trident replacement program alone. Given the possible ramifications for the defense industry, leading manufacturers have even written to Prime Minister David Cameron about the proposal, noting it has proven “unsettling for investors.” The accounting decision means that plans to modernize Trident on a like-for-like basis are likely to come under increased scrutiny.
Because of Britain’s current budget deficit of 11 percent, government departments across the board have been ordered to make substantial savings. In July, Fox called MoD’s then-current obligations to shave 20 percent — or £7 billion — off its budget by 2015 “the absolute mother of horrors of a spending review.” This was allegedly before he received news that the MoD would also be responsible for absorbing the cost of Trident modernization — whose estimates range from £20 billion to £76 billion.
The Public Accounts Committee had already warned in March that the MoD’s funding shortfall could rise to more than £36 billion in the coming decade. With Trident, this will increase even more substantially.
The required cuts now mean that major new capabilities such as Britain’s two new aircraft carriers may end up being axed, while the number of Joint Strike Fighter aircraft on order from the U.S. is set to be halved. In addition, there is speculation that the entire Tornado fleet may be retired, along with armored brigades, artillery regiments, the Nimrod MR2 anti-submarine fleet, and even the famous Gurkah regiment.
Despite all of this, Fox still insists that the Trident modernization program must go ahead and that there can be no question of reducing the number of submarines on order — an idea previously mooted by Gordon Brown. However, Fox argues that the program should be paid for by the government out of the Treasury, because Trident is a “political” and not a “war-fighting” weapon.
Upon taking power in May, the new British coalition government ordered Fox to launch the 2010 Strategic Defense Review, designed to recalibrate the shape and form of the U.K.’s armed forces. As part of this process, the review is currently examining military spending with an eye toward cutting costs in response to the realities of Britain’s dire economic climate. However, Trident was specifically excluded from the review, to the delight of those defense officials who regard it as a “sacred cow.” Now the realities of assuming the cost of Trident means that MoD will have to decide on whether to budget for a like-for-like Trident replacement and slash everything else, or opt for a reduced deterrent, thus recasting a defense strategy that has been fixed since 1994. As a result, it seems that Trident will be up for a review of some sorts after all, whether as part of the Strategic Defense Review or not.
Given that MoD must now pay for Trident modernization, there is an even stronger case to be made for a re-examination of alternatives to Britain’s nuclear posture of “continuous-at-sea-deterrence” (CASD), whereby at least one nuclear-armed submarine is always on patrol. Prior to the general election, Cameron’s coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats, campaigned to abandon plans to replace Trident with a CASD replacement in order to save money. However, the Conservatives have remained committed to this option.
The Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) of London recently looked into some of the alternatives (.pdf), ranging from land-based missile configurations to new submarines that fulfill other missions in addition to providing nuclear deterrence. Though the study provided no cost estimates for these alternatives, it is hard to imagine that they might result in the substantial savings the MoD needs. Considering that proposals to reduce the current Trident replacement order of four submarines to three have been estimated to save as little as £2 billion, it would appear that more radical thinking is required should the MoD truly need to balance its books.
For financial reasons alone, a compelling case can be made for one such radical proposal: that the U.K. completely retire its nuclear deterrent. That case has only been strengthened now that the MoD must pay for Trident out of its regular budget. If Britain truly wants to maintain its capacity to intervene in foreign conflicts like Afghanistan and Iraq, the MoD will require substantial resources to arm and maintain its current personnel. Trident will cut into this capacity, a fact that will not go down well with those already claiming that troops in Afghanistan are not being provided with sufficient resources. In addition, because Trident is arguably not a truly independent system, but rather depends in part on cooperation with the U.S., and because the U.K. is already protected by NATO’s nuclear weapons, there are no compelling arguments beyond those of national prestige for why London even needs its own nuclear arsenal.
In light of the signing of New START in April and the focus that U.S. President Barack Obama is now putting on nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament, the financial meltdown at the MoD suggests that now would be a particularly good time for the U.K. to start thinking about foregoing its nuclear weapons for good. That a recently released survey (.pdf)by Chatham House found that nearly three-quarters of opinion-formers in the U.K. think that the government should indeed scrap its nuclear weapons or else look for a cheaper alternative suggests the public is now ready for such a decision as well.