Former defence minister calls for Trident review


4:30 pm - July 26th 2010

by Sunny Hundal    


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Former defence minister Des Browne has today said that Trident must be reviewed within a new Strategic Defence Review.

In an article for the new blog Labour Uncut, he says “the world has changed since we made our original renewal decision” in 2007.

In recent years we have endured and are now dealing with the consequences of the worst financial crisis since the 1930s. Treasury statements to the effect that the full cost of Trident will now have to be met out of the core defence budget rather than from a Treasury reserve set aside for Trident as a ‘national strategic asset’ have enormous implications for the rest of our defence capability.

There is no way of examining the necessary trade-offs between nuclear and conventional capability in this defence review if Trident is left out of the process.

This would be a major departure from the Labour party’s policy on Trident.

All the Labour party leadership contenders, except David Miliband, have called for the renewing of Trident to be reviewed again. Diane Abbott MP is the only candidate who has called for it to be scrapped outright.

Will Des Browne’s statement today signal a shift in Labour’s stance on Trident?

Read the full article here.

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About the author
Sunny Hundal is editor of LC. Also: on Twitter, at Pickled Politics and Guardian CIF.
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Reader comments


So why didn’t Labour choose do something about Trident in the 13 years in which they were in power? Why didn’t Des Browne speak up whilst he was defence minister?

It’s a really terrible form to pretend that the world suddenly changed to such an extent that all action (and inaction) on the part of the government prior to the event becomes excusable…

It is obvious that Trident should be reviewed. To me, it is obvious that it should be scrapped. That Labour failed to make the call – and that former ministers are now crying about it – seems somewhat ridiculous.

Trident has two aspects.

First there is the submarine. From a strategic point of view nuclear subs are very important. Diesel subs are just plain noisy, but nuclear subs are extremely quiet. In fact so quiet that in 2009 a UK and a French sub collided. Imagine that: two 150m craft got close enough to each other to collide. Defence planners like this ability. Yes, it is important for a craft containing the nuclear deterrent, but it is also important for a craft to get close to surface ships (the Belgrano was sunk by the Churchill-class nuclear-powered submarine HMS Conqueror), or in territorial waters. A nuclear sub does not have to carry a nuclear deterrent: the Astute class.

The other aspect is the nuclear deterrent. It is arguable that the UK no longer needs an independent deterrent. After all, if the UK is threatened with a nuclear strike then so is France and so it the US. The nuclear deterrent is an expensive payment for a seat at the top table: our permanent seat on the UN security council is guaranteed by our possession of a nuclear deterrent.

Interestingly Cameron seems intent on radical changes in foreign policy. His rhetoric in the US last week, referring to the UK as being the “junior partner” was very non-top table. And his preferred new “special relationship” partner (India) is not on the top table either. Perhaps Cameron’s big contribution to world politics will be to make the UN Security Council irrelevant through a return to bi-partisan defence treaties? If we no longer need a seat at the top table, then we no longer need the nuclear deterrent, and since Trident is designed as a system to carry the nuclear deterrent, then we do not need Trident.

Like the Bretton Woods Agreement, the UN Security Council is so very post-WWII, so very Cold War, and no longer relevant in the 21st century.

If we get rid of Trident it should be because our defence needs have changed and not because of budgetary considerations. It is a long time until next March but even on the OBR rather pessimistic forecasts planned borrowing is heading for at least a 10 billion undershoot. If the economy continues to improve the undershoot will be much higher. Although it would still be financing through borrowing this years undershoot could just about pay for Trident. Whether we want it is another matter.

Sadly like most New Labour types Des Brown wants to change his opinion but not disown his past and admit any error and hence thought on the subject. Thus he says the world has changed a great deal in 3 years…. From the PoV of Trident it’s hard to argue anything much has changed since 1995 and even before.

As we saw shallow ideology less 3rd way thinking descended to what we saw in the noughties. Marketing one liners and rhetoric led policy. Thus law and order policies got more asinine as they sought to be Tough. Slogans wagged the policy creation.

Now Ed M and others are throwing pledges we on the left like for our votes using non sequitur logic like Des Brown’s to justify that change in position should we be keen to endorse them?

My view is we need to hear much more from them. We need to hear policies and ethos not rhetoric we agree with as we started there before. Should we just accept Labour people who orientate their one liners and rhetoric at us now they need out votes?

