Lib Dems accuse Tories of trying to 'rubbish' Trident report


Lib Dem Danny Alexander: "It's fair to say that the two parties in government have very different approaches to this issue"

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The coalition parties are at odds after a Lib Dem-prompted government report set out options for replacing the UK's Trident nuclear weapons system.

The Lib Dems favour reducing the number of Vanguard submarines from four now to three, saying the existing system was designed for the Cold War era.

Defence Secretary Philip Hammond said it would be "naive or reckless" not to have a like-for-like replacement.

But Lib Dem Danny Alexander accused him of trying to "rubbish the report".

A final decision on the issue is to be made in 2016, after the next election.

The UK has had a continuous-at-sea nuclear weapons system, with at least one submarine on patrol at any given time, for more than 40 years and has used the Trident system since the early 1990s.

While the government remains committed to Trident, the coalition partners agreed to undertake a review amid disagreements over future capability and cost.

The review makes no recommendations but set outs a range of options.

Its main findings are:

  • There are alternatives to the current posture which would enable the UK to inflict "significant damage" and deter aggressors
  • Submarines could potentially be operated at "reduced readiness" when threat levels are lower
  • A continuous-at-sea presence is the most "resilient" posture and guarantees the quickest response
  • Land and air-based delivery systems effectively ruled out
  • An entirely new system, using cruise rather than ballistic missiles, would be more expensive than renewing Trident
Trident graphic showing range of missiles, comparing size with 747 and explaining there are four submarines, one is at sea, one is undergoing maintenance and two are in port/training.

The UK's current four-submarine fleet will reach the end of its lifespan in the 2020s and one of the main arguments surrounds how many "successor" submarines - which take 17 years to build - should be commissioned.


The Trident Alternatives Review was never going to settle the debate about the future of Britain's nuclear deterrent.

The review asked three key questions. The first two were: Are there credible alternatives to a submarine-based deterrent? Are there credible submarine-based alternatives to the current proposal - such as modifying the Astute submarines?

In both cases the answer appears to be no. Basing nuclear missile silos on land was never really a starter. Too controversial and too easy to target. And the review appears to conclude that modifying the Astute submarines to carry nuclear cruise missiles would be both more expensive and less effective.

The one hope for the Liberal Democrats is in the last question: Are there alternative nuclear postures, such as a non-continuous at-sea deterrent?

For the Conservatives the answer is still no. Philip Hammond says it would be like having a part time deterrent. He wants a like-for-like replacement.

But the Liberal Democrats argue you could save billions of pounds by having two submarines instead of four. There will be clear blue water between the two parties before the next election.

The report suggests four boats would be required to maintain a continuous-at-sea presence and a smaller fleet would risk "multiple unplanned breaks" in 24-hour patrolling and could affect the UK's ability to respond in crises.

It says the UK could still operate a nuclear weapons system with three or even two boats but that would depend on "political confidence" that there was no chance of an unexpected pre-emptive attack and more regular patrols could be reconstituted.

But Mr Hammond told the BBC that nuclear submarines were the "most complex man-made object on earth" and reducing the numbers available would leave the UK extremely "vulnerable".

"Just because we do not perceive an immediate threat today, does not mean there would not be a threat over the 60-year odd time horizon we are looking at," he said.

"The truth is, at the end of the day, we can have continuous-at-sea nuclear deterrents or we can have a part-time deterrent. The part-time deterrent will save us only trivial sums of money."

But Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander accused Mr Hammond of trying to "rubbish the report" and said his Conservatives colleagues "were worried about losing the argument".

'Nuclear ladder'

The UK's nuclear policy had "not moved on very much since the end of the Cold War", he said, and the review showed there were "credible alternatives" to the current arrangements.


  • 2007: MPs approve plans for renewal in Commons vote. "Concept phase" launched to assess future submarine designs and consider value for money of project
  • 2010: Defence review decides to delay final decision on renewal to 2016
  • 2011: "Initial Gate" procurement phase to begin. Some building materials and components of nuclear propulsion system to be purchased over five years
  • 2016: "Main Gate" decision due to be taken. Submarine design and missile component contracts to be finalised
  • 2028: First replacement submarine to be delivered

"We can move on by ending 24-hour patrols when we don't need them and buying fewer submarines," he said.

"That way we can move down the ladder of disarmament as a country without compromising our national security."

Critics have questioned whether the UK can continue to pay for Trident in its current form. The government estimates renewal costs will be between £15bn and £20bn but anti-nuclear campaigners say the figure will be much higher.

Mr Alexander said £4bn would be saved in the medium to long term from moving to three submarines but the Ministry of Defence says the current cost of operating the Trident fleet is about 5% of the annual £34bn defence budget.

'In denial'

Parliament will debate the findings of the report on Wednesday.

Labour said it remained committed to maintaining the "minimum credible independent nuclear deterrent" and it believed that was best delivered through a continuous-at-sea submarine presence.

"It would require a substantial body of evidence for us to change that but this review does not appear to offer such evidence," shadow defence secretary Jim Murphy said.

The SNP, which has vowed to remove nuclear weapons from Scottish soil if it wins an independence referendum next year, said the review was "not worth the paper it is written on".

"The Westminster establishment seem to have forgotten that Trident is based in Scotland, and neither the people nor parliament of Scotland want it here," said its Westminster leader Angus Robertson.

"This review is in denial, and panders to the vanity of the Westminster system which wants to keep this out-dated, dangerous arsenal of nuclear weapons on the Clyde."


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  • rate this

    Comment number 91.

