Jeffrey LewisIngram on Lib Dems and Trident

After the very unusual television debate among the candidates for UK Prime Minister, the Liberal Democrats have, according to some polls, shot into the lead. (The poll numbers above are from one of those instant response things; the race is much closer.) That is all the more fascinating, since the LibDems have been the least enthusiastic about what they call “like-for-like” replacement of the UK’s Trident ballistic missile submarines.

I called Paul Ingram, Executive Director at the British-American Security Information Council, to chat about what LibDem leader Nick Clegg means for the UK’s arms control and disarmament policies.

After a long chat, Paul sent along his thoughts on UK politics, the rise of the LibDems and the prospects for Trident replacement in the UK:

Last Thursday Britain had its first ever election leader TV debate, and it confounded the pundits, not only for being more interesting than anyone expected, not only because it turned out to be a genuinely three-horse contest (why should that be surprising when you put three horses in the track?), but also because little-known Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg (Nick who?) raised the cost of Britain’s Trident replacement plans not once, nor twice, nor thrice, but four times, before the other two were forced to respond. Tory leader David Cameron reluctantly responded with the usual response about defending the UK but committing: “I say we should always have the ultimate protection of our independent nuclear deterrent”, followed by Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who after describing the need for a united front against potential proliferators, said, “I don’t favour Nick’s proposal which would unilaterally abandon our nuclear deterrent when we know Iran and North Korea and other countries are trying to get…” Since the debate the universal media and public opinion is that Clegg scored a hit on the night (not necessarily on this issue) and the Lib Dems are soaring in the polls. So, is there something exciting going on around Britain’s nuclear deterrent? Could we see some sort of momentum behind a policy shift? What?s the background?

The Lib Dems could end up holding the balance of power, so their opinion is important. But don’t expect an FDP moment — where after last October’s elections Germany’s new Foreign Minister is pushing hard within NATO for the withdrawal of US B-61s from Germany — there is strong cross-party and public support for such a move in Germany where it does not yet exist in the UK. Even in their own party the Lib Dems are badly divided on the issue of what to do, and national representatives have been on all the UK media since the debate clarifying that they are not in favour of unilateral nuclear disarmament, simply looking for cheaper alternatives to buying UK nukes systems off the US shelf. As far as they are concerned, the real economics can wait ? they are looking for a small ask, that the issue be considered within long-awaited the Defence review promised by all major parties contesting the election (13 years after the last one). Beyond this, don’t expect anything substantial from the Lib Dems, as they will likely be spending what political capital they have after any indecisive election looking for deals on electoral reform.

So great — the nuclear issue has been raised in the election (tick), and the argument put that the UK’s deterrent needs to be reconsidered in the forthcoming defence review (tick). All to the good. But wait a minute, is there another side to this coin? Prior to Cameron’s response, Conservative Party policy, voiced in some detail by Shadow Foreign Secretary William Hague, appeared to be supportive of the vision of a world free of nuclear weapons, and the linkage between non-proliferation and multilateral disarmament. Hague and his foreign policy team have been clear — bury hopes of any unilateral disarmament, but they are well and truly in the game practiced by Obama — maintain nuclear deterrence for now, but work vigorously to create the conditions for disarmament. Hague’s boss, David Cameron, calls into question the honesty of the Party in following this approach. It’s worth repeating his words: “I say we should always have the ultimate protection of our independent nuclear deterrent”. What message does that send to the rest of the world, and not least our closest allies who need us to play the Obama game if chances of tightening up international rules that prevent nuclear proliferation are to have any hope of getting the necessary consensus?

It may look like a courageous act from Nick Clegg in pointing to the Emperor’s nudity. Actually, there was little courage involved — he had everything to gain as a larger proportion of the British public supports unilateral disarmament than his party, and his position is quite vanilla. It was a classic case of an opportunistic race for the middle ground. But our problem is that this could simply push his opponents into making irreversible commitments to replace the UK system in an election period where such commitments appear to make electoral sense? only to close the door to rational options once the election is over and the full horror of the state of the public finances are realised. It is yet too early to tell. I could be wrong, but the British electorate and the media that has so much influence on it, has not yet shown the maturity to have an informed debate on its nuclear deterrent, without base appeals to jingoism and the stirrings of fear of the unknown.


  1. Chad (History)

    Interestingly Labour make no mention of Trident or a like for like replacement in their manifesto:

    …But the Conservatives do:

    Chad @ NOH

  2. FSB

    “I say we should always have the ultimate protection of our independent nuclear deterrent”

    Jolly good. You don’t say old chap…the UK? An independent deterrent?

    Deterring whom from doing what exactly….to the UK?

    Perhaps the Brits have not read the latest news

    “Don’t forget that Great Britain was the world’s dominant asshole for well over three centuries, and look at it now: a pussy-whipped shell of the insufferable, bullying jackass it used to be.”

