By Alexa van Sickle, Assistant editor

It was, several older colleagues told me, one of the most thought-provoking discussions they had heard at the institute. With Britain’s ageing Trident nuclear deterrent in the news again – as defence cuts bite and a divided coalition government reviews the options for a replacement system – four of the United Kingdom’s most respected former civil servants came to Arundel House last week and delivered a one-and-half-hour masterclass in nuclear policy.

The submarine-launched Trident missile system is a Cold War weapon, and any replacement will operate in an unknowable future. Some say nuclear weapons are critical for Britain’s future defence and its relationship with allies. Others argue nuclear weapons are not particularly suited to modern-day threats such as terrorism, and that austerity-era Britain cannot afford the cost of a like-for-like replacement (which is usually put at £20-25bn, but some campaigners claim is £100bn). Yet more suggest a cut-price nuclear compromise to take over from the current generation of four nuclear-armed submarines when they end their working lives sometime in the 2020s.

The IISS panellists Sir Jeremy Greenstock, Lord David Hannay, Lord Gus O’Donnell, and Sir Richard Mottram generally concluded that contemporary British politicians were unlikely to relinquish Britain’s nuclear deterrent. ‘The status quo has enormous weight in politics,’ said O’Donnell.

‘Prime ministers do not want to take the decision to be the person to give up our deterrent’, added Mottram, former permanent secretary in the British civil service. ‘Because they worry that in 2050 … something horrible which is of a very low probability but a very high impact will have happened, and they will be … the person who goes down in history [as] responsible.’

On the other hand, panellists agreed, there was much to be gained by the UK’s further reducing its nuclear-weapons capabilities.

The meeting’s chair and IISS Director of Non-proliferation and Disarmament, Mark Fitzpatrick, began by asking to what extent Britain’s role in the world was defined by its membership in the nuclear club. Would the UK’s status and influence be altered for better or for worse if there were any change to the proposed Trident like-for-like replacement?

Greenstock, UNA-UK Chairman and former UK ambassador to the United Nations, and O’Donnell, once the head of the UK’s civil service, both insisted that Britain’s nuclear capability was no longer a major contributor to its global standing. In the twenty-first century, they argued, it was a nation state’s economic weight that was the most important criterion.

Interestingly, however, O’Donnell seemed to believe that the effect on the UK economy of keeping a nuclear capability would be small, and the defence budget would be much the same with or without a nuclear deterrent (which would amount to between 1 and 2 billion over the period from 2012 to 2062).

Greenstock struck a more cautionary note, saying that the UK needed to address new threats such as cyberwarfare and that in financial terms it couldn’t ‘just go on adding new threats, and paying for the defence for them, without something dropping off the bottom’ of the list.

Both he and Hannay, another former UK ambassador to the UN, agreed that Britain was at no risk of losing its permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council if it did not replace Trident with another nuclear-weapons system. That seat derived ‘much more from our victory in the Second World War, and the range of our historical interests and influence,’ said Greenstock, and in any case could not be relinquished without Britain’s willingly agreeing to vacate it, added Hannay.

Asked about the ‘CASD’ (continuous at-sea deterrence) that Trident provides, Hannay pointed out thatBritain’s three main political parties were considering variants of the Trident system, but didn’t want to get rid of it altogether.

He added that, in the international context, ‘it is often suggested that if we did not have continuous at-sea deterrence, then a decision by a British government to deploy a nuclear-armed submarine at an early stage in a crisis would be very destabilising … I think that argument needs to be tested rather carefully. I’m not saying it is without value … but I think you can advance the alternative argument, which is to say it might be an extremely important measure for handling a peculiarly dangerous crisis.’

With Britain’s most recent military operations – in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Libya – requiring the deployment of expeditionary forces, Britain’s nuclear versus conventional capabilities were also discussed.

Mottram said there was no way to compare the ‘relative weight’ that conventional and nuclear forces contribute to how the UK’s overall military power and credibility was perceived. This point was further complicated by the fact that there were different military judgements on the role of the UK’s nuclear capability, with nuclear weapons buying ‘a certain form of influence in key parts of NATO, and in our bilateral relationships with the United States and France’.

Greenstock said that the US would rather the UK restore its fast-declining conventional capability, and reduce its nuclear deterrent. ‘The choices we’re making at the moment are affecting our conventional ability far more than our nuclear [one]’, he said.

The UK army was reducing ‘boots on the ground’, the number of ships, and the number of aircraft it can deploy, he explained. While the Americans had ‘huge respect for our quality’ in these fields, they were ‘beginning to despise our quantity’.

‘I think we’re going to need to rethink this as a nation because to start spending close to 2%, or god forbid even less than 2%, on the whole range of defence forces is getting into dangerous territory in a difficult century.

‘The point about Trident is that, having nuclear weapons capabilities in those circumstances will answer only a tiny fraction of the threat problems that we are facing.’

The panel agreed that Britain’s status as the most progressive reducer of nuclear arms was important, and that it must remain committed to its obligations to reduce its weapons arsenal under Article VI of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. The UK should step down the ladder, but ‘not jump off’ the ladder altogether, Hannay said; these are two different things. Jumping off the ladder and totally eliminating nuclear weapons would buy the country limited credit, but have heavy costs with its chief allies.

Mottram said that even the current government proposals for replacing Trident did not really constitute a like-for-like replacement, because each new submarine would carry ‘half the operational tubes that the Vanguard-class submarines have’. The logical conclusion of this is that a step-down in nuclear capability is both inevitable and imminent.

Greenstock admitted that ‘public opinion is not where government instincts are’ on replacing Trident, and one journalist in attendance has written that too little attention was paid to the case for Britain entirely giving up it nukes. Maybe so, but the discussion did offer a fascinating insight into the difficulty of making public policy in the absence of firm evidence and for a far-distant future.

With a Liberal-Democrat-led review on Trident alternatives expected later this year, and with the 2016 deadline for the ‘main gate’ decision on replacing Trident approaching, the video of this discussion makes compelling viewing.

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