The future of Trident

The advent of the public spending crisis has encouraged the Lib Dems and some left wing Labour MPs to return to the idea that the UK should not renew its nuclear deterrent. It is touching that even they now understand that the UK public sector is spending too much and needs to rein in its appetite to flash the plastic. They are right that this is the time to challenge old assumptions concerning spending.

Cancelling Trident is not where I would start, however. The defence budget is one of the smaller departmental budgets, and it is the only one which this government has kept under some control. That should not make it immune from cuts, but spending reductions should concentrate on doing more for less, not on doing less for less. I have never understood why we need more admirals than warships, nor accepted it should cost so much more to buy military equipement when the MOD draws up the specifications and tenders. The most popular defence cut today would be phased withdrawal from Afghanistan , and a decision not to fight a major war for a bit whilst we sort ourselves out.

The governemnt’s defence of the war in Afghanistan is that it is making our streets in Britain safe. How do they work that out? Our streets in the UK will be safe if all living in the UK today are united in opposing terrorism and if we have well controlled borders to sotp potential terrorists from visiting. There are no signs that fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan is about to stop terrorist training or Taliban activities in Pakistan.

Over the next few years it looks as if more rogue states and potentially hostile countries will obtain or strengthen their nuclear arsenals That does not seem like a good time to announce that the UK is stoppping its nuclear defence, and is open to nuclear blackmail.

I do wish to see more progress with multilateral nuclear disarmament. That is one thing Mr Obama may be good at, and it is to be encouraged. That may offer us savings in due course on our nuclear programme. In the meantime, for all those of us who do seriously want to cut the deficit by spending less and spending better, the big budgets are welfare, local government, nationalised banks and quangoland. They offer considerable scope for reductions. Are the Lib dems and Labour up for that?


  1. Kevin Lohse
    July 12, 2009

    Dear John,

    “The defence budget is one of the smaller departmental budgets, and it is the only one which this government has kept under some control”.

    Do I detect a tongue firmly in cheek there?

    You are right about too many senior officers in Whitehall, though.

  2. Mike Stallard
    July 12, 2009

    I think that the Lefties are still mired in the Great War a hundred years ago where, they reckon, the Officer Class (ie the Tories) ordered them (the workers) to commit suicide in vast numbers. Before that, I reckon, the British Empire was pretty popular with all classes.
    Well, we have moved on a lot since then.
    Do we really want to stand naked against Iran? Or North Korea?
    Where we, the general public can help “our brave men and women” is by cutting back on our disastrous Welfare State which encourages all the wrong things; laziness, ill health, ignorance, greed by rewarding the worst behaviour.
    You see, it is we who are the fat cats.

    1. jean baker
      July 12, 2009

      How true the age old saying – “socialists, moving forward looking backwards ……….. “.

      Many believe the EU is simply striving for the dominance a certain German megalomaniac failed to achieve in WW2.

    2. Freddy
      July 12, 2009

      Of course, the rank with the highest casualty rate in the Great War – and pretty much every other war – is the junior Lieutenant, who led the soldiers over the top.

    3. Dan
      July 12, 2009

      Do we really want to stand naked against Iran or North Korea, well sorry but the chances of either frog-marching down Whitehall any time soon are nil.

      North Korea has nukes (a few) it has a delivery system which can hit South Korea, China, Japan and Russia. They have an interest in constraining it.

      Iran does not have any, it might do in 5-10 years, it feels threatened by the US which has been threatening it with regime change, arming it’s enemies (both Saddam and terrorist groups) for decades and has bases in almost every neighbouring state.

      Trident is designed to be capable of launching 16 missiles with up to 10 warheads each at multiple targets, with at least one Sub permanently at sea on the basis that it could respond if the Soviets had wiped the UK of the Map with hundreds of nukes. That threat is gone and a response to a threat of a single warhead attack from a rogue state does not need to assume that the UK is annihilated. So a flexible deterrent with the option of Nuclear bombs for Tornado, Cruise on both the SSN’s and the Type 45’s would be cheaper than a full scale replacement of Trident, and would be more “independent” of the US.

