Beware of Trident-lite

By Richard Norton-Taylor, the Guardian’s security affairs editor (THE GUARDIAN, 23/11/06):

The cabinet is expected to have its first discussion today on a decision that will have momentous consequences, of the kind that surfaces once in a generation. We could be forgiven for assuming it is a forgone conclusion. But is it? The issue is the future of Britain’s nuclear deterrent, now in the form of four submarines, each able to carry 16 US Trident missiles, each of which can carry 12 warheads. In the Commons yesterday Tony Blair repeated his well-worn, indeed predictable, view that Britain should retain an “independent” nuclear deterrent, a position echoed by Gordon Brown in the summer as he began to dress up in prime ministerial clothes.

Peter Hain and Hilary Benn have indicated uneasiness about a decision to replace Trident. Yet Downing Street and Des Browne, the defence secretary, are confident the whole cabinet will sign up to a white paper explaining the decision, promised before Christmas. This suggests Blair will plump for some of the easier decisions in the multitude of sins – carrying on as before, for example, by extending the life of the existing system, while cutting the number of missiles or warheads, and reducing the yields of the warheads. (In 1998, after a year in power, the government limited to 48 the number of warheads on any of the Trident submarines, down from the previous Conservative government’s ceiling of 96.)

Such “Trident-lite” options may avoid a cabinet split and a serious revolt by Labour MPs. The danger is that we will be lulled into submission by a decision made to appear to be a reduction in Britain’s nuclear weapons capability. The public debate ministers claim they want will be put off or stifled.

The military is copping out of the debate, saying any decision about Trident is political. They say their only concern is that the costs, estimated at £20-£76bn over 30 years, do not come out of the existing defence budget. Whitehall officials back away from serious discussion. Their main concern, it seems, is the prospect of France being Europe’s only nuclear power. When pressed, they admit it would be difficult to argue now for Britain to acquire nuclear weapons if it did not already have them.

Questions abound. The government has yet to explain who now would be deterred by Trident. It says Britain needs the weapon as an insurance policy against an unforseen enemy.

“Any justification for upgrading or replacing Trident predicated on the risk of some possible (but unknown) future threat is inherently incompatible” with Britain’s obligations under the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, Philippe Sands, a leading international lawyer, told Greenpeace this week in a legal opinion. International law is notoriously open to differing interpretations. There is also the question of what message the government’s decision would send to those countries, not just Iran, seeking nuclear weapons know-how.

In a report, Worse than Irrelevant?, published yesterday, the Acronym Institute, an independent thinktank, says: “At the heart of the debate about British nuclear weapons is the question of Britain’s role in the world … Effective decision-making on this issue requries not only the expertise of military, political, technical or financial practitioners, but also civil society.” Any decision, it adds, “needs to follow an open and well-informed public debate, encompassing all sections of our democracy”.

A minimalist decision would have one clear advantage, apart from cost. A decision to buy new submarines and missiles need not be taken for at least five years – time for a deeper debate about the options, including non-nuclear deterrence. The white paper may provide initial food for thought over Christmas.