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Danny Alexander launches the Government’s Trident Alternatives Review

July 16, 2013 12:26 PM
Originally published by UK Liberal Democrats

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For generations this institute has expertly informed defence and security policy, and successive Governments have had good reason to be grateful for your rigorous research and objective advice.

Not least the current Government.

Much of the framework of the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review was informed by your analysis of the inheritance in Defence we faced, and the difficult choices we would need to make.

So let me take this opportunity to pay tribute to the men and women of our armed forces, whose service and sacrifice to our country is second to none.

I'm sure I speak for all of us here in expressing great sadness over the deaths of two Army reservists during a training exercise in the Brecon Beacons at the weekend. Our thoughts are with their families and friends at this difficult time.

As the Minister responsible for negotiating the latest Spending Review, I can attest to the vigour and passion with which those who represent the interest of Defence make their case.

But I can also attest to the fact that those same people I worked with on the SDSR and Spending Review understand the necessity for the nation's economy to be strong.

They recognise that our nation's defence is built on our nation's prosperity.

As Cicero put it, "finances are the sinews of war".

Prosperity and security: these are the first order responsibilities of Government.

They are inextricably linked - it is almost impossible to have one without the other for any sustained period of time.

To ensure both has required this Government to take some very tough decisions.

I want to speak to you today about one of the tough decisions that still remains to be taken - the future of Britain's nuclear weapons policy.

Today, the Government has published the 'Trident Alternatives Review'.

This is the most thorough review of nuclear systems and postures the UK has undertaken for decades. It is the most comprehensive analysis ever made public.

In this, it is ground breaking.

And more - this detailed and forensic analysis challenges conventional and outdated thinking about our nuclear posture.

For the first time in a generation, the Trident Alternatives Review shows that there are credible and viable alternatives to the United Kingdom's current approach to nuclear deterrence.

A different approach would allow the UK to contribute meaningfully to the new multilateral drive for disarmament, initiated by President Obama, while maintaining our national security and our ultimate insurance policy against future threats.

And it could allow long-term savings to be made against current plans - savings of about £4billion over the life of the system.

Let me be clear, this does not change current Government policy to maintain Britain's nuclear deterrent and prepare for a successor system.

But it does mean that we can, at last, have an open and much more informed debate about what our nuclear weapons are for and how they should be deployed.

And it provides us with a chance to change course before the Main Gate decision for a successor system is taken in 2016.

Today, I want to make the case for taking this opportunity.

Trident is the last, unreformed bastion of Cold War thinking.

Britain in the 21st century, almost a quarter of a century after the fall of the Berlin Wall, needs to think about nuclear deterrence and disarmament in a fresh way.

We have a big decision to make in 2016, and this study shows that there are credible alternatives that don't compromise our security but do allow us to move on from the Cold War.

We can adapt our nuclear deterrence to the threats in the 21st century by ending 24 hour patrols when we don't need them, and buying fewer submarines.

That way we can take a big step down the ladder of disarmament and keep our country safe.

But before I make that case, let me set out how we have come to this decision point.

RUSI's founder, the Duke of Wellington, once said: "All the business of war, and indeed all the business of life, is the endeavour to find out what you don't know, by what you do."

"Guessing what is at the other side of the hill" he called it.

So in defence policy there is a delicate balancing act to make.

Ensuring our military forces are configured to tackle the threats of today, while maintaining the flexibility to respond to the threats as they change.

Making sure that we are prepared to face the future, without sacrificing security, and indeed, prosperity, in the present.

In 2010, the new Coalition Government inherited a defence programme that was not fit for this twin purpose.

First, and most urgently, the finances of the defence programme were hopelessly out of balance.

At that time the black hole in the MoD budget by the end of the decade was more than one year's entire defence spending.

Difficult and very uncomfortable decisions were taken as part of the SDSR process by the National Security Council and by the MoD itself under the leadership of Liam Fox and Philip Hammond on the political side, and by General Sir David Richards and his chiefs of staff on the military side.

But thanks to those difficult decisions the defence budget is now in balance and the programme on a firm 10 year footing. I particularly want to pay tribute to Philip Hammond's work to permanently embed sound financial management in the defence budget.

And it is because of this firm grip on the transformation of the MoD that the Government is able to guarantee a real terms rise in the Defence equipment and support budget from 2015 and have been able to make further savings in day to day spending without any further reductions in uniformed personnel.

The test for the future will of course be to maintain the new discipline - making sure that the procurement schedule brings the right platforms on line, to the right specification, on time and on budget.

That brings me to the second challenge we faced in 2010.