      The Empire is gone and if there is war in East Asia it would be a bad thing but it is not our problem. We used to intervene in Iran to protect the route to India, well now let India intervene if necessary, fellow member of the international community, and nuclear power with aspirations of a seat on the Security Council. The answer for every problem on the planet is not intervention by plucky little Britain.

      The UK intervened in Afghanistan 3 times 1839-42, 1878-80 and 1919, when we ran the largest Empire on the planet and had an obvious strategic interest in India. We have now been there longer than all of those interventions combined, we have more British as opposed to British Indian troops in theatre today than at any time of those 3 interventions and the UK force there now is bigger than the entire UK and Indian garrison of 1840-42. Does that make sense?

      1. Mike Stallard
        July 14, 2009

        What you say is indeed true. However, Pakistan, China, Russia also are nuclear. As is the EU. Any of these could become a crisis in the future.
        Once you have unloaded the bomb, is it really possible to restore it to the same levels as these great powers?
        The Anglosphere is, actually, pretty good on the subject of world peace. We did our bit in the Balkans and Sierra Leone and we did it properly too.
        I hesitate, myself, to trust other people to be the world’s policeman. At the moment, I do not think that many other powers have the right attitude. And, if we are bold and equipped, then, surely, we can put some sort of control on the very gung ho Americans?

  3. Acorn
    July 12, 2009

    Personally I think with regular servicing and a few tweaks, our current model of WMD, should get through its MOT OK for the next few years. Is there a scrapage scheme for ten year old ICBMs?

    As I have gotten used to not worrying about the odd billion here and there of government spending, I was a bit surprised to find on Mauldin that some quants have us down for issuing around £200 billion ($319 billion) for fiscal 2009/10. This seems to have gone up a tad since the budget!

    Can’t stop today, I have got to set up my computer to do some “Algo” trading. You don’t actually need people to trade securities anymore – see article in this link, but be quick.

    Reply: The official gross figures for debt issuance are £417bn over the two years 2008-10. This site does not recommend trading or offer financial advice.

  4. alan jutson
    July 12, 2009

    The sad fact is that some still believe that we can fight a major War on our own, as we have in the past.

    The simple fact is that we have been punching above our weight now for decades, and now we have been found out.

    We do not have either the capacity in manpower, in equipment, or indeed in finace to sustain any form of extensive conflict for any significant length of time, on our own, or indeed as a major partner to the US.

    The Falklands whilst successful, showed up some of our limitations.
    We had to borrow/requisition, commercial ships to transport troops.
    We had to secretly purchase exocets to stop them from going to the enemy.
    We had to use aircraft in a role for which they were not originally intended (Harrier).
    Our warships were found wanting in self defence against an ageing attacking airforce (a number being sunk).
    We had a shortage of equipment (Welsh Guards, Bluff Cove)
    We had to rely upon US intelligence.

    Yes our troops are second to none, and much is made of our training, but our numbers are now very low by historic comparison, so battle fatigue is a growing problem.

    We need to face up to the fact that whilst we offer a very creditable force, we will always only ever be part of any major force, in any major conflict.

    There is an argument that we should simply purchase US equipment and give up on developing our own, it certainly would be much, much more cost effective, but it would mean that the defence industry in this Country may then vanish and jobs be lost.
    The other argument is that we then become totally relient on the US.

    Do we need a nuclear deterrent ? yes, whilst others still have one, although I have to say that global destruction by those who have many missiles is unlikely.
    The bigger threat is by those who have a small nuclear capability, and who could use them in a terrorist type attack. Trident or its replacement is useless against this threat.

    With the defence budget we have, with the numbers we have in the armed forces, we have to give up the idea that we can go to War in anything else other than a small limited conflict, or as part of a multinational force.

    What a shame the idea of the United Nations as any form of creditable deterent seems to have has failed.

  5. Doug
    July 12, 2009

    An evolutionary analogy:

    Birds expend a huge amount of energy flying. It’s very expensive. When there are no serious predators, birds quickly cut expenditure by losing the power of flight.

    Unfortunately (consider the dodo, and the plight of flightless birds in New Zealand currently) when predators re-emerge, it’s too late for birds to regain the power of flight and they are driven to extinction.

