Coalition parties clash over nuclear weapons

LONDON Tue Jul 16, 2013 3:08pm BST

Britain's Defence Secretary Philip Hammond leaves after attending a Cabinet meeting at Number 10 Downing Street in London March 12, 2013. REUTERS/Andrew Winning

Britain's Defence Secretary Philip Hammond leaves after attending a Cabinet meeting at Number 10 Downing Street in London March 12, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Andrew Winning

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LONDON (Reuters) - A rift in the coalition government over nuclear weapons widened on Tuesday as the two ruling parties set out starkly different visions of how they should be deployed in future.

The ruling Conservatives called its junior coalition partner, the Lib Dems, "naive or reckless" for suggesting that the multi-billion pound submarine-based Trident nuclear missile system could be slimmed down.

With a parliamentary election in 2015 and a decision due soon after that on how to replace the ageing system, the two parties drew widely differing conclusions from a government review commissioned to see if there were any credible alternatives to the current nuclear deterrent.

The review concluded that the best option was to replace the current system, which uses Vanguard-class submarines armed with Trident missiles - on a like-for-like basis, but raised the possibility of ending Britain's continuous sea-borne deterrent and of operating fewer than the current four submarines.

Prime Minister David Cameron suggested the report meant no policy change was necessary.

"Government policy remains as set out," he said in a statement. "We will maintain a continuous deterrent and are proceeding with the programme to build a new fleet of ballistic missiles submarines."

But Danny Alexander, the Lib Dem minister who oversaw the review, said he thought it showed there was scope to scale back the nuclear deterrent, stop the practice of having one submarine at sea 365 days a year, and reduce the number of nuclear submarines from four to three or even less.

"We have a big decision to make in 2016, and this study shows that there are credible alternatives that don't compromise our security but do allow us to move on from the Cold War," he told the Royal United Services Institute think-tank in London.

"We can adapt our nuclear deterrence to the threats in the 21st century by ending 24 hour patrols when we don't need them, and buying fewer submarines."

Scaling down to three submarines would save 4 billion pounds over the life of the system, he added. Deploying two boats would be even cheaper, a potentially significant factor at a time when Britain is mired in debts.

Defence Secretary Philip Hammond said Alexander's proposals were a risky false economy and promised "a tiny saving for a huge gamble with Britain's security."

"I think it's frankly either naive or reckless," Hammond told BBC radio.

"We do not believe that, with nuclear threats, if anything, proliferating, with more countries seeking to get nuclear weapons, this is the time to downgrade. We've got countries like Iran and North Korea attempting to build nuclear weapons."

Nobody knew who the potential adversary of the future would be, he added.

The Labour party, which is ahead in most opinion polls, said it saw nothing in the report to change its own commitment to a continuous sea-borne deterrent.

The policies of Britain's three main political parties on the issue could influence the make-up of any future coalition.

Trident missiles are built by Lockheed Martin Space Systems and are also used by the U.S. navy. The submarines are operated from Scotland, which is holding an independence referendum next year. Scots nationalists oppose having nuclear weapons on their territory.

(Additional reporting by William James and Sarah Young; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)

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Comments (2)
Raymond.Vermont wrote:
Row over nuclear warheads by all means, but rowing over the Vanguard replacement numbers is not sensible.

Even if all four replacement boats aren’t mission profiled for nuclear deterrence duties, the adaptable nature of the new boats (the Common Missile Compartment, quad pack tube common to both USN and RN, combined with Common Weapons Launcher system) should allow them to integrate within many other non-nuclear orientated aspects of Sea Power projection.

The Vanguard replacement should be suitably flexible (at 20,000 tons) to be an incredibly versatile, multi-purpose, submerged weapons platform, capable of carrying Trident, Tomahawk, UUV’s, UAV’s, mines, self defence missiles and ability to operate large squads of SBS forces from.

An issue with the RN new carriers are that the planes (F35B’s) they fly, shall potentially put the carrier group into range of land based anti-ship missiles through limited payload range and the planes themselves would have to disable enemy air defences before air superiority is fully achieved.

A solution to maximize the survivability of both RN carrier group and air wing to operate independently in a conflict would be having a SSGN shadowing the fleet and using its own assets (in conjunction)with the fleet in disabling enemy defences, before the main carrier group is put within a zone of jeopardy.

Having four new boats (SSBN/SSGN hybrids) allows the RN to have a premier position in global power projection and allows a strengthened conventional force multiplier.

Even without taking into account the arguments of having the nuclear weapons insurance policy.

In short four boats make sense, in order to keep the UK as both a major conventional and nuclear power player.

Debate about the contents of the subs CMC by all means, but the nation really needs the boats in its portfolio… Four boats.

Jul 16, 2013 4:51pm BST  --  Report as abuse
Raymond.Vermont wrote:
What should be asked is can the UK really have an effective submarine force with only six SSN’s?

Boats that are being asked to do an awful lot of a workload?

A Dual-use, heavy attack submarine, that also allows for a Normally-CASD deterrence has got to be maximization of available resources.

Trident is superfluous issue to the Vanguards replacement.

Britains global position needs both a ‘medium’ attack submarine force (SSN’s) and a ‘heavy’ attack submarine force, (dual-SSB/GN’s) and quite possibly a ‘light’ attack submarine force too! (SSK’s)

i.e something like 4 ‘light’, 6 ‘medium’ and 4 ‘heavy’ in composition.

Jul 17, 2013 3:11pm BST  --  Report as abuse
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