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We need to talk about Trident

With austerity continuing to bite, and the debate over cuts in funding to vital services such as flood defences at fever pitch, Britain’s humongously expensive Trident replacement program has rarely looked like more of an anachronism.

With an expected lifetime cost of at least £100bn, the proposed modernisation of our nuclear deterrent is, by some margin, the biggest British investment project on the table.

But though the project is far from uncontroversial, its probably fair to say that it has paled alongside the considerably cheaper HS2 in the public debate stakes. It’s a curious thing. On the one hand, we have a new rail network designed in response to an identified need for extra capacity. On the other, a relic of the Cold War designed for a threat that many agree no longer exists. Yet, for now, the rail network provokes more ire.

According to a report out this week from the Nuclear Education Trust, this needs to change.

With the government’s final decision on Trident due in 2016, the independent report calls for an intelligent nuanced public and political debate on the Trident replacement programme before we commit to spending money that could be invested in other areas of the economy.

It’s an interestingly balanced piece of work drawing on contributions from, amongst others, General Sir Mike Jackson, former defence secretary Malcolm Rifkind, and a host of academics and defence industry insiders.

Some contributors back a Trident replacement programme, others question the legality of the move in the light Britain’s nuclear non-proliferation treaty obligations.

But despite this there are some interesting areas of consensus, not least that a decision to replace Trident should be based on evidence, and a clear understanding that it represents the only solution to a credible threat. There’s also a growing feeling that investing around £100bn in addressing a threat that may or may not exist at some point in the future is a rather inconsistent way of going about things.

As director general of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) Prof Michael Clarke, one of the contributors to the report, put it, ‘If you told the Chancellor of the Exchequer that the Treasury should fund 20 hospitals just in case there was a pandemic he would laugh at you. Why should this argument be any more creditable when it comes to nuclear weapons?’


Readers' comments (53)

  • Yes, this debate is long overdue. I definitely think Trident's replacement should be cut from the government's budget as soon as possible.

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  • Whether you think we need an independent nuclear deterrent or whether you don't is an academic argument in my opinion. The fact of the matter is we haven't got the money to pay for it.

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  • I would venture to state that the reason very few people keep complaining about Trident is indeed the fact is has been going on for so long. I suspect many people (myself included) assumed that, whatever decisions were required had been taken, whichever way it went, and that it was a fait accompli. And that the next time we would hear about it would be when the Tridents were decommissioned and the replacements rolled out. How much of the expense is the incredibly long drawn-out decision making process?

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  • It's not just the decision making that costs money, According to RUSI by the time the 'main gate' decision is made in 2016, around £4 billion will have been spent on design and assessment phase work.

  • I thought the idea behind deterrents like Trident was that they are highly secret, in that case we should say nothing about them no discussions, nothing just let a few of the Subs run round doing exercises and popping up now and again and in theory no one will know whether they are armed or not effective or just a shell?
    As long as others believe they are or maybe is all that matters

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  • Unfortunately it appears that the Royal Navy wants to keep its hands on such a prestigious - if not anachronistic - weapon and delivery system. We already have the alternative with the cruise missile weapons carried by existing submarines, that could be relatively cheaply and quickly expanded. Our land forces have also had to change to meet new requirements - even the Challengers seem out of place now. Time to move on.

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  • Because there are already hospitals that can deal with a pandemic, albeit with a lot of overcrowding. The decision over Trident is whether to have nuclear weapons, it is not about additional capacity.

    A well balanced military force needs to be prepared for any eventuality, not just those that are predicted at the moment. The question then becomes whether we are willing to take the risk of foregoing such flexibility in order to save money.

    Personally I would rank the importance of HS2 over Trident but there is a big difference in funding: I believe HS2 is a national investment that will more than pay for itself whereas Trident is an insurance policy that hopefully will never pay out. The two decisions are mutually exclusive.

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  • John, the answer to your last question is so simple. The conflict groups -who run' the Establishment [those who go to work in fancy dress, have elaborate initiation techniques before you can be one and hide behind the Royals-QC-lawyers, Queen's Commission-military, Queen, head of Church of England et al] have never given the slightest attention to the needs (such as preparing for a pandemic or for that matter for inundation with the wet stuff!) of the ordinary population as they are unlikely to be personally involved.

    Likewise as they are no part of either democracy or capitalism (having cleverly insulated themselves and their living expenses from both- yet relying on those of us who actually create wealth... they care not a jot for any activity which might enhance that either.

    Of course, as long as our society was comprised of a thin crust (or should that be cream or scum) of aristocrats and a vast number of primarily agricultural 'proles' (or plebs if you prefer) they could get away with it. Particularly as they controlled both access to and the results of any challenge in the Courts.
    I really believe that we are reaching a crunch point in our society. We have at present more persons -technically educated and active- than throughout history -able to provide rational thought and analysis based on scientific principles of evidence, rigour etc: and we STILL have to put up with the antics -political and managerial- of persons, supposedly our betters, who would be laughed out of a GCSE level technology exam/test/experiment if they offered the same type of 'evidence' as they use to convince that jury of purchased persuasion (created by the once every 5 years or so trick played on the population called an election...) called Parliament!

    I've gone on a bit, but ...
    Mike b

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  • On the question of Trident just look at the history of the previous century, we nearly lost WWII due to lack of weaponry.

    The question that should be asked is about the cost of Trident and how the MOD control that and who keep BAE under control, profit is essential in any business but excessive profit through poor project control well that is another question.

    Do we need HS2, no but what we need to do is to invest in the railways so people can travel in improved conditions and get more freight on the railways.

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  • We live in a difficult age, if terrorists use a dirty bomb in London, who are you going to retaliate against, especially if they are home grown terrorists. Nuclear weapons were a deterrent in the past against war between Russia and the West. but the war is over and common sense is beginning to take over. Pretty soon everyone will have nuclear weapons, particularly the Middle East and the whole circus of deterrent will come around again. The big question is, "How do you deter someone who cares nothing for humanity or this life and is only interested in martyrdom and the next life" Trident, or its updated system may be less than useless against such an enemy. There has to be something else other than the big bang theory, put the money to science and research and perhaps fusion after all most of the conflicts will be about energy in the future and let's face it, that's what most of them seem to be linked to now.

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  • My view about the Trident replacement is quite simple, stop talking and just get on with it. It is not a question that needs any further discussion.

    HS2 and other demands upon the Exchequer must take their course in turn.

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  • Care to elaborate?

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