Lord Browne: Scrap round-the-clock nuclear deterrent

Lord Browne played down the role of nuclear defence. Picture: Getty
Lord Browne played down the role of nuclear defence. Picture: Getty
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FORMER defence secretary Lord Browne believes the UK should stop deploying nuclear submarines around the clock.

The Labour peer said yesterday that nuclear weapons should play less of a role in defence strategy, arguing Britain should “step down” from “continuous at sea deterrence (CASD)”.

The view, expressed in a House of Lords debate on nuclear disarmament, is at odds with the UK Government’s insistence on updating Trident with an identical replacement.

The SNP said last night that the comments created confusion around Labour’s nuclear policy and added weight to the argument for independence.

Lord Browne said that although the focus had shifted away from the multilateral disarmament agenda, there was a need for the “relentless pursuit” of nuclear weapons reductions.

He said it was becoming clearer that deterrence as a cornerstone of defence strategy was “decreasingly effective and increasingly risky”.

As nuclear technology spread, it would be more difficult to prevent acts of nuclear terrorism and more difficult to pinpoint the state responsible for an attack, he argued.

“That’s not to say that nuclear weapons are irrelevant in the 21st century. It is to say that they offer less of an insurance policy against the challenges we will face in the future.”

But Lord Browne, who drew up a 2006 white paper on Trident, said the time was ripe to “change our posture and step down from continuous at-sea deterrence”.

This, he said, would demonstrate that “nuclear weapons play less and less of a role in our national security strategy”. He warned there were no risk-free futures on offer. “We need to shift the emphasis now on to reducing the chances of any nuclear weapons ever being used anywhere.

“That means the relentless pursuit of nuclear weapons reductions, a relentless strengthening of non-proliferation and a decreased reliance on nuclear weapons for national security by all, including ourselves.”

For decades, Britain has held to the principle that one of the four submarines that carry the nuclear-tipped Trident II missiles must always be at sea.

Earlier this week, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Danny Alexander, said that there were “credible and compelling alternatives” to CASD, creating a divide with his Tory coalition partners.

Reacting to Lord Browne’s speech, the SNP defence spokesman Angus Robertson said: “Lord Browne’s intervention will only add to the confusion  about the Trident replacement. As a minister, he maintained the conventional wisdom that to be effective Trident missiles always have to be deployed at sea: now he tells us that is outdated. Once a Labour defence secretary determined to dump these weapons in Scotland, he now questions the central nuclear doctrine of the UK.

“It will only add to the sense of confusion created by Danny Alexander’s intervention, putting the coalition partners at odds.”

Mr Robertson added: “It also confirms that what most Scots consistently demand – the complete removal of weapons of mass destruction from the Clyde – can only be successfully accomplished by a Yes vote in 2014.”

The debate was called by Lord Bramall, a former chief of the defence staff at the time of the Falklands War.

In his final speech in the Lords, Lord Bramall said the government should not go ahead with an unaffordable replacement for Trident.