Of course the size, shape, and configuration of Britain's conventional Armed Forces had changed quite radically since the end of the Cold War.

But remnants of Cold War structure and thinking still exerted considerable influence.

The over-emphasis on heavy armour, the lack of a formal joint forces command, the basing pattern, with over 14,000 still based in Germany.

The SDSR, underpinned by the National Security Strategy, throws off the last vestiges of Cold War thinking - reforming to face the new characteristics of warfare, rescaled to the requirement of Britain's security at a cost our the nation's finances can bear, and in the context of the UK's global role and responsibilities to our allies.

But there is one area of policy that was not changed as part of the SDSR - one that remains unreformed - our nuclear weapons policy.

The two parties in Government, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, have very different approaches to this issue.

The Conservatives supported the last Labour Government's decision in 2006 to press ahead with the procurement of a like for like replacement for the Vanguard class submarines to carry the Trident D5 missiles.

Of course, there are heavy weight Conservative voices arguing for change, including former Defence and Foreign Secretaries.

But the position adopted by that party in 2010 was that the decision had been taken and there was no need to revisit it as part of the SDSR.

The Liberal Democrats however voted against like for like replacement in 2007.

My party has argued that the decision was premature and that no serious consideration was made of alternative nuclear systems and postures that could provide long-term financial savings and be more suitable to the threat environment Britain faces now and in the future.

Governing together requires that we understand and respect each other's position.

So the Coalition Agreement set our joint Government policy.

The nuclear deterrent will be maintained, initial plans for the successor will proceed, but that the process of renewing Trident would be scrutinised for value for money - the Liberal Democrats free to continue making the case for alternatives.

The Value for Money study led to an extension of the life of the current Vanguard class submarines, a decrease in the number of warheads onboard each submarine, and a decrease in the number of operational missiles on each submarine. The overall impact of these changes has been to save £1.2billion and defer spending of up to £2 billion from 2010 to 2020.

The study also identified 2016 as the date by which the 'Main Gate' decision on Trident replacement should be taken.

This timetable has opened the space for a debate on Trident's future - a debate the Trident Alternatives Review published today is designed to inform.

This review was commissioned by the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister in May 2011, initially with Sir Nick Harvey as the minister in charge. When I took over last autumn, I found a comprehensive and forensic analysis had been conceived by Sir Nick and was well underway. He deserves a huge share of the credit for this work.

It has been taken forward under the auspices of the Cabinet Office, but with a cross government team of expert civilian and military officials.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank them for their hard work, for their commitment and their incisive analysis.

During my visits to Aldermaston, Faslane and Coulport as part of the Review, I met many of the submariners of the Royal Navy and the scientists, engineers and other civilians who support them. They are some of Britain's hidden heroes, often unsung, who operate at the limits of human understanding and human endeavour.

The sacrifice they make, and their families make, to maintain our nuclear weapons posture is enormous.

But they face the task with a professionalism and dedication that is awesome, in the true sense of the word.

Seeing them in action gives me great confidence that if the next Government were to change their mission, they would deliver it just as effectively - in the most efficient and militarily credible way.

And it is my belief that the Trident Alternatives Review provides the opportunity to do just that.

For the avoidance of doubt let me say what the review has definitively not been about.

First, it is not, and never has been, about short-term savings to help the Government deal with the current deficit problem.

It is possible that, under some options, savings against current plans will start to accrue in the mid-2020s.

But this is not about backfilling budgets in the next Parliament.

Of course, just at the point when capital expenditure on Trident's successor reaches its height in the 2020s, other major projects will be competing for limited funds.

So while cost is not the primary aspect when considering the future of the UK's nuclear capability, neither can competing pressures on the defence equipment budget be ignored. The review considered the whole life cost of alternative approaches to 2060.

Second, the Review has not addressed the question of whether or not the UK should remain a nuclear weapons power.

There is a respectable tradition in this country of opposition to nuclear weapons, and that argument will continue to be made.

Indeed, some people will take the opportunity of the debate I am launching today, to make that case.

But I don't intend to do so today for the purposes of today's talk.

Complete unilateral disarmament is not the stated policy of either the Liberal Democrats or the Conservative parties.

As we all know, in some parts of the world, we are not far from the possibility of a new round of nuclear proliferation. We do not know exactly what is at the other side of the hill, so it is right that the UK should retain some nuclear weapons capability.

What is at issue today is not whether we should possess nuclear weapons, but how the scale and posture of our nuclear weapons capability can change.

So the Review was tasked to answer three questions.

First, are there credible alternatives to a submarine-based deterrent?

Second, are there credible submarine-based alternatives to the current proposal?

