Prime Minister Gordon Brown at the International Nuclear Fuel Cycle Conference in London, Mar. 17, 2009. He indicated that the UK is ready to reduce its arsenal as part of a broader negotiation involving the U.S. and Russia.
"The Cost of Trident"
Op-Ed, Critical Reaction
April 30, 2010
Author: Azeem Ibrahim, Former Research Fellow, International Security Program, 2008–2010
Belfer Center Programs or Projects: International Security
Clegg has dropped a clanger
Of all the things said by the three main party leaders during this election campaign, one stands out for being the most outlandish and unrealistic. Yet it has gone unchallenged. The fact that it was said by Nick Clegg, the 'non-politician' who has been propelled to fame by the television debates, just adds another layer of irony. During the first party leaders' debate, when the argument turned to the national debt, Nick Clegg started talking about Trident. He justified this dodge by framing his argument against renewing Trident as a measure which would reduce the debt. The other two leaders should have pounced, because it is an argument so out of touch with reality that it almost qualifies as a gaffe.
Let's look at the figures. Firstly, the cost of Trident at the moment is not a great deal. For the last forty years or so, Britain has had one submarine submerged every moment of every day, silently ensuring that no other nuclear power in the world would ever think about using the deadliest weapons of mass destruction against us. It is, as they say, the ultimate insurance policy. This costs us £1.5 billion per year, a drop in the ocean of government's yearly expenditure.
Compare that to the cost of doing what we would have to do not to lose that security. The government has proposed a modernisation which would allow us to retain our nuclear deterrent which would cost £21 billion over the next twenty years or so. That is, of course, just over £1 billion each year. A nuclear attack, of course, doesn't bear thinking about. As a cost of retaining our ultimate insurance it, a £1 billion per year is cheap.
Now look at the actual cost of the budget deficit. This year it will be a staggering £167 billion. On any reckoning, the £1 billion per year saved in not renewing Trident — which Nick Clegg seemed to claim was a debt panacea — is nothing of the kind. It barely makes an impact. Of course as a debating tactic, switching the topic from the deficit to Trident enabled him to move the debate away from an area which he didn't want to talk about to one which he did. But as a realistic claim, the idea that replacing Trident will make a serious contribution to deficit reduction is laughable.
And that's before we consider the dangers of the policy itself. What the Liberal Democrats want to do is replace Trident with another kind of nuclear deterrent. They haven't decided what, exactly, so they can't tell us how it will work, what it will cost, how much money it would actually save, and whether it would keep us safe. Their policy review tentatively brings up a number of options, none of which the party squarely supports. It includes the options of modifying the current submarine platforms, perhaps with fewer missile compartments, which it says 'could be possible.' It also talks about a 'virtual deterrent', in which we abandon the actual ability to launch a nuclear weapon, but make sure we always have a few people in the country who know how to build one, to be, in the words of the Lib Dem policy paper, 'a long-term insurance policy to hedge against the re-emergence of an existential threat to the UK.' It also discusses the possibility of ending Britain's nuclear capability altogether.
But consider the international environment. Before leaving his post as Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency which is responsible for overseeing anti-proliferation efforts amongst other things, Mohamed Elbaradei said that the biggest risk over the coming decades would be from 'virtual' nuclear states. These are the states that have achieved the knowledge of how to build a nuclear weapon but do not actually do so (like the Lib Dem suggestion for Britain's future course), keeping them within their Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty obligations but enabling them to build a nuclear weapon fast if they so desired.
Other threats abound. Clegg's insistence in the debate that downgrading our nuclear weapons could be a panacea for reducing the deficit came in the same week as senior officials in the Pentagon raised the alarm about Iran's progress towards acquiring nuclear weapons capability. President Obama's conference on global nuclear security helps to remind us of the urgent need for action on safeguarding the world's nuclear materials to prevent terrorists or other non-state actors from obtaining nuclear weapons. Given the financial incentives for rogue elements from international regimes to sell their knowledge for profit, the danger that such knowhow falls into the wrong hands is very real. Is it really safe to downgrade Britain's safeguard against such attacks?
And then there is the message it sends. Downgrading our nuclear deterrent would send the clear message that Britain no longer cares about her international standing. Clegg's claim that scrapping Trident would make a significant impact on the national debt should be a cause for him to take another good look at the figures, and for the electorate to take another good look at him.
Azeem Ibrahim is a Research Scholar at the International Security Program at Harvard, Board Member of the ISPU, and, Vice-President of the United Kingdom National Defence Association.
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