    Flightless birds = False Economies = Low Defence Expenditure

  6. Jim Pearson
    July 12, 2009

    I think Defence needs to be restructured and correctly funded, it has been sadly neglected and abused by the current Government. I do believe that our presence in Afganistan is both good for the fight against terrorism and for Britain. If we don’t stand up and be counted against those that would threaten and attack us, we are asking for trouble. We will may not be “winning” in afganistan but to withdraw sends the signal that Britain is a short-termist. This leads to other countries making decisions that compromise stability. The governments pull out of Iraq, was I feel both embarassing and bad foreign policy. I know my views probably don’t reflect the majority view, but I think they are a point worth making.

  7. figurewizard
    July 12, 2009

    It seems to becoming clear that the real reason for the US, ourselves and others being in Afghanistan is in fact to protect Pakistan. Their recent offensives in the tribal areas have highlighted the threat that the Taliban and their allies pose to the security and stability of that country. This matters a great deal because that country already possesses a significant nuclear arsenal.

    The danger of this falling under the control of the wrong people some time in the future is of course a powerful argument in support of Trident but any resort to actually having to use it would be a policy born out of of despair. Winning the war in Afghanistan would go a long way to ensure that we never have to face making such a decision. That is why this is so important and the reason that it should be given an even higher priority than at present with the resources to match. Pulling out is simply not an option anymore.

  8. Adrian Peirson
    July 12, 2009

    Stop Borrowing worhtless bits of paper at full face value and at interest, print it instead and issue that into the economy.
    Better yet, back it with something of value Other than the promise of my childrens labour.

  9. A. Sedgwick
    July 12, 2009

    We need to keep our nuclear deterrent, concentrate on protecting our own borders and keep out of trying to police the world – in short pull up the drawbridge.

  10. Cardinal Richelieu's mole
    July 12, 2009

    Trident is just a delivery system designed to give an assured response to a sudden attack. The threat that it was designed to meet has metamorphosed into something with different characteristics. It is by no means clear that such a very costly system, under the control of the Americans, is an appropriate response to the threats we must meet now even though it may be prudent for us to retain a nuclear weapon capability.

    A cheap delivery system (by no means novel) would be to deposit “suitcase nuclear bombs” in every British Embassy or perhaps more anonymous storage and brief a locally-based staffer to do the necessary when needed. Alternatively or additionally, the then available savings from not having Trident could be used to bribe any actual enemy to choose a target other than us.

    1. StevenL
      July 12, 2009

      What utter, utter rubbish! Would you be happy for every foreign embassy in London to be keeping “suitcase nuclear bombs” in their cupboards?

    2. APL
      July 12, 2009

      CRM: “Alternatively or additionally, the then available savings from not having Trident could be used to bribe any actual enemy to choose a target other than us.”

      It is always a temptation for a rich and lazy nation,
      To puff and look important and to say: —
      “Though we know we should defeat you, we have not the time to meet you.
      We will therefore pay you cash to go away.”

      And that is called paying the Dane-geld;
      But we’ve proved it again and again,
      That if once you have paid him the Dane-geld
      You never get rid of the Dane.

      It is wrong to put temptation in the path of any nation,
      For fear they should succumb and go astray;
      So when you are requested to pay up or be molested,
      You will find it better policy to say: —

      “We never pay any-one Dane-geld,
      No matter how trifling the cost;
      For the end of that game is oppression and shame,
      And the nation that pays it is lost!”

      As we have found out to our cost with the EU.

  11. Brian E.
    July 12, 2009

    We should have a thorough Defence Review, with experts from all fields looking at the likely future requirements. We need to ask “why did no one foresee the likely wars against the type of enemies that we have been fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan?”, and try to avoid getting caught out again.