Third, are there alternative nuclear postures which could maintain credibility?

The review has been thorough, detailed, extensive, and objective.

Let me take you briefly though the alternatives considered.

The analysis identifies specific combinations of platform, delivery vehicle and warhead design for detailed consideration, but excludes technologies that could not be ready by 2035.

From a starting list of more than 700 potential options, the work was narrowed to consider a small number of credible and deliverable platforms and weapons systems.

Variants of the current successor programme of SSBN and Trident ballistic missiles are included in the analysis.

In terms of alternative platforms, the review considered large aircraft, combat jets, surface ships, and multiple types of submarine, including dual role.

In terms of alternative delivery systems, the final analysis was focused on two types of potential future cruise missiles: a subsonic stealthy cruise missile and a supersonic cruise missile, each carrying one nuclear warhead per missile.

Warhead design issues were also considered.

An assessment of the UK's ability to develop and deliver the alternative options showed that producing the warhead and its integration into a cruise missile or bomb would be the critical challenge.

The reality is that the UK nuclear warhead programme is highly optimised around producing and maintaining warheads for the Trident missile.

The review has found that moving to an alternative would add technical, financial and schedule risk to the programme.

Delivering a warhead for an alternative system would take at least 24 years, deliverable with some risk by about 2040.

The crucial point is the review judged this warhead timescale to be longer than the Vanguard submarines can safely be operated.

Could this gap be bridged? There are options.

But when you look at the costs of alternative systems it becomes clear that each cruise-missile based option includes an extra £10billion on its price tag because of the need to bridge the gap.

The bottom line is this, as written in the review: "The analysis has shown there are alternatives to Trident that would enable the UK to be capable of inflicting significant damage such that most potential adversaries around the world would be deterred"

And had they been seriously considered at the time of the Labour government's 2006 White Paper there would not be a gap to bridge. These options would have been considerably cheaper than a like-for-like replacement.

The analysis shows that cruise missile based options are militarily credible. The potential for a single platform for both conventional and nuclear weapons would be an advantage. This is an argument for the very long term. But from the perspective of 2013, the timescales and the likely gap involved makes the argument much weaker than it would have been in 2006.

My conclusion is that a replacement nuclear deterrent based on the current Trident system is the most cost-effective in the period we are considering.

Four-boat successor operating continuous at sea deterrence is not the only viable approach available to the UK.

The review opens up a much greater opportunity for change in its consideration of alternative postures - and that in turn opens up the possibility of maintaining our nuclear weapons capability with fewer submarines.

Taken together, this is where the real opportunity resides for making long-term savings, for recalibrating our nuclear weapons policy to the requirements of our age, and to contributing to nuclear disarmament.

The analysis of the National Security Strategy and the SDSR confirms the position that successive Governments have adopted, that "no state currently has both the intent and the capability to threaten the independence or integrity of the UK. But we cannot dismiss the possibility that a major direct nuclear threat to the UK might re-emerge."

With no hostile backdrop and a surprise attack against the UK highly unlikely;

There are a number of viable and credible alternative postures the UK could adopt, while maintaining nuclear deterrence capability that meets the needs of national security.

The Review demonstrates that our current nuclear posture of 'continuous at sea deterrence' is not the only one available.

Let me briefly describe four of the alternative postures considered in the review - from highest to lowest readiness. Each of these represents a different rung on the nuclear ladder, down from CAS-D at the top.

A posture of focused deterrence would maintain a continuous nuclear deterrent for a specific period and in response to a specific threat.

At all other times, the system would adopt a reduced readiness level.

We considered 3 options for reduced readiness -

A sustained deterrence posture would mean regular patrols, which maintain deterrence capability but the number of platforms could be reduced.

Alternatively, a responsive posture would allow gaps of irregular frequency and length between deployment - so that a potential adversary could not predict when and for how long a gap in deployment might occur.

Finally, a posture of preserved deterrence would hold forces at low readiness.

No deterrent platforms would be regularly deployed, but the UK would maintain the ability to deploy if the context changed.

The platforms might be deployed without nuclear weapons for training purposes and could conduct conventional duties as long as they could be made available for deterrent duties if required.

The review clearly demonstrates that the concept of a ladder of nuclear capability and readiness is viable and credible...

And that there are a number of options for taking steps down the rungs without getting off altogether.

As described by the review's alternative postures, and indeed by Professor Malcolm Chalmers from this institution, these could include operating fewer Vanguard submarines, ending CAS-D for less frequent patrols, or un-armed patrols.

Of course, coming down the ladder depends on three things:

First - how we judge it best to sustain Britain's security in light of present and future threats.

