This blog collects perspectives on the election you won't find anywhere else, by political experts, based in the School of Politics and International Relations at The University of Nottingham.

Thursday, 22 April 2010

The Harrods Deterrent

"Perhaps a nuclear deterrent from Homebase would be more fitting than a future one from Harrods?"
In Yes Prime Minister, Sir Humphrey Appleby reassures the Prime Minister that Trident is the sort of nuclear weapons system that Harrods would sell. This was a good analogy at the time, relevant to the follow-on system that the Blair government announced in 2006.

Trident D5 was designed for a superpower, guaranteeing the ability to evade enemy defences and offering such a degree of accuracy that it could be employed against the hardened military (that is, even nuclear) targets of an adversary. The successor submarines to the Vanguard class will have to come into service in the 2020s and will ensure interoperability with the American ballistic missile system long into the future.

Yet the Liberal Democrats have questioned the cosy consensus between the two main parties over proceeding with a ‘son of Trident’. Twice in the first televised debate between the party leaders, Nick Clegg poured scorn on plans to purchase a future nuclear weapons system of the ‘Cold War age’, at enormous cost.

In doing so, he is tapping into a vein of thinking that goes back to the time of Dr David Owen and the Social Democrat Party that questioned whether the UK needed such a highly capable nuclear system. At that time it advocated a deterrent in which nuclear-armed cruise missiles were fitted to some of the Royal Navy’s hunter-killer submarines.

Such an option could be pursued now. It would retain a nuclear capability in the face of an uncertain, proliferating world but would place it on a much more modest level. A cruise missile has undeniable drawbacks over its ballistic missile equivalent: it is more vulnerable to enemy counter-measures, it is of shorter range, it can carry only a single warhead and it impinges on the conventional role of submarines.

Nevertheless, it offers the prospect of remaining in the nuclear club with a submarine-based platform at a much reduced cost.

The Liberal Democrats are right to re-open a debate that was too swiftly closed down by the Blair government. With massive cuts in public spending in prospect and a black hole acknowledged within the defence budget, it is timely to put all issues up for debate. Both the Labour government and the Conservatives have said that the future of the strategic nuclear deterrent would be off-limits in the Strategic Defence Review that will follow the General Election.

But with the pressures of the war in Afghanistan and in an international environment in which the US and Russia have announced major cuts in their strategic arsenals, it is time to re-evaluate UK policy.

Perhaps a nuclear deterrent from Homebase would be more fitting than a future one from Harrods?

Professor Wyn Rees

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