Labour’s not credible in my opinion without more depth.

“the world has changed since we made our original renewal decision”

It’s well worth rewatching the Grand Design episode of Yes, Prime Minister. Almost all of the points made on both sides of the argument could be and are made now (and this is coming from before the Berlin Wall came down). Nothing much has changed about the Trident argument in twenty years except the price tag.

From the PoV of Trident it’s hard to argue anything much has changed since 1995 and even before.

Really? Not even 9/11 or the rise of the Taliban? That’s some bizarre reading of history.

If we want a war against a state with an army then a nuclear weapon is the cheapest way to win that war.

If we want to win a war against Sweden then the cheapest way to do so is to nuke them. Bosh, Stockholm is ash. In this way, trident is good value for money.

If we want to beat insurgents then trident is a drain on resources which could be put into troops on the ground. In this way, trident is bad value for money.

If we have to face off against a nuclear armed state then only a nuclear weapon will deter them. Of course, it is likely that only a nuclear weapon and the uncertainty a stand-off provokes will provoke them too. In this example, the case for trident is a little more ambiguous then some assume.

Will we ever be involved in a war against a state like Sweden and be willing to nuke them? I doubt it, in fact I’d say the odds were vanishingly small but not quite negligible.

Will we be involved in a further counter insurgency. Yes. Tomorrow we will still be in Afghanistan. Will we be in a different counter insurgency in 5-15 years time? I’d say there’s a 90% likelihood that we will.

Is it worth having nuclear weapons when they could provoke and escalate a nuclear stand off? This is where things get interesting and I’m not even going to pretend I know the answer.

On balance I think we should get rid of the Trident missile system but keep the nuclear subs, at least while we have a navy we should have a navy that is efficient.

Oh, the nuclear subs are very handy, but I can’t think of a single situation where using nukes against a non-nuclear state would be condoned in the modern world. The USA got away with it against Japan, of course, but that was a long time ago.

Given the states that have, or are likely to gain, nuclear weapons, MAD no longer stands as a credible justification.

9. Charlieman

@6 Sunny: “Really? Not even 9/11 or the rise of the Taliban? That’s some bizarre reading of history.”

History is not bizarre, but horrible and familiar. In 1980, neo-fascists bombed Bologna Central station killing 85 people. I recall several similar events in London more recently; different fascists but similar actions. In 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini gained control of Iran.

The world of 1995 is as nasty and recognisable as that of today.

10. Charlieman

A quick, pertinent follow up to my previous post. In another thread, “Do the Afghanistan war logs change anything?”, I expressed my fear that Pakistan (a country with a nuclear bomb) might fall to Islamic extremists.

The thing about the cold war was that the Soviet Union was run by cold, rational Marxists. They were atheists who did not believe in an after life.

That, Sunny, is the difference between now and Kruschev banging his shoe. It is possible that future religious fundamentalists take ownership of nuclear weapons and point them at us decadents. Would pointing missiles back affect their decisions? How many rational people are there in a fundamentalist government?

The thing about the cold war was that the Soviet Union was run by cold, rational Marxists.

As someone who lived in India for a while, and has spent quite a while reading into the stand-offs between India and Pakistan – this really is a pile of horseshit.

And for many reasons. Most of the Pakistan’s military elite is quite secular.

Indians also believe in afterlife but that doesn’t mean they’re not rational about these decisions.

There is lots of cold calculations going on otherwise you’d have seen a nuclear holocaust in South Asia ages ago when both countries tested their nukes successfully.

The world of 1995 is as nasty and recognisable as that of today.

That still doesn’t contradict my point that 9/11 was a watershed too.

Hum, I’m not sure the 1995 argument is getting us anywhere. I don’t think it’s stretching a point to say that the most immediately pertinent change between 2007 and today is that Des Browne is no longer a defence minister.

The thing about the cold war was that the Soviet Union was run by cold, rational Marxists. They were atheists who did not believe in an after life.

That, Sunny, is the difference between now and Kruschev banging his shoe. It is possible that future religious fundamentalists take ownership of nuclear weapons and point them at us decadents. Would pointing missiles back affect their decisions? How many rational people are there in a fundamentalist government?

This is quite interesting from a history or political thought perspective actually! Stop reading now if you want something on topic, but carry on if you are curious.