    Personally, I believe we should be looking at new ideas. The U.S.A. is investing quite heavily in robotic remote controlled aircraft, which can carry a variety of small weapons or CCTV spy cameras, as well as staying airborne for long periods. Should we not be considering these instead of the Eurofighter and the Nimrod replacement? We could probably purchase a 100 of these remote controlled aircraft for the price of one modern fighter, maybe even more. What about robotic ground vehicles instead of soldiers on foot patrol? Mass-produced they would probably cost no more than a reasonable car and be able to save many lives

    We need plenty of lateral thinking; whilst I admire our military, they have rarely been very innovative – you have only got to look at the problems Churchill had to get them to accept the tank in the first world war, when they were quite certain that it would never beat the cavalry!

    Once a review has been held, then is the time to decide whether we need Trident, not scrap it first before making a decision as to what we are having instead.

  12. StevenL
    July 12, 2009

    Of course the difficulty for an incoming government is that the easiest way to make cuts is to point at big budget numbers and say ‘shave 10% off that’.

    In reality it often means that the people who need to be cut (i.e. the ones responsible for wasting all the money over recent years) are the ones who end up weilding the axe.

    I agree that the only way to cut spending to acceptable levels is to target the big numbers, but an incoming government also needs to decide what policies need to go on the bonfire and be prepared to take on the vested interests whos jobs these budgets support.

    Of course Labour are digging themselves in for a possible spell in opposition now and legislating to make their expensive policies binding on a future government. I think specifically of the Child Poverty Bill. Why after all these years are they suddenly making their wealth-redistribution targets statutory?

    Labour seem to be setting all sorts of traps if you ask me.

  13. Alan Wheatley
    July 12, 2009

    If your message from Britain to the rest of the World is that British policy is “not to fight a major war for a bit whilst we sort ourselves out”, then all elements hostile to us with a mind to do so will see this as the opportunity to do their worst.

    However, I do whole heatedly agree that now “does not seem like a good time to announce that the UK is stoppping its nuclear defence, and is open to nuclear blackmail”.

    As to priorities, is not the highest priority defence of the Realm? This does not, and never has, meant manning the borders, and does need a more World wide perspective.

    Highest priority does not, of course, mean highest spend.

  14. no one
    July 12, 2009

    UK could have a nuclear capability much more cheaply than current trident style approach

    I think we should be happy with a few cruise missiles per submarine, spread them out over more subs than the current 4 boats

    defence policy if i were in charge would be ever so different

    for a start sea harriers would be back out of moth balls

    some of the crazier spending projects would be replaced with cheaper pragmatic alternates

    and i would force much more focus on the real teeth of the services

  15. ManicBeancounter
    July 12, 2009

    There is some lessons that can be learnt from defence procurement, that do apply to other areas.
    1. Specialist specifications rather than adaptation of exisitng civilian (or foreign military) designs. (Communications technology is a case in point.)
    2. Inadequate specification at the outset, or changes to the specification part way through. (Numerous IT projects provide better examples).
    3. Changing the organisation to suit the equipment, rather than the equipment to suit the organisation. The examples are again in software, where much of the benefits are orientating the organisation to the software, and most of the expense is in specialist configurations for the particular organisation.
    3. Poor stock control of spare parts leading to over-stocking, or getting rid of items that are required. I am sure that a major supplier of equipment (directly or indirectly) are traders in MOD surplus.
    4. Poor utilisation of existing equipment or assets. The MOD needs to keep huge stores in case of war – particularly of ordinance. But there are many areas where this can be improved. Again the NHS & Education may provide better (or at least more publicly accessible) examples.

  16. […] procurement strategies. This post is an enlargement a comment made on John Redwood’s posting “The Future of Trident”. I therefore start from the aspect of defence […]

  17. sm
    July 12, 2009

    So £417bn extra longterm debt ? , at say 5% interest £20bn pa.

    This ignoring any other structural deficit or permanent tax falls from the debt pumped economy.

    Pray ask, the Chancellors, which budget will Labour appear to conjure this from. I’m not sure this is the half of it.

    The ‘lie of the land’ Darling seems to have a way with words, that pierces the Brown smog.

    Manage population properly -impossible in the EU. Reduce immigration by economic refugees, reduce demand for public services, reduce real housing demand, reduce energy needs etc.
    Invest in real assets which displace imports, aid exports.

  18. Bazman
    July 12, 2009

    Trident is a political decision. Basically it is useless and eventually will be leased from America.

