LIBERAL Democrats could call for Britain to give up its continuous at-sea nuclear deterrent as early as 2016, it emerged today.
The option is likely to be included in a policy paper on the future of the submarine-based Trident weapons system, to be put before the party’s annual conference in September.
Lib Dem Cabinet minister Danny Alexander has produced a Government review of Trident, examining the alternatives to the £20 billion replacement - favoured by Conservatives - of the UK’s four nuclear submarines on a like-for-like basis when they are decommissioned.
His review is being considered by Prime Minister David Cameron and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, and will be published in edited form shortly.
It is expected to include cheaper options for the UK to maintain its deterrent, which could include scaling back the number of subs. Because of the need for repairs, refits and training, military experts believe it would be impossible to keep at least one Trident sub permanently at sea with a fleet of fewer than four, and there are concerns that without this constant deployment the deterrent would be vulnerable to attack while in port.
But Mr Alexander last week hinted that he wants the Government to consider ending the policy of continuous at-sea deployment, when he said it was time “to move on from the Cold War postures of the past” with a credible deterrent that “can play a role in supporting disarmament in future”.
Lib Dem MPs met last week to consider the policy paper to be put before activists in Glasgow this autumn. Although the paper is not yet formalised, it is understood it is likely to include options for reducing the size of the fleet, but will not include a full-scale unilateral disarmament option.
The BBC today quoted one unnamed senior Lib Dem MP as saying: “We are looking at ending continuous at-sea deterrent even earlier. We don’t have to wait until the subs need replacing. We could just keep them in port now.”
Another Lib Dem MP said: “If you thought that you could sustain a meaningful deterrent with two boats, then nothing would prevent you using the existing boats on the same principle.
“It would be reckless to scrap them but you could cannibalise them for parts.”
A Lib Dem spokesman said: “The Cabinet Office-led review into alternatives to Trident has now been submitted to the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister.
“The review’s findings will now be considered and an unclassified version will be published in due course.”
Labour MP John Woodcock, whose Barrow and Furness constituency includes shipyards where any new subs would be likely to be built, said: “Unilaterally ending the commitment to keeping at least one nuclear submarine operational at all times will make no meaningful contribution to global non-proliferation. In fact, it could have the opposite result by unsettling other countries who are currently under Nato’s umbrella of protection.
“The Liberal Democrats are finally admitting there is no alternative mini-deterrent that could save Britain billions, but few will be taken in by their latest fallacy that a part-time deterrent could save lots of money and protect Britain adequately in the event of a threat in future decades.
“Ending continuous at-sea deterrent without binding commitments from other nuclear states could undermine the primary purpose of the deterrent, which is to make the grotesque horror of nuclear war less likely by guaranteeing that anyone who launched a strike on the UK would face a retaliatory attack.”
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