Second - how best Britain can contribute not just to our own security but to that of our allies and international stability more generally.

Third - how the decisions we make contribute to our legal and moral responsibilities for nuclear disarmament under the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

So a word about the consequences I believe coming down the ladder would entail.

Let me be clear, adopting a non-continuous posture does mean accepting a different calculation of risk than existed during the Cold War.

But it is imperative that we update our calculation of risk. If CAS-D is an insurance policy, we're paying too high a premium for our needs.

The 2010 National Security Strategy considers state-on-state nuclear war as a second-tier threat.

The argument that a current adversary would take the opportunity to target the UK during a period when no boat is covertly deployed and launch an overwhelming nuclear strike against Britain is frankly not supported by any analysis I have seen.

Nuclear weapons are weapons of mass destruction - the consequences of use in the strategic context are world ending. New scientific studies suggest the true scale of the humanitarian and climactic impact of firing a nuclear weapon is much greater than ever conceived before.

Nuclear weapons have no military utility except as a deterrent against nuclear attack.

This is the ultimate guarantee we often talk about.

But the reality is that in the current circumstances - and for the foreseeable future - that guarantee does not need to sit on a hair trigger.

We can afford to go much further in de-alerting our nuclear deterrent.

The option of non-continuous deterrence does not threaten current security.

And by changing postures we can reduce cost at the same time.

For instance, ending CAS-D and procuring one less Successor submarine would make a savings of about £4billion pounds over the life of the system.

The judgement is where on the ladder you believe it is credible to stand, providing the ability to scale up or down as threats change and the momentum of proliferation on the one hand and disarmament on the other shifts.

As a recognised Nuclear Weapons State under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, we have an obligation to move towards a world in which nuclear weapons are no longer part of states' security and defence postures.

It is true that Britain has made significant steps since the Cold War in disarmament terms.

There have been regular reductions of the number of operational missiles and operational warheads.

And there has been some progress in de-alerting, extending notice to fire, for instance.

Britain has the smallest nuclear arsenal of any of the declared nuclear powers.

Some would argue that Britain has done its bit for disarmament and we have reached the minimum level possible for nuclear deterrence to be credible before stepping off the ladder altogether.

This argument has been deployed at every point we've scaled down over the last 20 years - but each time it has proven not to be true.

The same argument will be made for maintaining continuous nuclear deterrence.

But we seem to find we have the ability to step down the nuclear ladder when we find the political will to do so.

And the next great big step down the ladder is to reduce the salience of nuclear weapons in our Defence policy itself.

And that means accepting that a Cold War style continuous deterrent has become unnecessary.

Just last month in Berlin, President Obama called for movement beyond 'the Cold War nuclear postures' and announced a major reduction in the US nuclear arsenal.

And it is my hope in the next Parliament that the UK will answer that call with a serious consideration of ending continuous nuclear deterrence.

So ladies and gentlemen let me sum up.

The Trident Alternative Review is the most comprehensive study on nuclear weapons platforms and postures ever published by the UK Government.

I believe that as large numbers of nuclear weapons remain and the risk of proliferation continues, it is right that the United Kingdom should retain a nuclear capability for as long as the global security situation makes that necessary.

That capability should be scaled and deployed to the threat we face now, and held as a contingency for the threats we may face in the future.

And, we should seek to balance the cost of this insurance policy against the other needs of Defence - and indeed other priorities across Government.

The conclusion I draw from the Trident Alternatives Review is that, while alternatives exist, there is no new system available before the lives of the current Vanguard submarines come to an end that meets those criteria.

And blame for this narrowing of options falls squarely at the feet of the previous Labour Government.

But there is a step down the nuclear ladder still available - ending 24 hour patrols and procuring fewer Successor submarines.

Moving on from an outdated Cold War concept of deterrence to one fit for the world we inhabit.

For the remainder of this Parliament, the Coalition Government's policy will remain as set out in the SDSR

We will maintain the strategic nuclear deterrent, and preparations for a successor system will continue.

But the final Main Gate decision as to whether to proceed with like-for-like Trident replacement will take place in 2016, after the next general election.

It is therefore up to the different political parties to decide the positions they will take before that time.

Liberal Democrats will be debating our position over the coming months and we will settle our view at our Autumn Conference this September in Glasgow.

For the country, publication of this review today marks the start of a national debate on one of the most profound questions of our time.

It will be the most informed debate we have ever been able to have.

I believe this review presents an unparalleled opportunity for all political parties, and also for you, our security thinkers and experts.

Let us move to break out of the orthodoxy that has stifled debate on nuclear weapons in this country.

Let us seize this opportunity together