  19. Adrian Peirson
    July 12, 2009

    Westminster and Whitehall is deliberately running down our Armed Forces so they can set up their EU Army and Navy.

    We have to be brought to our Knees, fishing destroyed, farming, industry sell offs, opem borders, community disorder, gold sell off,
    safety storage of food mountains abolished.
    everything Westminster does is NOT in our interests.

    Don’t the words Foreign OR Domestic mean anything to our Generals.
    Can’t they see what is going on, it’s plain and simple.

  20. MG
    July 13, 2009

    A good article John, as you are implying and I know from experience that if you have ever tried to find useful cuts in an organisation you soon discover that the biggest depts tend to be the most inefficient and with reforms can yield the best savings with the least negative impacts. Defence is a small dept and undoubtedly the last place to be looking especially at the moment.

  21. mr disillusioned
    July 13, 2009

    If you are looking for spending cuts, a good place to start would be in the NHS IT budget. From what I understand, they spend several hundred million a year on Microsoft licenses for Word, Excel, Powerpoint etc. BUT it is possible to use free software that is widely available to anyone with net access.

    1. APL
      July 13, 2009

      Mr Disillusioned: “BUT it is possible to use free software that is widely available to anyone with net access.”


      But in an attempt to look hip and modern Tony Blair got into bed with Microsoft, when perfectly adaquate and probably more secure alternatives exist for free (for individuals) or for a modest licence for corporates and government bodies.

      This government is entirely ignorant when it comes to IT.

      But I fear the Tories don’t have any more knowledge or experience in the field.

      1. Adam Collyer
        July 13, 2009

        Both of you, there is room for disagreement on whether it is better to use Microsoft software or the free alternatives. But it is not reasonable to sneer at the NHS for using Microsoft, or to accuse the government of ignorance merely for doing so. Certainly most private companies, who don’t have bottomless pits of taxpayers’ cash to dip into, choose to use Microsoft. In general, there is ample scope for attacking NHS wastage on IT projects without joining the fashionable and rather silly MS-bashing.

  22. Adam Collyer
    July 13, 2009

    Talking of defence expenditure, can somebody please enlighten me as to why we are buying both the Eurofighter Typhoon and the Joint Strike Fighter (Lockheed F35)? Wouldn’t it make more sense and be cheaper to standardise on one or the other (presumably the Typhoon, since that is the partially-British one)? Or are we buying Joint Strike Fighters purely to keep our American friends happy?

    And somebody tell me why we need two full size aircraft carriers. Wouldn’t smaller ones be cheaper and just as effective for any operation Britain is likely to need to mount?

    1. alan jutson
      July 13, 2009


      Cannot comment upon the two different strike aircraft, but perhaps the Lockheed is less expensive. American Aircraft are usually, as they are usually made in more numbers, and are of a proven design.

      The Euro fighter is still in development stage for some uses I am informed by those who take an interest, and thus it is still an open ended, and increasing budget to a degree.

      The Carriers we are told are now the size they need to be, to make up a creditable force, with the correct number of aircraft and helicopters being able to fly from its decks.
      Smaller carriers carry less aircraft and are thus a less creditable force.

      The problem is that an Aircraft carrier is a capital ship and needs many other ships to protect it. Think at the moment we do not have enough ships to protect more than two carriers (although not sure we can even do that properly if both are in theatre at the same time)

      New type 45 destroyers are supposed to be protection vessels as I understand it, but they are still awaiting a comprehensive working weapons system, said by the press to be about 3 years away.

      When it works and is installed, it is claimed that the type 45 will be the most high tech ship afloat.

      The bigger question is. Can we afford to run any sort of campaign that will require such equipment to be purchased in the first place. After all there is no point in building such ships and aircraft if you cannot afford to run, and pay for them to be used in a war/conflict.

  23. Oliver Healey
    July 14, 2009

    Two former Chiefs of the Defence Staff, two Air Vice Marshals have stated openly that it is pointless in renewing Trident when we have no influence multilaterally. We have failed to realise that Britain’s position in the world has changed in 50years and the bomb is not going to change that. Come On John Redwood think sensibly.

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