Trident: is Coalition avoiding the debate that could blow it apart?
In an era of proliferation, the UK might well need a new nuclear weapon – but we seem to be ploughing ahead without a debate
LAST WEEK the House of Commons was informed that "the Ministry of Defence has signed contracts, worth about £350 million (excluding VAT) for the first 18 months work on the assessment phase of the Successor submarine programme".
The written statement from the Minister for Defence Equipment, Support and Technology, Mr Peter Luff, caused hardly a ripple of comment. It glided through the parliamentary waters rather like one of the great submarines, HMS Vanguard, bearing the UK's Trident strategic nuclear missiles, slipping from her base at Faslane, to run silent, and run deep under the world's dark oceans.
The "Successor submarine programme" is code for the replacement of the current Trident fleet and their missiles with four new vessels, new missile warheads and launch systems. These are planned to last until 2055 at least.
The expenditure on a Trident replacement may well now have reached a point of no return – both for the British and the Americans. The government has declared that so far only the "initial gate" approval has been given, exactly a year ago, for an assessment and study phase for the renewal of Trident.
"Main gate" approval, code for contracts to be laid for the full production of new submarines, is due in 2016 – after the next general election. By then, however, we are likely to be told that we are so far down the road with the new subs and missiles that turning back would be expensive folly. According to some sources, £7 billion will have been spent on the programme overall by 2016.
The terms "assessment" and "study" phase may be a touch deceptive. They really mean that a lot of specialised kit and material are being ordered and delivered in preparation for the new submarines. Reinforced steel is now being cut for the submarine hulls, and the new reactor developed by Rolls Royce.
The government's relative silence on the project is understandable. It's a deal breaker for the coalition, as many Lib Dems, including some in office, are opposed to any replacement of the Trident system. But there are voices inside the defence establishment, including the armed forces, expressing doubts about continuing the Trident programme in its present form.
Some of these doubts surround cost. The government says building the new subs and missiles will cost about £20 to £25 billion. Critics such as Greenpeace say the whole strategic missile system could cost the UK over £70 billion by 2060. Former military chiefs and senior diplomats have been looking at cheaper alternatives like air-launched cruise missiles, or shorter range submarine-launched projectiles. So far they have come up with nothing that really works.
The British debate suffers from two main weaknesses - too much of the argument for a Trident replacement is a legacy from the Cold War with little relevance to today. And too much puts the UK in the lead in Nato - ahead of European allies, and, in some respects, even the US. All of which carries a huge risk.
Britain is in the lead in the development of the common launch chamber for the current Trident missiles with the D5 warhead and their successors. The Royal Navy has to have the first replacement for HMS Vanguard and her sisters at sea by 2028 at the latest. The Americans are postponing the replacement of their Ohio class SSBN nuclear ballistic missile submarines, the 'boomers', until the mid 2030s.
It is argued that the UK needs to keep its nukes in order to stay at the top table, in their leadership of Nato and as one of the permanent five members of the UN Security Council. American wants the Brits to remain nuclear, and neither want France to be the only nuclear power in western Europe.
These arguments seem stuck in the Cold War era, as does the targeting of the current UK ballistic missiles on a variety of spots in what was the old Soviet empire.
But there is a Cold War-era argument against Trident, too. The UK, as part of Nato, is pledged to reduce its nuclear arsenal under the Non-Proliferation Treaty, or NPT, of 1968.
But such considerations look increasingly irrelevant. More nations are poised to follow the lead of Israel, North Korea, Pakistan and India and break the NPT. Some 18 nations are believed to be working on long-range missiles capable of bearing nuclear warheads - and Iran is only one of them.
We are in an era of net nuclear proliferation. In that case, should the UK be thinking of quitting the nuclear game at this critical point? With up to two dozen potential nuclear powers in the next 25 years - and maybe one or two not even being recognised states, who should the British nuclear deterrent actually deter?
There's a very public argument and debate to be had about all this, and our government and parliament owe it to us. But perhaps they fear that too much forensic study and assessment by the voters, and the government's defence and security postures and policies, and the Coalition itself, could start popping at the seams.