The dominant International Relations paradigm for a long time was (and maybe still is) Realism. This seems to be what you’re referring to when you say “rational people in a fundamentalist government.” i.e:

States are actors within a system of anarchy, i.e. there is no authority above them; they act to secure their existence, they do not know what other states have got planned so must be risk adverse (i.e. pre-emptive possibly nuclear war).

This view was challenged and perhaps fatally undermined by one event which broke the realist mould. what looked from the point of view like “irrational” behaviour. Yep, the collapse of the Soviet Union. By choosing to disintegrate rather than go out fighting it broke most rules of the realist handbook. So appealing to commies states being more rational than fundamentalist states isn’t really going to work here.

If you look at states like Iran they are masters of brinkmanship and realist foreign policy. Religion doesn’t make realism obsolete, rationalism helped do that. You need a more fundamental critique than “Muslims are a bit crazy” to justify the difference between the Soviet Union, Sweden, the UK and a taliban controlled Pakistan.

14. Charlieman

@11 Sunny Hundal:

You are assuming that India, Pakistan and any other external agitator act as rationally as they have in the past. We should not take that for granted.

Some Hindu Nationalists in India have chosen to become conventional politicians; others have not. In Pakistan, a presidential candidate was assassinated in a fashion that would be unbelievable in the western world. Some good things happen and some bad ones.

You correctly observe that NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan challenges Indo-Pak relations. Politically and mortally, NATO troops are in a shit position.

9/11 was not a watershed. It was a freak terrorist event and the perpetrators had no idea of the consequences; they had no idea that flying a plane into a building would cause that much death; investigators have spent years working out what happened.

I would say the world’s dominant international relations paradigm is the same as it has been for centuries and it is still ‘ power projection ‘. Wiki defines power projection as an ability

‘ to intimidate other nations and implement policy by means of force, or the threat thereof, in an area distant from its own territory. This ability is a crucial element of a state’s power in international relations. Any state able to direct its military forces outside the limited bounds of its territory might be said to have some level of power projection capability, but the term itself is used most frequently in reference to militaries with a worldwide reach (or at least significantly broader than a state’s immediate area).

China and India developing and using naval power off the coast of Somalia is a contemporary example of power projection. When the Imperial Russian Navy was defeated by Japan in the Pacific 1904-06, the defeat diminished Russia also in Europe because the Europeans seen them as being unable to conduct warfare outwith their borders. In diplomatic relations they had no currency.

If you can’t present power outside your borders you have no power in present day international relations. Now we might not like that state of affairs and wish to opt out from having nuclear weapons. However, there is no doubt it would diminish us and see us leave the top table. That probably is something many people would welcome. Obviously a nuclear deterrent is useless for fighting often stateless terrorists. However, military power is still currency in international diplomacy.

“From the PoV of Trident it’s hard to argue anything much has changed since 1995 and even before.

Really? Not even 9/11 or the rise of the Taliban? That’s some bizarre reading of history.”

Classic anti intellectual trick take part of an argument and make a rhetorical truism without making it relevant and throw in an insult. (v Labour?)

Even in its own terms a poor rebuttal with 2 events that were around in 1995 – the desire for suicide attacks on US (original liquid bomb plots from Philippines (may have been somewhere else), original attack on WTC) and the growing death cult of the Taleban/Islamic extremists which we knew about from at least 1980 when the west supported it however indirectly.

Also from memory (and sure missing many)
1983 Beirut 299 French and Septics killed in suicide bombing
2000 USS Cole attacked.

“The world of 1995 is as nasty and recognisable as that of today.

That still doesn’t contradict my point that 9/11 was a watershed too.”

Socratean. Was it a pertinent watershed for this debate? As regards the need for a 24/7 sea launched first strike capable nuclear deterrent neither event is on the radar. Except to say it has not deterred anyone so far!

Indeed in terms of enemies I could have used 1982/3 Falklands and how great was this 24/7 deterrent?

I’d love to know how you view Taleban/9-11 changing anything strictly from the PoV of Trident? Of a 24/7 first strike capable independent submarine force clearly aimed at being a deterrent to a nation with the same capability. .

Indeed even if the Taleban over ran Pakistan and got a few missiles or bombs that might reach India/Iran would that change Britain’s individual needs? That is a watershed to hopefully never come.

