U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron is committed to the like-for-like replacement of the Trident submarine-based nuclear-weapons system, his spokesman said after a review of alternatives was published today.
The review was carried out by government officials at the request of the Liberal Democrats, the junior partners in the coalition government, after a disagreement with Cameron’s Conservative Party over the replacement of Britain’s nuclear weapons. It concluded that other options would be too expensive and would not offer the level of deterrence that the U.K. requires.
“The prime minister believes in continuous at-sea deterrence,” Cameron’s spokesman, Jean-Christophe Gray, told reporters in London. “He has seen no evidence that there are credible alternatives.”
Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader, said the publication of the review, which was overseen by his party colleague, Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander, marked the start of a debate on the future of the U.K.’s nuclear weapons. Britain should move on from the mindset of the cold war, he said.
“This is the most thorough review of our nuclear deterrent this country has ever published,” Clegg said in an e-mailed statement. “I hope that today marks the beginning of a fact-based debate about Trident that will see us discussing what kind of deterrent is right for Britain in the 21st century, rather than just sticking to decisions that were made for another time.”
In a speech in London, Alexander said the Liberal Democrats would decide on their policy at their party conference in Glasgow, Scotland, in September.
The Liberal Democrats campaigned against Trident at the 2010 general election, saying cheaper alternative nuclear weapons systems should be examined and questioning the need to have nuclear weapons at sea at all times. They said the 20 billion-pound ($30 billion) cost of a like-for-like replacement was too expensive.
The Royal Navy says four of the BAE Systems Plc-built Vanguard submarines are needed to have one at sea at all times.
“None of these alternative systems and postures offers the same degree of resilience as the current posture of continuous at-sea deterrence, nor could they guarantee a prompt response in all circumstances,” the review concluded.
“The costs of delivering an alternative system could theoretically have been cheaper than procuring a like-for-like renewal of Trident were it not for timing and the fact that the U.K. deterrent infrastructure is finely tuned to support a submarine-based Trident system,” it said. “In particular, the time it would take to develop a new warhead (itself a costly and high-risk exercise) is judged to be longer than the current Vanguard-class submarines can safely be operated.”
If the U.K. chose to develop an alternative system, two new submarines would need to be built to keep Trident operational until 2040 while the new system was being developed, the review found. As a result, any alternative would be more expensive than replacing Trident with three or four submarines, it said.
The future of Britain’s nuclear weapons has always been a point of difference between the two coalition parties. By ordering the review, Clegg and Cameron put off making a decision until 2016, a year after the next general election.
Five former defense secretaries from both the Conservative and Labour parties said in a joint letter published today that Trident should be kept in its present form. Tories Liam Fox and Malcolm Rifkind signed the letter along with John Reid, Bob Ainsworth and George Robertson, who served under Labour.
“In an uncertain world, in which the number of nuclear weapons remains high and some states are increasing their holding, we should not take risks with our security by downgrading to a part-time deterrent,” they said in the letter to the Daily Telegraph newspaper. “We cannot possibly foresee what threats will develop over the next 30 years. Reducing our submarine-based Trident capability would weaken our national security.”