    A couple of nukes would probably do this country the world of good!

  • rate this

    Comment number 90.

    It is intriguing that many Britons think this way (disband) at a time when Russia is bringing in new classes of nuclear-powered/nuclear-armed subs, Borei and Yasen, one carrying ballistic, the other (nuclear option) cruise missiles. Three submarines in these two classes are to launch this year. One does presume that British politicians are not oblivious...

  • rate this

    Comment number 89.

    I think it's fairly obvious that this is all going to go ahead regardless of any public opinion so the real saving that could be made was that waste of money review that was performed. I imagine it cost over a million

  • rate this

    Comment number 88.

    When you think £10bn was spent on the Olympic Games (basically just a fun event) why the fuss over the cost? If it is abolished, these things take years / decades to develop. Replacing it, when the need occurs, is not a possibility.

  • rate this

    Comment number 87.

    There's no point in saying 'put the money in the nhs'. The nhs is a bottomless pit, the more you give it, the more it takes. And it starts doing stupid things like cosmetic surgery and sex change ops. If we only ever have one boat at sea, I don't see why we can't cut it to 2 subs, one in refit / training, one patrolling.

  • rate this

    Comment number 86.

    Any deterrent must surely match the perceived threat. So terrorism, needs to be matched by MI5/6 and other counter terrorism measures. Threats to our overseas territories will presumably be held in check by the new aircraft carriers. Nuclear threats are most likely to come from rogue states rather than from Russia or China so will they be deterred by our submarines? I really wonder about this!

  • rate this

    Comment number 85.

    I think if you're going to have a nuclear deterrent, you need to have one that works all of the time. Otherwise you're paying billions for something that an aggressor thinks might not be available.

    It would be better to have a proper debate about ditching it altogether than having a political point scoring exercise about the type.

    Who knows whether we'll ever need it. Let's hope not.

  • rate this

    Comment number 84.

    In fact just watch The Grand Design (Yes, Prime Minister) it has everything you need to know, there is a reason the deterrent plan is known as MAD

  • rate this

    Comment number 83.

    *Mr Hammond, a Conservative, said the next generation of Trident would last until the 2060s and would "protect our children and our grandchildren".*

    Instigating a nuclear winter is not my idea of protecting the future. If they'd had these to stop Ghengis Khan or Atilla we'd still be freezing in caves and fighting over who get to eat the fattest rats.

  • rate this

    Comment number 82.

    One submarine carrying a single warhead is hardly likely to deter anyone is it?

    Better to invest the money in robot soldiers which are the future.

  • rate this

    Comment number 81.

    "The Ministry of Defence says the current cost of operating the Trident fleet is about 5% of the annual £34bn defence budget."

    That 5% is a more effective deterrent to aggressors than the other 95% put together.

    Why is this even being discussed? Renew the program. One thing that unites all members of the UN Security Council?

    They all have nuclear weapons...

  • rate this

    Comment number 80.

    Another touchy-feely, be-nice-to-everyone, caring, sharing Lib Dem approach.

    In reality - wishy washy, spineless, in denial, can't stand the thought of actually having to make a decision and stand by it. Whingeing, carping, and campaigning against things from the side is so much more fun and so much easier.

  • rate this

    Comment number 79.

    To those using the "its not a deterrent" et al you've no idea if it is or it isn't.

    Average person has no idea if countries over the decades have considered taking action but have chosen not to and the government wouldn't release that information if they had it

    History's shown that todays friends can become tomorrows enemies and the same people will then demand to know why we dont have one

  • rate this

    Comment number 78.

    The first episode of Yes Prime minister gives an incredibly well explained argument as why there never was any point at all in having trident, it was only ever about keeping good trade relations with the USA and nothing to do with defence. There is a very simple, obvious flaw in the idea of mutually assured destruction - no one wins therefore no one would ever actually use it!

  • rate this

    Comment number 77.

    I support the nuclear deterrent but I do wonder in these days of cyber attacks and also having watched Homeland on TV whether one day our own deterrent may be used against us!

  • rate this

    Comment number 76.

    Is it time to realise we are not and should not want to be a "world power" ? Lets concentrate on defending our little island giving particular attention to the enemies within and use our resources to build a healthy and prosperous economy for the ordinary people of our country.

  • rate this

    Comment number 75.

    Allow me to draw your attention to Yes Prime Minister
    Sir Humphrey: [About Trident] It is the nuclear missile Harrods would sell you! What more can I say?
    Hacker: Only that it costs 15 billion pounds and we don't need it.
    Sir Humphrey: [begrudgingly] Well you could say that about anything at Harrods.
    There's another quote about why we don't need it but it is too many characters

  • rate this

    Comment number 74.

    "naive or reckless" is a deterrent we cannot afford, that sucks the blood out of our conventional forces leaving our national defence to the pointless threat of going nuclear; suicide no less!

  • rate this

    Comment number 73.

    It would be cheaper to replace the warheads with politicians & bankers & also some NHS hospital executives, people who could afflict serious detrimental consequences on any enemy & ruin a nation.

    Problem is, is there is a gluttony of such people that can be fired right back at us, best we stay friendly with Greece & Italy & especially closeness of Republic of Ireland.

  • rate this

    Comment number 72.

    Somebody just stated that Trident singles Britain out as a country not to be messed with LOL

    Such ridiculous schoolboy boastings make me belly-laugh.

    Britain is open to all and sundry (even terrorists are allowed to stay here and are known to the authorities eg Woolwich)...we have the enemy within our own shores.

    Trident isn't going to change that!!!


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