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 171.

    If we English are serious about running a nuclear programme truly independent from the US, we should accept and come to terms with the fact that we can't afford it as it stands without significant changes.

    Greater military integration with France seems like a must.

  • rate this

    Comment number 170.

    It's the 21st century and about time someone took a principled stance on this issue.

    How can we expect to preach to other countries seeking to build their own nuclear deterrent when we refuse to give up our own WMD's?

    Yes, it is a small risk. But the alternative, where we risk a nuclear accident or an attack by a rogue nuclear state wanting first strike advantage is seven riskier.

  • rate this

    Comment number 169.

    Trident, the only long term unemployed thing this government and their right wing cheerleaders are keen to spend money on.

  • rate this

    Comment number 168.


    "You are aware to Russian airforce still sends bombers to test our air defences?"

    Not that old chestnut? Yes I am aware of that and aware that our planes constantly enjoy intercepting them and that the US enjoys spying on all of us. I do wish some people would grow up and stop getting exited when they google photos of Russian pilots waving to RAF pilots.

  • rate this

    Comment number 167.

    It is interesting how "up"-rating a comment causes a minus quantity to appear...but only if it is to endorse an anti-nuke comment.

  • rate this

    Comment number 166.

    @20. "anachronism from an age where the defence requirements were totally different to what they are today!" - North Korea, Iran (soon), Pakistan - 3 mad dog states armed to the teeth and looking for trouble. Russia has recently invaded Georgia and lent on the Ukraine ... different era? I beg to differ.

  • rate this

    Comment number 165.

    Like many have already said, it's better to have it and not need it...

    It is impossible to know what the future may bring, so having an independant deterrent, however distastful it may seem, is a must. The cost isn't that so high when you consider what is squandered elsewhere.

  • rate this

    Comment number 164.

    You obviously didn't serve at the same time I did and whilst I am in favour of a submarine seagoing system I am not in favour of trident your comment about being independently fired is true however mine about missile storage and maintenance is as well so great for a limited strike not much good against a serious opponent.

  • rate this

    Comment number 163.

    We don't have any natural resources, unless those attacking know about extracting large amount of shale gas that we don’t.
    They would have to go through most of Europe to get here, we would be last on the list. We could never launch a nuclear attack against any other country, for any reason. More beneficial to pay somebody else a fraction of the cost (USA) to form a nuclear weapons agreement.

  • rate this

    Comment number 162.

    Can we bring in a beard tax - say £10 per inch? With the number beardy weirdies sneaking around these days we'd be able to cover the cost in no time.

  • rate this

    Comment number 161.

    Many major countries in the world do not have or need nuclear weapons. Likewise there is no reason for the UK to have them now, especially if we stop interfering in the affairs of other countries and stop trying to force our values and political opinions on them.

  • rate this

    Comment number 160.

    Nuclear weapons for the UK have the same purpose as a red sports car, comb-over hair and trophy mistress for a middle-aged man: they make you think you are virile and in still in the game when in fact you're not. The big difference is that in the latter case the deluded individual pays for the deception whereas in the former case we all pay.

  • rate this

    Comment number 159.

    We reduced our arms in the 1930's, the mood was very anti-war, pacifist etc following WW1. Few thought Hitler was a threat. History shows it was touch and go at the start of the war, we had dissarmed too much. History is there to learn from.

  • rate this

    Comment number 158.

    110.Joe Black
    14 Minutes ago

    But we never had a referendum on joining NATO - isn't it about time we had a referendum as to whether we want to stay in ?

  • rate this

    Comment number 157.

    Just had a chuckle at the numbers. Britain has 4 Trident nuclear submarines....and only ONE of those is armed and at sea..hahahahaha

    That is pathetic by any standards hahahaha......come on......that is about as effective as a chocolate fireguard!! The yanks have loads and we have ONE at sea.

    Who is in charge of the ONE sub at sea? Frank Spencer?

    Made my day reading that lol

  • rate this

    Comment number 156.

    No one has mentioned the cost of replacing Trident if Scotland votes to become independent and kicks Trident out of the Clyde

  • rate this

    Comment number 155.

    Wouldn't it be better to build defence systems that negate the use of nuclear weapons?

    An attack may not come from a nation state you can label as the enemy and retaliate against, in which case what use is a deterrent?

  • rate this

    Comment number 154.

    A replacement for Trident would simply be a "benefits" payment by the Tories to their chums in the arms industry in the same way that HS2 is a benefits payment to the building industry. Add that to their association to the cigarette industry (ban e-cigarettes as they are harming the profits of BAT) and whiff of hypocrisy becomes the stench of corruption.

  • rate this

    Comment number 153.

    There is no evidence even that Trident is/was a deterrent. The fact that there has been no nuclear war is merely correlation not causation. It seems absolutely pointless for a small island off the coast of France to possess an independent arsenal of lethal weapons which, if ever used, could cause untold damage for generations. Much better use of the money could be made.

  • rate this

    Comment number 152.

    Imagining that we were important and influential was a fantasy when we ordered Polaris. It was even more pathetic and fanciful when we ordered Trident. We need to get a grip of the post-colonial and post-cold-war realities and decide on foreign and defence policies that are realistic and practical for a little second-division west-European former colonial power with serious self-worth issues.


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