Wednesday, October 27, 2010
A silver lining?
Climate of austerity creates window of opportunity for nuclear disarmament
Last week, the United Kingdom was under the spell of the coalition government’s Comprehensive Spending Review, which unveiled the biggest cuts in public expenditure in decades. Announced by Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne in the House of Commons last Thursday, the Spending Review proposes a £81bn ($127bn) cut in public spending over four years. These measures have been both applauded as necessary to tackle Britain’s deficit and condemned as leading the country into a double-dip recession. Time will tell where the truth lies.
What is certain is that departments will undergo cuts averaging 25%. Although substantially less, the 8% cuts (or £4.7bn) that the Ministry of Defence (MoD) faces still translates into 42,000 service personnel and civil servants losing their jobs over the next five years and the cancellation of high-profile equipment.
A day ahead of the Spending Review, Prime Minister David Cameron presented in the House of Commons his government’s Strategic Defence and Security Review to clarify the strategy behind the MoD cuts. The first wide-ranging analysis of British defence spending since 1998, the strategy takes some steps toward recognizing Britain’s diminished standing in the current world order and associated security and military requirements. For example, it makes clear that the UK will not be able to mount large scale operations like those in Iraq and Afghanistan for at least a decade and emphasizes the importance of conflict prevention as opposed to military intervention. Unfortunately, however, it does not go far enough in shifting resources accordingly. It still envisions the UK as a global player and proudly portrays the country as “punching above its weight” in conventional military terms. Fortunately, it seems the review process has opened the door to allowing more realism in further assessments of Britain’s defence policy and force structures.
Although many of us like to see defence spending significantly curbed, the loss of jobs it often entails is nothing to rejoice over. A more welcome aspect of the Strategic Defence and Security Review is its implications for the UK’s Trident submarine-based nuclear-missile system. They come twofold.
First of all, the decision whether or not to replace the existing fleet of four Trident nuclear missile submarines will be pushed back to after the next general election, due in 2015. Devised by the former Labour administration, the renewal plan is estimated to cost £20bn, although some NGOs have warned it would cost four to five times that figure. The life of the Vanguard-class submarines will be extended so that the first replacement submarine will not be needed until 2028.
Secondly, the number of warheads aboard each submarine will be reduced from 48 to 40, the total number of operationally available nuclear warheads reduced from fewer than 160 to no more than 120, and the UK's nuclear weapons stockpile set at a maximum of 180–a cut of 25%. Cameron added that this number will allow the UK to have continuous at-sea deterrence.
These measures will save around £1.2bn and defer a further £2bn of spending over the next ten years.
The announcement did not sit well with everybody. Labour politician and shadow Defence Minister Kevan Jones argued that the move is “playing fast and loose with the nuclear deterrent in a way that is reckless.” “What is shocking is that this is clearly designed as some form of appeasement of the Liberal Democrats who are, and have always been covert unilateralists,” a former Conservative defence spokesman added.
It is true that within the coalition, the future of Trident has been a key issue between the Conservative Party and the Liberal Democrats. While the former has backed the Trident replacement programme, the latter has called for scrapping the Trident system, arguing it is too expensive and unnecessary. Several former senior military officers have backed the Lib Dem position.
No doubt, the move to delay the decision on Trident renewal and cut 25% of Britain’s stockpile of nuclear weapons should partially be attributed to the efforts of the Liberal Democrats in the coalition government. Yet, the decisive factor in arriving at this decision has been Britain’s current economic climate. The Trident delay and cuts are predominantly the result of a cost saving exercise–not moral reasoning or a shift in mindset with regard to strategic security. This is not necessarily a bad thing. It does, however, say something about what we might expect five years from now, when Britain will inevitably have to decide whether it will remain a nuclear weapon state.
Two divergent scenarios–with a wide realm of alternatives between them–come to mind.
In the first, the British economy improves considerably, bringing prosperity to its citizens and making both the public and policy-makers less sensitive to public expenditure allocations. With the nation’s public finances in order, and people not hit by austerity measures, the issue of whether or not to renew Trident could slip to the back of people’s minds, leaving the path clear for the new Government to push through with Trident renewal. Trident proponents are no doubt hoping on this scenario to come true.
Alternatively, in the second scenario, Liberal Democrats keep making the case for nuclear disarmament within the coalition by emphasizing that the Trident system does serve the UK’s defence or security needs–which even former Prime-Minister Tony Blair now acknowledges–and that these weapons are illegal under international humanitarian law and thus morally indefensible. Simultaneously, like-minded parliamentarians from across the political spectrum will apply pressure by scrutinizing government policy and taking legislative action. If done effectively this will keep Britain’s nuclear policy under review and make advocating Trident renewal the unfashionable stance come next election season. By making it a central issue of the election, voters will have the chance to vote into power a government that reflects the popular opinion that Trident is an expensive irrelevance to Britain’s security.
A third, rather eccentric scenario, is worth mentioning. Proving that the cost saving bottom-line truly widens the realm of possibilities, an unlikely nuclear alliance seems to be in the making. Early November, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime-Minister David Cameron will meet in London to explore the possibility of nuclear cooperation between the two countries. The summit comes at a time when military spending in both countries face severe reductions. The relationship has certainly come a long way since Admiral Nelson advised young sailors to “hate the French as you hate the Devil,” and former French President Clemenceau declared a century later that “English is just badly pronounced French.”
Although I welcome the government’s austerity measures’ implications for the Trident system, it does not make for sustainable nuclear disarmament. Following its reasoning further, where would it end? A double-dip recession will slice another 25% of the nuclear arsenal? Britain’s bankruptcy will get rid of it entirely?
Instead the Trident discussion should take into account all aspects of maintaining nuclear capability–not just the price-tag it bears. Next to it being a waste of human and financial resources, retaining nuclear weapons is also immoral, illegal and counterproductive to Britain’s real security needs. Come next general election, I hope the public and political debate will appreciate the issue’s full scope.
Until then, the current Trident delay and cuts represent a silver lining to the dark economic cloud still hovering over us.