    I think the Brits are flattering themselves by thinking they have something so important that someone would be willing to use nukes to take it from them. They can keep the Marmite and Shepard’s pie, IMHO.

    When applied to “rogue” nations this desire for nukes is called the ‘prestige’ argument; same goes for UK.

    In fact, same goes for everyone.

  3. Seb (History)

    “so important that someone would be willing to use nukes to take it from them.”

    One wonders then why Russia has resumed the practice of sending it’s strategic bombers up to and on occasion into UK airspace?

  4. sekant (History)

    “I say we should always have the ultimate protection of our independent nuclear deterrent”

    The problem with such a sentence is that the UK does not have an independent deterrent. Their capacity is so dependent on the US (and that does not apply to Tridents but also to their warheads design, sub-design, UK based facilities) that independence is a pipe dream.

    The only benefit of this dependence on the US is that the British nuclear capacity ends up being much cheaper than the French one.

  5. ocean_front_property_in_kyrgyzstan (History)

    FYI-4 former UK generals published an op-ed in today’s Times calling for a rethink on Trident stressing an economic/resource allocation basis. The generals generally agree with Nick.

  6. Rwendland (History)

    The Liberal Democrats recent discussion and policy options paper on Trident replacement is here.

    They do not want a like-for-like Trident SSBN replacement, but have not decided yet what they would want. The options they list are:

    1) Life extension of current SSBNs beyond Royal Navy claim of 25-30 year lifetime
    2) Ending Continuous At-Sea Deterrence, extending life of current SSBNs to perhaps 35 years (so nearly within US SSBN replacement window)
    3) Franco-British Co-operation
    4) Alternative Platforms (updated WE.177, or cruise missile)
    5) Stretched Astute SSN holding 2 or 4 Trident missiles
    6) Recessed Deterrent – just retain capability to build a new warhead
    7) Unilateral Disarmament

  7. Rwendland (History)

    The Liberal Democrats do not seem to have considered my pet idea (sadly!) for a lower cost less than like-for-like replacement: extending the current SSBNs life in a lower mobility mode. My pet idea may be impractical – I’ve never come across a paper evaluating it – and I would be very interested in any ACW readers views on practicality.

    Reading the select committee and other discussions, although the Royal Navy does not say so explicitly, the major life-extension problem with the Vanguard SSBNs seems to be the reactor and/or closely associated equipment. Possibly related to the thermal fatigue cracking in the reactor primary circuit of HMS Tireless, which forced her to shutdown the reactor and proceed to Gibraltar under diesel backup in 2000 (after 16 years in service). Immediate difficult fixes had to be made to the entire Trafalgar SSN fleet.

    So my pet idea is after reactor end-of-life to modify the SSBNs for limited mobility surface operation using the diesel backup, perhaps with an extremely limited short-term underwater capability using batteries. So the Valiants would essentially move slowly about UK coastal waters – not very effective against major powers moving just against the UK, but fine as an insurance against minor rogue states and as a tripwire that would bring in NATO support. Also not a development of a new nuclear weapon system, fitting better with NPT obligations.

    The technical questions seem to be:

    1) Does Valiant have a surface ICBM launch capability as other SSBNs have.
    2) Or could batteries provide a limited underwater launch capability.
    3) Is it practical for a Valiant to patrol under diesel power on the surface (or snorkel) for at least three months.
    4) Is the reactor system indeed the only block to a life extension to about 40 years, aligning the UK again with the US SSBN replacement cycle.

    Evaluating the technical feasibility of this is interesting. But in practice the real opposition to something like this is in fact political/industrial – perhaps explaining why this has not been properly considered. The Royal Navy would hate it.

    But the real opposition is I think the UK nuclear powered submarine building lobby. BAE Systems states that to build nuclear submarines economically the UK must produce a new nuclear powered submarine about every 22 months, so to use specialised capital equipment and skilled labour efficiently, and it is the UK Defence Industrial Strategy to do so. Very conveniently UK nuclear powered submarines seem only to last about 25 to 30 years, so a 22 month build drumbeat and a little slippage implies the UK has to have a fleet of about 14 nuclear powered submarines. Fortunately the last Strategic Defence Review said we want 4 SSBNs and 10 SSNs, which meshes very nicely with the industrial requirement. But if we don’t need new SSBNs very soon, we have a problem for the UK defence companies and increased costs for any new SSNs,

  8. FSB

    Does UK fear a nuclear attack from Russia?

    What would such a nuclear war be fought over?

  9. Seb (History)

    “Does UK fear a nuclear attack from Russia?”

    Well, to be trite, as long as the UK has a deterrent it doesn’t have to fear an attack. While your original post seems a tad disingenuous, this one more so.

    As a UK voter, let me say why I would be against disarmament (despite not wanting to work for those scarily weird people AWE sent to recruitment fair back at University).

