Defence review should trigger Trident debate

Jon Excell
Editor

The long-awaited defence review, coupled with the announcement that the MoD will have to foot the bill for a Trident replacement, could have a profound impact on the UK’s defence industry. Meeting the estimated £20bn cost of the nuclear programme from a budget running at around £35bn would, most observers agree, make it impossible to maintain current capabilities.

Trident or no Trident, the MoD will have to make some uncomfortable sacrifices anyway, with rumours suggesting that the UK may have to sell one of its two new aircraft carriers, and that its entire fleet of Tornado jets could be mothballed. Indeed, according to leaked details published by the Daily Telegraph, the RAF may face the heaviest cuts, losing up to 7,000 personnel and 295 aircraft, reducing the fleet to its lowest level since 1914.

Clearly, defence spending should not be immune from austerity measures, but the government must be careful not to extinguish hard-won areas of UK expertise as it takes the axe to public spending. In this issue, BAE’s top military aircraft engineer Simon Howison speaks of the need to face austerity with continued investment in new technology. In an uncertain world, he says, technologies that don’t appear relevant today could be essential tomorrow. If you don’t invest in the future now, he claims, you risk losing out. It’s an argument that will resonate with other areas of the UK’s technology economy and one that the UK government would do well to heed. Once skills and capabilities have gone it’s hard to get them back again. Intriguingly, in BAE’s case it’s unmanned air vehicles (UAVs), one of the most advanced areas of aerospace development, that Howison believes will help the firm maintain its skills base in the years ahead. ’In order to keep an indigenous UK engineering capability that can actually design an aircraft, I need the UAV business,’ he tells us.

Many believe that Trident has more to do with politics and prestige than national security

Meanwhile, the discussion over spending should finally spark a sensible debate about Trident. The subject certainly polarises opinion. Some, including the Conservatives, argue that Trident is essential to the UK’s future security. But for many others, nuclear weapons have little role to play in countering modern security threats, and Trident has more to do with politics and prestige than security.

The likely solution is that the UK finds a cheaper way of maintaining its place at the nuclear table. Options suggested so far include a scaled-down system that doesn’t require a submarine in the sea all the time, or a land-based deterrent that dispenses entirely with the requirement for a submarine.

Perhaps though, the government might like to consider an altogether more cunning alternative: cancel Trident but don’t tell anyone. The whole point of a submarine-based deterrent is that you never use it and nobody knows where it is. Providing any potential enemy believes it’s there, an imaginary Trident would be just as effective as the real thing and considerably cheaper to maintain.