As parliament votes on its replacement, the nuclear deterrent built to protect the UK threatens to tear it apart, writes Martyn McLaughlin
They call it Operation Relentless for a reason. Every minute of every day since 14 June, 1969, a British ballistic missile submarine has roved the oceans, ready to make good on the deadly promise of its formidable payload. In the half century since, the actors on the world stage and their attendant threats have altered beyond all recognition. Yet so too has Britain, in ways implausible only a decade ago. It was in 2006 that a white paper saw Tony Blair’s government endorse Trident’s renewal as a way of maintaining the “ultimate assurance of national security”. It was a year when the economy was in rude health, Britain’s place in the European Union seemed certain, and the SNP were in their eighth year of opposition at Holyrood.
Tomorrow’s vote by MPs on whether to manufacture four new Successor submarines to carry the Trident system forward into the latter half of this century must wrestle not only with timeworn arguments surrounding nuclear weapons, but this meteoric shift in polity. Its legality will be assured by parliamentary sovereignty, yet it will spark all kinds of questions over its democratic legitimacy. Bluntly put, a deterrent designed to safeguard the United Kingdom may end up precipitating its demise.
The outcome is widely expected to be in favour of the Successor programme, paving the way for preferred bidders to be chosen and multi-billion-pound contracts signed. If the process gives the impression that what will follow is routine, the reality will prove to be anything but.
Even before Britain’s decision to disentangle itself from the apparatus of the EU, the ultimate cost of Successor has invited a combination of calculation and conjecture. The government says the bill for the four new submarines will come to £31bn with a £10bn contingency fund, up from a projected cost range of £20bn to 25bn six years ago and £15bn to £20bn in 2006.
Yet factoring in the supplementary costs for conventional naval support forces, infrastructure improvements and maintenance prompts a vast spike. Crispin Blunt, the Tory MP who chairs of the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, puts the whole-of-life bill at £167bn; the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament believes the final tally could run to £205bn.
It is little wonder that Jon Thompson, until recently the MoD’s permanent undersecretary, cautioned that the programme was the “single biggest future financial risk we face”, adding, “The project is a monster.”
It is only nine months since he made those remarks, but in the wake of Brexit, that monster has sprouted a sufficient number of new horns to give fright to already anxious officials in the MoD and Treasury. Last year’s Strategic Defence and Security Review contained a commitment by the government, made for the rest of this decade, to meet the Nato target of spending 2 per cent of GDP on defence, implying an annual real-terms increase of 0.5 per cent above inflation in the MoD’s budget.
The numbers are predicated on forecasts of annual growth of 2.4 per cent, yet the EU’s economic affairs commissioner, Pierre Moscovici, anticipates the UK’s GDP will reduce by up to 2.5 per cent by 2017. With the prospect of Threadneedle Street halving official interest rates to 0.25 per cent by the end of the summer, the challenge faced by the economy – and sterling – will only intensify. Whatever the final bill, those who have followed the programme’s development closely believe it will be higher than the government says.
“It has been fairly clear from the bits of evidence that have leaked, drip by drip, over the past six or seven years, that the MoD has really struggled to get a firm grip on what the procurement estimates are going to be for a full Successor programme,” says Dr Nick Ritchie, lecturer in international security at the University of York.
“We got the £31bn plus £10bn contingency figure last year, but I think that’s fairly doubtful. I think it will be safe to assume that will rise – how much by, who knows? Even if that is the final figure, there remains the question of affordability in the context of the defence budget.”
William Walker, emeritus professor of international relations at the University of St Andrews, takes the view that now would be an apt time for reflection on the part of Prime Minister Theresa May’s government.
“If you wanted sensible, responsible policy making, the government should be pausing to take stock and asking ‘What are we getting ourselves into here?’ But they can’t do it, or they won’t – there’s too much momentum,” he says.
“The fundamental problem with Trident is its inflexibility. It’s a huge, lump of capital infrastructure and once you embark on it, it’s extremely difficult to unwind. I’m minded of the phrase, ‘escalation of commitment’ – at a certain point, you pass the point of no return. It’s like Iraq, Afghanistan or Vietnam.”
Such obduracy, Walker feels, is borne from the deterrent’s “symbolism” to the Conservative party, a value that has possibly risen following the Brexit vote. “It’s a show of prestige, the raising of the flag,” he says. “Closing it down would be perceived abroad as symptomatic of weakness.”
In spite of, or perhaps because of, this absolutism, there is discontent over the thoroughness of the Successor debate. Although tomorrow’s vote has been preceded by a white paper, three parliamentary votes, two defence reviews, a cross-party inquiry, and a Cabinet Office review, some of the most senior officials involved in the long-term planning for Britain’s continuous deterrent have been dissatisfied with the calibre of discourse emanating from the highest level.
Rear Admiral John Gower, who served as Assistant Chief of Defence Staff (Nuclear, Chemical, Biological) in the MoD until his retirement in December 2014, tells Scotland on Sunday there has been a “vacuum” at the heart of the discussion over recent decades.
