Defense: Under review

Author(s):  Alex Glennie
Published date:  02 Jul 2009

In a post-cold war world, we need to question whether there is still a compelling case for Britain to maintain its nuclear deterrent.

Yesterday, the Institute for Public Policy Research (ippr) published Shared Responsibilities: A National Security Strategy for the UK, the final report of its independent, all-party Commission on National Security in the 21st Century. Calling for a major re-evaluation of the UK’s national security interests and priorities, it grapples with the difficult trade-offs that need to be made in order to strengthen our security and resilience in the future.

As a medium-sized nation in a globalising world, and in the context of severe resource constraints, it is neither appropriate nor feasible to sustain the military ambitions and structures of a superpower. Unfortunately, this seems to be a message that the government and the defence establishment have not yet taken to heart. Amidst reports of an emerging ‘black hole’ in the defence budget that has resulted from years of overspending, the government still appears committed to hugely expensive ‘prestige’ projects that include two new aircraft carriers, the F35 joint strike fighters designed to fly from them, purchases of Type 45 destroyers and Astute submarines and the replacement of the Vanguard submarines carrying the Trident nuclear weapons system.

As Shared Responsibilities suggests, now is the time for a clear-eyed assessment of the value of these expenditures, particularly as the major political parties start to think about their election manifestos. Take the example of Britain’s nuclear deterrent. It is the view of the Commission that in the current international security environment, the UK should maintain a minimum credible nuclear deterrent. However, we also recognise that it is no longer possible to cling to arrangements that may have suited a cold war paradigm but that do not reflect the profound global shifts that have taken place since then. Today, the greatest threat to our security comes not from an attack by a nuclear-armed state, but from the unregulated proliferation of nuclear weapons, including to non-state actors.

In this context, the Commission believes that the UK should pursue a new approach in relation to Trident in which the necessary steps are taken to keep the possibility of refreshing the system open, while a fundamental review of all options related to the deterrent are considered as part of a wider Strategic Review of Security. In a radical move away from current government policy on this issue, any such review would need to consider seriously whether there is still a compelling case for the UK to maintain a nuclear deterrent and, if so, what would be the most cost-effective way of providing it.

By putting alternatives to our current position firmly back on the table, we would hope to send a positive message to the international community that Britain is not pre-judging attempts at multilateral nuclear disarmament by committing itself to an extension of the Trident programme any earlier than is absolutely necessary. By delaying a decision about the renewal of Trident until 2012-2014, when contracts for the design and construction of the submarines will need to be signed, we could also push some of the heavier spending years of the programme further into the future, and give the UK extra decision-making flexibility should American and Russian cuts in strategic arsenals begin to impact on the US programmes upon which the UK’s nuclear deterrent depends.

President Obama has already announced his intention to pursue vigorously a world free of nuclear weapons. The Commission and ippr share that ambition and argue that the UK must be prepared to adopt a bold approach if it hopes to stay at the forefront of this critical debate.

Alex Glennie is a researcher on international and security at the ippr


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Alex Glennie, Senior Research Fellow