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Where does the Trident debate go from here?

July 27, 2013 2:39 PM
By Steve Coltman
Originally published by East Midlands Liberal Democrats

Steve ColtmanIn the Spring of 2011 I submitted a motion to conference. It was not selected for debate:

Conference notes that:

(i) The Coalition agreement states: "We will maintain Britain's nuclear deterrent and have agreed that the renewal of Trident should be scrutinised to ensure value for money. The Liberal Democrats will continue to make the case for alternatives."

(ii) Conference in September last year resolved, among other things, to: "Press for the extension of the SDSR to allow a full review of the alternatives to 'like-for-like replacement of Trident."

(iii) The final decision on a replacement for the Vanguard-class submarines has been deferred to 2015 or thereabouts.

(iv) At present, there is no properly-researched alternative to Trident-armed Ballistic Missile submarines.

Conference calls on the Ministry of Defence to:

1. Perform a full analysis of the alternative ways of providing the UK with a nuclear deterrent other than the simple like-for-like replacement of the Vanguard class submarines armed with Trident.

2. This analysis should include, but not be restricted to, consideration of a fleet of dual-purpose submarines armed with nuclear- and conventional cruise missiles.

3. To determine what technological, legal, procedural and other obstacles lie in the way of the UK acquiring a dual-purpose fleet of submarines, and what means exist of overcoming those obstacles.

4. To complete this analysis by the end of 2012 and to publish an edited version of the analysis for parliamentary, public and professional scrutiny.

Fortunately a senior member of the party took note and it became government policy. My political objective was to determine if there really was a cheaper way of providing the UK with a nuclear deterrent and save the hard-pressed conventional forces from further financial pressure. There is no chance of getting parliament to approve unilateral disarmament any time soon, it's simply a question of what system do we have. In truth, I was convinced that submarine-based cruise missiles must prove to be a cheaper option. Israel already has such a force and France has the elements of such a force as well as 4 ballistic missile subs. I was disappointed. The two killer facts are that Trident warheads are not suitable for use in cruise missiles and that it would take 24 years or more to develop a suitable warhead. The Vanguard-class submarines cannot remain in service that long and a couple of new ballistic missiles subs would have to be bought as a stop-gap. The huge cost of these subs is precisely what we want to avoid.

So, this battle is lost. This Review closes down the debate; it is not going to shift any Conservative or Labour MPs and it is hard to see the like-for-like replacement of Trident not going ahead. We need now to throw the ball back into our opponent's court and demand that they explain how they are going to afford Trident without inflicting further cuts on the conventional forces, cuts they cannot withstand without big capability losses.

* Steve Coltman is Chair of both Loughborough Liberal Democrats and the Association of Liberal Democrat Engineers and Scientists