Trident downgrade would be reckless, say Tories on eve of Lib Dem review

Liberal Democrat leadership to unveil proposals for alternatives to a like-for-like replacement of nuclear missile fleet

The first shots in a debate that Ministry of Defence officials have tried to stifle will be fired on Tuesday when the Liberal Democrat leadership will propose alternatives to a like-for-like replacement of the Trident nuclear missile fleet.

Philip Hammond, the defence secretary, reflected widespread concern among his senior officials about the prospect of a public debate over the future of Britain’s nuclear arsenal by saying on Monday that downgrading it would be “reckless”.

The Trident alternatives document – promised under the 2010 coalition agreement – will be published despite a rearguard action by MoD officials against the release of figures on the cost and performance of a like-for-like replacement. They were deeply concerned that releasing the figures would set an embarrassing precedent, Whitehall sources said.

To what extent the MoD has succeeded in suppressing figures may become clear in Tuesday’s document. Options proposed by the Lib Dem leadership are expected to include reducing the size of the Trident fleet from four to three or two submarines, and deploying submarines capable of carrying either conventional or nuclear missiles.

Supporters of these options point to America’s arsenal of dual-purpose weapons systems, including the recent deployment of nuclear-capable stealth bombers to South Korea in a training exercise.

Cutting the number of Trident submarines would save tens of billions of pounds over the next two decades in building costs and over subsequent years in refitting them. More could be saved sooner if one of the existing Trident submarines is decommissioned early.

David Cameron and his defence secretary made it clear on Monday that they believed there was no need for a debate, arguing that Britain needed to maintain its “continuous at-sea deterrent” (CASD) posture, a legacy of the cold war. That, they insist, will involve building a new fleet of four Trident submarines, officially estimated to cost between £20bn and £25bn.

A spokesman for Cameron said he was “crystal clear” that Britain needed a continuous at-sea deterrent at a time of “evolving threats around nuclear proliferation”.

Hammond wrote in Monday’s Daily Mail that any plan to adopt what he called a part-time deterrent would be reckless. There were no alternatives to the current system which would offer the “level of protection and security this country needs”, Hammond said, referring to what he said were potential threats from Russia and Iran.

Britain’s existing fleet of four Vanguard-class Trident submarines are due to be replaced between 2028 and 2033. A final decision on whether to replace all four will not be taken until after 2016, a year after the next general election.

An ICM poll for the Guardian published on Monday suggests the public is split on Trident. Three in 10 (31%) think it should be replaced, an identical proportion (31%) think it should be slimmed down, and 30% think the UK should no longer have nuclear weapons (39% among Labour 2010 voters).

A poll for the British American Security Information Council published on Monday also suggests …read more  

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