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 Nuclear Free Scotland February 2005

DECISION TIME FOR BRITISH NUCLEAR WEAPONS

The decision making process

In December 2003 the Defence White paper said that a decision on whether to replace Trident was likely to be needed in the life of the next Westminster Parliament. This was repeated by Geoff Hoon in the House of Commons in May 2004. It is important to note that the statements did not say "what will replace Trident", but said "whether to replace Trident". This means that the next Parliament is expected to consider whether Britain will continue to have nuclear weapons in the long term.

The hull life of Vanguard class submarines is 25 years and it would take at least 12 years to design and build a successor so a decision on a replacement is expected by 2008. Those involved in the peace movement would like to see Trident scrapped now and we do not want Britain to keep its nuclear weapons for another decade. However, if a decision was made in 2008 not to replace Trident, then it would be difficult to justify the ongoing expenditure in future years. Such a decision is likely to lead to a nuclear-weapons free Britain within a few years.

The MoD may try to delay the major decision by extending the life of Trident. This is currently happening in the US. However stretching the life of the system has its own problems and is expensive. Modifying Polaris into Chevaline cost far more than had been budgeted. In the 1990s there were substantial problems with the hulls and the reactors on British Polaris submarines during their final years of service. If the government took on a major life-extension programme, they would still have to decide to do this by 2008. So the next parliament will have to decide whether to (a) replace Trident, or (b) not replace it, or (c) extend the life of Trident.

The MPs who will make this decision will be elected at the next General Election, expected in May 2005. It may be appropriate initially to focus, not just on the stance that individuals and parties will take on this issue, but also on a commitment to holding a full public consultation and debate during the next parliament, before a decision is reached. Scottish CND is trying to identify what each of the main parties are saying on this issue. The Liberal Democrats, in a 2002 policy paper, said that they remain to be convinced about a replacement for Trident.

An introduction to the issues

British nuclear weapons policy today is based on principles established by Michael Quinlan when he was Permanent Secretary at the MoD in the early 1990s. Yet Quinlan has acknowledged that if we were deciding today to buy Trident it would be difficult to justify the expenditure. He also recognises that it will be harder to present the case for nuclear weapons in the post Cold War world in the absence of a specific threat, such as that perceived from the Soviet Union.

The need to make a decision before 2008 presents a major opportunity for the peace movement. The government will face two substantial problems in reviewing the future of British nuclear weapons. The arguments which are presented to justify these weapons today do not stand up to close scrutiny. Secondly, there are practical problems with all of the potential replacement options.

There is a contradiction between the rhetoric of US nuclear policy and the forces which are deployed. The verbal emphasis is on counter-proliferation, responding to the threat that states like Iran could develop WMD. However the vast majority of US nuclear weapons are geared up for use against Russia. The bulk of the US nuclear budget for the remainder of this decade is allocated to programmes which will keep large numbers of high-yield weapons, designed for use against Russia, in service until the middle of this century.

The US has also initiated design programmes to develop lower yield weapons. These are at an early stage, nevertheless this is a significant development as it would blur the distinction between nuclear and conventional weapons.

In Britain there have been allusions to the potential to use Trident for Counter-Proliferation. This is consistent with the policy of "studied ambiguity" pursued on both sides of the Atlantic. This means hinting that we could use nuclear weapons in situations like Iraq but not making a clear specific threat. Meanwhile the force deployed at sea from Faslane is of a scale and nature that it is clearly designed for use against Russia.

The counter-proliferation role for nuclear weapons does not stand up to close inspection. Nuclear planners recognise that the radiological and political fallout from nuclear weapons would be so great that a threat to make a nuclear response to a chemical or biological threat is not credible. Even in the case of a state with a few nuclear weapons such an attack would be very hard to justify. It is the recognition of the weakness of their case that has prompted some American planners to resurrect plans to build lower yield nuclear weapons. However using lower yield weapons would only reduce, not eliminate, the problems of fallout.

A government review of nuclear weapons will have to reconsider the basic arguments. They will have to ask whether Britain needs to have nuclear weapons capable of launching a devastating attack on Russia and whether the counter-proliferation role on its own would justify the very substantial expenditure involved.

The practical replacement options available will be determined by the US. Since 1958 the British nuclear weapons programme has depended on support from the US. This information was supplied under the conditions of the Mutual Defence Agreement, which means the US will continue to have a say in all future options. With regard to a follow-on to Trident, the US replacement will not be available when HMS Vanguard retires, unless the Royal Navy can stretch the submarine life by several years. Britain is probably interested in replacing Trident with nuclear-armed sea-launched cruise missiles. However there are two problems with this option. The main one is that there is no provision for these missiles, beyond 2015, in US plans. The US has not deployed nuclear-armed cruise missiles at sea since 1991 and there are signs that US Navy does not want to keep them. The second problem, for the MOD, is that, in comparison with Trident, Cruise missiles would be much less effective against Russia. Britain could collaborate with France on an air-launched missile, but the US would veto the development of any Anglo-French nuclear warhead to go in it.

In the absence of nuclear testing, Aldermaston would have to develop substantial computer facilities before they could develop any new warhead. While they have a computer modelling programme this is at an early stage and is much smaller than its US counterpart, which has most of the largest computers in the world. The history of the Anglo-American nuclear relationship suggests that Aldermaston will only be given access to US nuclear simulations if they can show that they are making a substantial commitment to similar work themselves.

Any replacement option will be very expensive. Stretching the life of Trident would also come with a large price tag. Major defence projects are often very late and over-budget and so there would be a large margin of error in any projected costs. While the main basis for opposing nuclear weapons is on moral grounds, there will also be scope to highlight the financial burden associated with replacing or sustaining Trident.

John Ainslie


 

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