Indeed even if the Taleban over ran Pakistan and got a few missiles or bombs that might reach India/Iran would that change Britain’s individual needs? That is a watershed to hopefully never come. We would be just as well served with a Vulcan/Tornado and a Bomb.

Jonathan – I’m not sure what you’re arguing but I’m certainly not a fan of Trident. I’m merely pointing out that 9/11 was still a big event in terms of changing geo-political trajectories and priorities. The attack on USS cole doesn’t come close. Maybe the attack by Timothy McVeigh does.

Richard – Now we might not like that state of affairs and wish to opt out from having nuclear weapons. However, there is no doubt it would diminish us and see us leave the top table

I accept that point, but I’m not arguing we completely forgoe any sort of nuclear capability and expertise. It’s just not economically and militarily useful. We could expand conventional weapons spending and still punch according to our weight on peacekeeping etc.

Charlieman: You are assuming that India, Pakistan and any other external agitator act as rationally as they have in the past. We should not take that for granted.

I’m not. But the view that they’re irrational simply because they’re religious is fallacious.

In Pakistan, a presidential candidate was assassinated in a fashion that would be unbelievable in the western world

The main difference is that security for such candidates is much stronger in the west – doesn’t mean there aren’t people out there willing to do the job. Plenty of people tried to kill Obama.

/11 was not a watershed. It was a freak terrorist event and the perpetrators had no idea of the consequences

The consequences determine how much of a watershed it was.

@15 Richard W

“If you can’t present power outside your borders you have no power in present day international relations. ….”

This is probably just as strong an argument AGAINST Trident as there is, i.e. the UK should recognise that an independent nuclear deterrent represents an atavistic delusion of imperial greatness. The cost is prohibitive, in reality it does little to differentiate the UK from other non-nuclear states of comparable size, and it risks crippling our conventional forces.

Even if the Cold War and fear of US isolationism provided some rationale for British or French nuclear deterrents, those days are gone. The money spent on Trident would be far better spent on force projection capabilities such as the new aircraft carriers, more helicopters, better (and more) equipment of many sorts for personnel (whether body armour, vehicles, comms etc, etc) and of course better pay, conditions and housing for service personnel, and better care and pensions for ex-service personnel.

All of these would do much more to ensure our security and combat the actual threats to our security in a post Cold War world.

@19 Sooty

Dr Strangelove….. is that you?

The Russian point is arguable. It is quite possible they would have taken the same action whatever the outcome of the Russo-Japanese War. There was (and in some ways still is) a strong bond between Russia and Serbia. The political situation in Europe would probably have resulted in much the same outcome in 1914 even if Russia had beaten the Japanese in 1905.


Reactions: Twitter, blogs
  1. Liberal Conspiracy

    Former Labour defence minister: We should review Trident http://bit.ly/9Pp4JM

  2. TheBiPolarBearMD

    RT @libcon: Former Labour defence minister: We should review Trident http://bit.ly/9Pp4JM

  3. Stephen Brown

    RT @libcon: Former Labour defence minister: We should review Trident http://bit.ly/9Pp4JM

  4. Tom Stubbs

    RT @libcon: Former Labour defence minister: We should review Trident http://bit.ly/9Pp4JM

  5. sunny hundal

    Isn't this big news? RT @libcon: Former defence minister Des Browne: We should review Trident http://bit.ly/9Pp4JM

  6. Hannah McFaull

    RT @libcon: Former Labour defence minister: We should review Trident http://bit.ly/9Pp4JM

  7. Stephen Dowson

    Former Labour defence minister: We should review Trident http://bit.ly/9Pp4JM (via @libcon) BIT BLOODY LATE!

  8. Joss Garman

    RT @sunny_hundal: Isn't this big news? RT @libcon: Former defence minister Des Browne: We should review Trident http://bit.ly/9Pp4JM

  9. David Ritter

    Former defence minister Des Browne: we should review #trident http://bit.ly/9Pp4JM About time too.

  10. Nadia

    RT @sunny_hundal: Isn't this big news? RT @libcon: Former defence minister Des Browne: We should review Trident http://bit.ly/9Pp4JM

  11. Butter Not Guns

    RT @sunny_hundal: Isn't this big news? RT @libcon: Former defence minister Des Browne: We should review Trident http://bit.ly/9Pp4JM





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