What is the point of Britain’s nuclear deterrent? If it is an insurance policy it is a remarkably expensive one that might not, in any case, ever be honoured. I suspect that, more importantly, retaining an independent [sic] nuclear capability is a psychological crutch for politicians who fear that leaving the nuclear club would somehow make it harder for Britain to remain a member of the Top Nation club.
And perhaps it would. This is not necessarily a trivial thing. It would change the way we think of ourselves and might, in some sense, be considered an admission of defeat or as some kind of retreat. No Prime Minister wants to be the guy remembered as that guy and this, plus other institutional pressures helps make the case for replacing Trident.
But at what cost? Or, to put it another way, is Trident worth more than our conventional military capability? Would the money spent on Trident be better spent elsewhere in the MoD? Now perhaps this is a false choice but it’s one that seems to be being asked elsewhere too.
Consider this passage from a recent New York Times article bemoaning – as has become traditional – europe’s declining defence budgets:
A senior American official said that Washington was eager for partnership in the Middle East and Asia, but that “Europe’s decision to abdicate on defense spending increasingly means it can’t take care of itself, and it can’t be a valuable partner to us.”
While the United States would like to be able to rely more on its European allies, many experts doubt that even the strongest among them, Britain and France, could carry out their part of another Libya operation now, and certainly not in a few years. Both are struggling to maintain their own nuclear deterrents as well as mobile, modern armed forces. The situation in Britain is so bad that American officials are quietly urging it to drop its expensive nuclear deterrent.
“Either they can be a nuclear power and nothing else or a real military partner,” a senior American official said.
Doubtless the MoD would dispute this view. Nevertheless, it is quite something if the Americans really are suggesting* we spend scarce resources on something more useful than replacing Trident. That doesn’t mean that the Americans should determine British policy but it is, if you like, another indication that defence cuts have already gone too far or, if you prefer, that we need to rethink what we mean by defence and how we intend to fund it.
Of course, from the American perspective Trident serves no useful purpose whatsoever whereas other things upon which Britain could usefully spend the cash presently earmarked for Trident do matter to the Americans or would, that is to say, be useful to them. And to NATO.
*They may not be! The NYT could be wrong or at least guilty of over-egging this particular pudding.