Defence Secretary Philip Hammond
Sunday October 23,2011
By Marco Giannangeli
PHILIP Hammond’s appointment as defence secretary has once again thrown open the debate over the future of Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent.
Outwardly the argument is whether Mr Hammond, pushed by budgetary concerns and appeasing the Lib Dems, will reduce our submarine-based Trident system, or replace it with something different.
The real question for those who appreciate that Britain can never be without a robust nuclear deterrent is much more delicate: will a US-centric Trident system be replaced by a joint Anglo-French policy to shore up European defence?
Mr Hammond, successor to Dr Liam Fox, is viewed with trepidation by senior military and defence experts, who rate him a “budget man”, not a “deep defence thinker”.
Guy Anderson, chief analyst with IHS Jane’s Defense & Security Intelligence & Analysis, said: “Dr Fox argued hard to maintain an independent nuclear deterrent and expended much political capital on the issue. While Dr Fox hinted he would have been willing to resign over it, Hammond is unlikely to share his strong feelings.”
Dr Fox argued hard to maintain an independent nuclear deterrent and expended much political capital on the issue
Guy Anderson, chief analyst with IHS Jane’s Defense & Security Intelligence & Analysis
The MoD has assuaged concerns with a statement in which the Defence Secretary said: “I have always supported Britain retaining its nuclear deterrent as the ultimate insurance against the most extreme threats and wholeheartedly believe in maintaining a continuous, submarine-based deterrent.”
Speaking to the Sunday Express last night Mr Anderson said: “This may well be his position but it is not clear how far he would push if funding started to bite. His record is causing concern among military figures.”
Indeed, Mr Hammond has abstained from every vote concerning the renewal of Trident, though party sources were last night suggesting this was due to “family commitments”. Specifically at stake is not the US Lockheed Martin missile system, expected to continue in service until at least 2042, but the four Faslane-based Vanguard submarines. SEARCH UK NEWS for:
One of these constantly patrols the oceans in radio silence for up to three months, its 16 Trident missiles sharing up to 48 warheads – the ultimate safeguard of Britain’s security. The Vanguards will have to be replaced within 20 years. Since a replacement takes 20 years to design and implement, a stand has to be taken soon and politics has already played a role.
While preliminary work is underway on a submarine replacement programme, estimated to cost £20billion at 2006 values, any decision to go ahead has been postponed until 2016. Ostensibly this was done to push back the £3billion initial development costs until 2020.
It had more to do with the belief that the Conservatives will have their own, non-coalition mandate by then and be able to tackle the thorny issue without Lib Dem pressure.
Mr Hammond has three main options. First, he could advocate scrapping or emasculating the nuclear deterrent, as advocated by Nick Harvey MP, Armed Forces Minister and a Lib Dem.
The argument is that as Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya show, the world has moved on from the Cold War days where Mutually Assured Destruction was the only game in town. A Cabinet Office level study is examining alternatives and is due to report at the end of next year. Those to the right of the party say that an alternative, cheaper land-based system might work but there are drawbacks.
One expert explained: “The problem with having a land-based system, even a mobile one, is that it can be tracked by any nation with the technology to do so. However, most nations do not have the sophistication to do this.”
The number of submarines could be slashed to two, with constant patrols scrapped. This would save considerable money, with the downside that Britain would not be in a position to “de-escalate” a ballooning conflict.
Secondly, we could just replace the Vanguards on a like-for-like basis. This would require considerable design help from the US but would safeguard about 11,000 jobs.
The third option is trickier. There have been overtures from France about a new age of mutual nuclear assistance.
France has only recently rejoined Nato but it has been operating a highly effective submarine, air and land-based Intercontinental Ballistic Missile system.
This could work by sharing a “continuous at-sea deterrence”, taking turns keeping an Anglo-French underwater vigil.
SHARING a nuclear deterrent may send senior military chiefs into a lather but in some lights it makes sense. In 2009, President Nicolas Sarkozy declared: “There can be no situation in which the vital interests of either of our two nations could be threatened without the vital interests of the other also being threatened.”
Certainly, the very thought of Britain giving up a totally independent nuclear deterrent and pitching in with France, sends shivers down the spine of military kingpins.
As former First Sea Lord Admiral Lord West told the Sunday Express: “I would much rather see closer ties with the US since our interests are more often than not more aligned.”
Atlanticists should consider two things: nuclear issues are separate from any other aspect of defence and the US has already made clear it would not oppose any move that would strengthen Europe and relieve America’s financial burden.
President Obama’s position on nuclear arms has already caused ripples of worry here and in France – he seeks a world in which no nation holds nuclear weapons.
Etienne de Durand, from the French Institute of International Relations, said: “France is increasingly worried that the US is slowly in withdrawal, as was shown in Libya, and that this might also influence the UK’s ultimate resolve to maintain its nuclear deterrent.
“France does not want to be the only nuclear power in Europe.”