Speaking in a personal capacity, he says: “Brexit was the classic example of how bad our governments are for making the case for things that are patently obvious, and I thought it was a campaign of despair, and I despaired of it.
“Equally, it’s very fair to say that the UK has had a fundamentally schizophrenic view of being a nuclear weapons state for at least 30 years, possibly longer, and therefore successive governments have not wanted to proselytise in the same way as the French, the US and certainly the Russians do to their populations about the value of the deterrent.
“The vacuum that has been left is filled naturally by those who articulate generally the opposite case, which is largely emotional and not analytical. I admire the convictions of people in the CND, but they are prone to exaggeration in the same way as Boris Johnson and Michael Gove were.”
The “schizophrenia”, Gower believes, has resulted in a paucity of informed debate. “There’s insufficient education, there’s insufficient discussion, and there’s insufficient knowledge of the issues, which is why we end up with so much rubbish being put out there,” he adds.
Walker, too, is critical of the UK government’s ability and appetite to vindicate the deterrent, particularly north of the border, pointing out that during the 2007 parliamentary vote, not a single minister came to Scotland to argue the case. “That only adds to the sense of imposition.”
Indeed, if the issue of nuclear weapons is inextricably linked to British’s place and purpose in the world, then the Scotland question is a defining variable in a complex equation. Should the nation gain its independence, it would have considerable repercussions for Successor, particularly if an SNP administration fulfils its totemic promise to expel nuclear weapons from Faslane and Coulport, inducing a scenario that would in all likelihood herald the demise of Britain’s deterrent.
Pointing to the sea change in Scottish politics over the past generation, in particular the ascendancy of the SNP, Ritchie considers the Successor programme to be a throw of the dice on the part of Westminster.
“The investment in replacing Trident, based on the UK being a nuclear state well into the 2060s, if not the 2070s, is a massive gamble,” he says. “It’s a massive bet based on Scotland staying in the Union come what may for the best part of 40 to 60 years.”
Walker believes a “reasonable and attractive” modus vivendi might see an independent Scottish Government allow for the current Vanguard-class to remain at Faslane until the 2030s, but refuse to accept the third generation of ballistic missile submarines, forcing the UK government to establish a replacement base.
Asked for his view on whether his former employer might deem such a transitional arrangement feasible, Gower, who was responsible for the formulation of strategic planning advice to the MoD’s chief of staff and government ministers, replies: “The MoD doesn’t have the mindset because this is a very political issue. My personal view is that if you demand the base shuts at any time in the future, that is the end of the deterrent. The resources necessary to withdraw from the base, duplicate it, and build the four submarines would be an inconceivable cost to the nation, and perhaps to the wider reputation of the remainder of Britain and a newly independent Scotland.”
“And I think it would be very irresponsible of Scotland to do that, because whether it’s a member of Nato or not, Scotland benefits from the umbrella of collective security within Nato, simply because geography isn’t going to go away.”
He adds: “Whether they get into EU or Nato or not, which is hypothetical, it would be hypocritical to seriously weaken that collective defence for what is essentially a dogmatic policy, not an analysis of the world.”
Any deal that might be struck to retain the deterrent in Scotland, he believes, would “involve probably quite a shed-load of treasure moving from Westminster to Holyrood as a result”. To do so would induce rancour in the SNP’s ranks, but Gower is of the view that there is an “immediate dissonance” in the party’s position over Successor, one inseparable from its wider ambitions.
“It’s a party in government that wants to remain in the EU, remain in Nato, and divest itself from nuclear weapons,” he points out. “The chances of going into Nato as the country which removed the UK’s deterrent would not be as simple as the SNP says it would be, and I think the chances of going into the EU as the country who didn’t get into Nato because it had got rid of that wouldn’t be quite so clear, because the EU has no agreed policy on nuclear weapons.
“I think it would be very interesting to see, in particular, the French reaction to that, given their feelings, if they are left as the only non-US nuclear weapons state in Europe.”
Walker agrees: “The Scottish Government is quite cautious on this issue and the SNP hasn’t been grandstanding on it. I think they realise that in the US, Nato, and France in particular, they don’t want Britain to give up its deterrent. It’s part of the furniture.”
While there was no contingency plan for Successor for the 2014 independence referendum and Brexit, there remains the possibility that Whitehall will be spurred into a period of forward planning given the rapidly shifting shape of British politics.
Gower said it would be “wrong” for him to speculate on such a course of action given he was “no longer in the loop”, but he stressed that the capacity of the government machine to make contingency plans on anything will take “quite a while to recover” after the events of 23 June. “We have a completely different government and it’s a very interesting front bench,” he observes.
Such is the nature of Successor. Even if the main question surrounding the programme is answered decisively tomorrow, a host of others will spring up in its wake, sparking an array of quandaries that will require political and military strategists to reconsider a convention that has endured for 46 years. After all, they call it Operation Relentless for a reason.