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Play it again (Uncle) Sam: continuities between the adoption and renewal of Trident

In March 2007 the British government of Tony Blair officially decided to extend the life of the Trident submarine deterrent through a ‘life extension programme’ whilst also placing before parliament the need for a successor system. This essentially began the debate on a successor system. Despite Liberal-Democrat opposition, the Conservative-led coalition government of David Cameron agreed with these plans with the likelihood that the follow-on force would be a like-for-like replacement but scaled back to house a smaller number of missiles and a reduced warhead stockpile. This would reflect both changes in the international security environment as well as helping towards nuclear non-proliferation as part of Non-Proliferation Treaty commitments. Renewing Trident requires continuing agreement from the United States government under the 1958 Mutual Defence Agreement for nuclear warhead collaboration (with a 1959 amendment covering nuclear propulsion) and 1963 Polaris Sales Agreement for the transfer of Trident submarine technology. This is a decision that will have to be made by 2016, the so-called ‘Main Gate’ decision, and will be a feature of the 2015 General Election campaign.

The maintenance of these Anglo-American agreements remains pivotal to future negotiations. Without it the British government is unable to request any new information from the United States regarding successor systems. Both agreements are crucial mechanisms for the continuation of the ‘special nuclear relationship’ and remain central to the replacement debate as Britain has neither the industrial base nor financial resources to mount an indigenous successor programme.  This policy is a continuation of the original Trident agreement made by the Conservative administration of Margaret Thatcher in July 1980. In pitching a case for Trident replacement there has been a clear recognition that the strategic environment has changed substantially in the twenty first century but there remains a remarkable continuity with the adoption of Trident.

In the lead up to the 1980 decision the outgoing Labour government had done a great deal of work on the replacement of the deterrent leading to the Duff-Mason Report. It recommended that the submarine based deterrent be retained if it could be afforded. The Duff-Mason Report is very revealing of the Ministry of Defence’s attitude towards the replacement debate in 1980 and finds echoes in the 2007 Trident White Paper. As with 2006/7 Select Committee debates and the 2013 Liberal-Democrat Trident Alternatives Review, air-launched and ground-launched systems were discounted on grounds of vulnerability and not capable of the ‘global reach’ of Trident with its 4,000+ mile range.

Army Air Corps Apache And RAF Chinook Helicopters Practice Deck Landingd Onboard HMS Illustrious
Army Air Corps Apache And RAF Chinook Helicopters Practice Deck Landings Onboard HMS Illustrious by Defence Images. CC BY-NC 2.0 via Flickr

There are three core ‘belief system’ components which are worth stressing in terms of continuity of the decision-making processes in 1978-1982 (when Trident D-5 was chosen over C-4) and from 2006 onwards. Firstly, successive Prime Ministers view Britain still as a ‘great power’ and a major load-bearing actor in the international system. Secondly, that possession of a world class nuclear capability is necessary to deter high end/existential state-based threats to the survival of the British Isles. Thirdly, that this provides an ‘insurance policy’, against such a threat occurring through a downturn in the international system (e.g. a new Cold War with Russia). This is an argument predicated on continuity and stability and the belief that because of an uncertain future and a changing security environment, Britain has a stabilising role to play in the international system.

Tony Blair’s statement to the House of Commons in 2006 would resonate both with David Cameron and Labour leader Ed Miliband. In it Blair argued: “In the early 21st century, the world may have changed beyond recognition, since the decision taken by the Attlee Government over half a century ago. But it is precisely because we could not have recognised then, the world we live in now, that it would not be wise to predict the unpredictable in the times to come”. In April 2013 David Cameron made similar points:

I know there are some people who disagree with our nuclear deterrent and don’t want us to renew it. There are those who say that we don’t need it any more, because the Cold War has ended. There are those who say we can’t afford Trident any more, so we either need to find a viable cheaper option, or rely on the United States to protect us. And there are those who say that we should just get rid of our nuclear weapons entirely, in the hope that it would encourage others to do the same. I recognise these are sincerely held views. But as Prime Minister, with ultimate responsibility for the nation’s security, I profoundly disagree with them.

He cited the risk of proliferation through states such as North Korea and Iran and that, for national security protection against such threats, the 5-6% of the defence budget it would cost was “a price which I, and all my predecessors since Clement Attlee, have felt is worth paying to keep this country safe”.

Indeed none of the three main political parties advocate unilateral nuclear disarmament and instead are debating the form rather than the function of the nuclear deterrent. This is not the view of the Scottish National Party who advocate the abandonment of a British nuclear capability and will likely be a significant factor before and after the general election — especially if Labour or the Conservatives are forced to seek coalition government.

Headline image: Successor Submarine by Defence Images. CC BY-NC 2.0 via Flickr.

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