    In the absence of a deterrent it’s not what might cause a nuclear attack but what we have to do to avoid an attack from a nuclear or conventionally superior power.

    Is that likely to be a real problem? Well, yes, we agree that no war is going to be fought over the burning desire to acquire our cherished Marmite (there are easier ways to get it, c.f. Cadburys), nor do I think many people are keen putting a flag over Stevenage. My guess is that taking out bits of infrastructure key to the defence of Europe and/or America would be the motivation for any attack (nuclear or otherwise) on the UK. The UK’s involvement in the last two major European wars wasn’t based on fear of invasion, but fear of unfavourable outcomes on the continent. That’s likely to be the cause of any future war where nukes or absence of them are relevant.

    So, is any war in Europe, or even just threats of force for coercive purposes (Moving nuclear missiles into Kaliningrad) unthinkable, particularly if one side had all the nukes and limited objectives at the edge of Europe? After all, even the EU is not an all or nothing prospect. It comes in convenient bite-sized chunks and the connections between them might turn out to be quite brittle if tested. We could go all Tom Clancy at this point, let’s not, and instead remember WWI was unthinkable at one point.

    We’ve moved a long way away from Marmite and Shepherds Pie and got to the real issue: The EU isn’t going to get the bomb, but should Britain and France keep the bomb until we are all confident that everyone is on the same page: no more use of force or threat of force in relations between European/regional powers*?

    That doesn’t seem so crazy to me. Are we all agreed on no more threats of force? At least one big nuclear power on Europe’s borders is not sufficiently confident that there is no scope for a European conflict to stop these bomber flights, practicing for a nuclear conflict doesn’t convince me we have made such progress to the “no threat of force at all” understanding I would consider a requirement for total disarmament.

    There is the secondary question of whether American security guarantees (which are rock solid for Britain itself I would think) extend to the entire European area where Britain’s interests might run, or whether that reliance is good for Britain/Euopre. In the context of the UK even the operationally independent British Bomb seems to come with strings (explicit or implicit). For the UK political debate, a much better question is whether nuclear cooperation with France might make more sense than with the US. Could we be better off hard bargaining on Ascension and Diego Garcia and would future leaders feel less compelled to sign on to wild ventures to repay “blood debts” as on former PM put it? Could our relations with the US actually be improved if the US was less certain of having to-the-hilt British backing?

    *Just looking at our neighbourhood. The wider question of collective security internationally comes into it, and whether you need policemen or a world needs a lot more countries with conventional force projection capabilities.

  10. FSB

    point taken. However, I think a credible minimum deterrent posture would be fine for the UK. A couple of subs with 10 nukes each would be an OK deterrent for UK and France. Certainly, there is no need for a 007 independent UK deterrent — whatever that means. AWE is run by Lockheed Martin for God’s sake.

    I would venture if the UK replaced 95% of her nukes with warheads containing Marmite her deterrent posture, for the reasons you listed, would remain unaffected.

    Similar arguments apply to US and Russia of course.

  11. Seb (History)


    Well, it doesn’t really matter if Lockheed owns AWE, provided everything works when it needs to. Nor is it terribly worrying if the know how is still possessed by British employees (granted there is the issue of components etc.), it’s not like Lockheed can completely disarm the UK overnight by packing up shop.

    It always seems to me that obsessing over whether it’s independent if the designs came from somewhere else is by the by… it’s all independent enough, unless there is some magic kill switch.

    Certainly there is scope for scaling it back, but lets be clear, we don’t have the deterrent for hypothetical rogue nations… so any deterrent needs to be credible with respect to the countries that we would be deterring. How many nukes do we have at sea at any given time? On that order isn’t it…
    But two subs wouldn’t work for a permanent at sea deterrent.

    Realistically though, I can’t imagine any situation where we would want to use nukes on an issue outside of conflict in Europe or threats. It probably makes more sense to try and figure out a way of splitting the deterrent with France and admitting that the only reason for either France or Britain to have the bomb is because it’s really a European bomb. In that sense, between us we have twice what is needed.

  12. Rwendland (History)

    A post-First Election Debate opinion poll makes support for the LibDem Trident position 50:50, with a high number of unknowns:

    Replace Britain’s Trident nuclear weapons system and develop a variant that is a lot cheaper but less powerful and possibly easier to detect and stop?

    Support: 37%

    Oppose: 37%

    Don’t know: 26%

    Tonight’s Second Election Debate (international affairs) should discuss this issue more.

  13. FSB

    within error bars, I agree. Maybe we can go to 5 subs, with 5 nukes each. (As long as the French and Brit subs don’t collide….)

    Rwendland, public polls about such matters, while important barometers, should not get in the way of informed leadership to reduce down to a credible minimum posture. Also the question seems really oddly phrased, anyway.