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 391.

    Lot's of pro-nuclear weapons people like to try and claim that we would loose our seat on the security council without trident or something similar. We wouldn't: A. We would still have a nuclear arsenal, and B, it's a PERMANENT seat, do you know what that means? It means we can't be removed, we may have go the seat based on a nuclear arsenal, we we don't need one to keep it. Try Again..

  • rate this

    Comment number 390.

    North Korea and Pakistan now have nuclear weapons; Iran is on its way to getting one. China and Russia are becoming more assertive and nationalistic. The world is not becoming safer. Is now really the time to be discussing the downgrading of our independent nuclear deterrence? It's just madness that this is even being raised as a serious possibility.

  • rate this

    Comment number 389.

    #376: "For these weapons to act as a deterrent we have to support their use. That requires us to support mass indiscriminate killing on an unimaginable scale."

    So, you're happy for an enemy to attack the UK with no fear of response? Or, indeed, to risk the lives of millions in a conventional war (as would have been the case had the US not used nuclear weapons in 1945)?

  • Comment number 388.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 387.


    focus on removing the tyranny of 5 permanent UN Security Council memberships_
    within a fortnight of their abolition UK government ministers will ALL abandon our outmoded nuclear deterrent _ and that is a guarantee!

  • rate this

    Comment number 386.

    There is so many arguments against doinf this money/effectivness etc. Worst case scenario if we were to be 'nuked' as we imagine it form those films we have seen. Do we 'nuke' back is that it? is that the thought behind it? It's use as a deterrent is overrated. We have enemies who kill themselves killing others. If we disarm and are not a threat ourselves then we are more likely to see peace.

  • rate this

    Comment number 385.

    82. British Resident

    I could imagine it in 2030. Robot infantry packing hypersonic canons & missiles. I hope our nation has the wherewithal.

  • rate this

    Comment number 384.

    I don't understand how they've come to the figure of £20billion over the lifetime of the system. It currently costs 5% of £34billion or £1.7billion per year, and a like for like system will be in service for a minimum of 32 years (2028-2060, not including the likely delays as BAe are involved). That's £54.4billion. Factor in building the boats, renting missiles, new warheads etc. Nonsense!

  • rate this

    Comment number 383.

    lets spend billions on trident and HS2 and lets make the poorest and lest able of our citizens depend on food banks and live on a pittance . you can judge a civilisation on the way it treats the less able and under this government we are not civilised

  • rate this

    Comment number 382.

    All the warmongering experts keep saying the future threat is from rogue states and terrorists. Neither of which will in any way be deterred from action by a couple of put-put submarines. Clearly another good waste of money. It would be refreshing if one day the Government could fine a productive use for all the money it keeps taking off me.

  • rate this

    Comment number 381.

    .. our 4 ships have a deterrent aspect that apparently gives us a punch at the UN security Council, although in a practical sense its unnecessary given that the US do it all for us. Hence why the Lib dems feel that a cut down version that saves us money would be preferable. I have to agree actually - we should go for a 'lite' nuclear force that is cheaper and home grown. it makes no odds..

  • rate this

    Comment number 380.

    What do we want?
    A decent Health Service?
    Decent education for future generations?

    Or a white elephant that costs us billions and adds absolutely no value to the wealth of the nation?

    At what point does a weapon of mass destruction become a sovereign nuclear deterrent?

  • rate this

    Comment number 379.


  • rate this

    Comment number 378.

    I bet your house has got locks on the doors "just in case you need them sometime in the future when someone might threaten you rob you".

  • rate this

    Comment number 377.

    371. Paul
    Here are some reasons to not trust the USA:
    - Gary Mckinnon's bogus charges for hacking.

    McKinnon did exactly what the US accused him of. His justification was that he was looking for UFOs. With your obvious love of the US I wonder how you'd react when they refuse to extradite a computer geek who'd done millions worth of damage to one of our networks.

  • rate this

    Comment number 376.

    For these weapons to act as a deterrent we have to support their use. That requires us to support mass indiscriminate killing on an unimaginable scale. Can we do so and retain any sense of our own humanity?

  • rate this

    Comment number 375.

    We would never use them so whats the point in having them. There are no situations that could arise where we as a nation would use a nuclear weapon on another country. Any prime minister that authorised there use would surely be assasinated and our nation excommunicated by the rest of the world.

    The nuclear threat has really become an empty threat, scrap it and invest in public services.

  • rate this

    Comment number 374.

    #364: "I think its more likely Israel will do the attacking"

    There is no justification, other than unreasoning prejudice, for such a comment. Israel's history is of the need to defend itself against unprovoked attacks from neighbouring countries and the terrorists that those countries support. Are any other countries under constant attack or threat of attack as Israel is?

  • rate this

    Comment number 373.

    It amazes me that the UK will spend billions of the taxpayers money on nuclear weapons just so the politicians and the generals can say "We've got them just in case we need them sometime in the future when some country might threaten us with annihilation" when they spend next to nothing on protecting us from meteorite impacts which I is more likely to happen than Trident being used in anger.

  • rate this

    Comment number 372.

    On the issue of cheaper alternatives.

    The advantage of Trident is that our subs are out in the ocean and essentially untouchable by a nuclear first strike.

    The cheaper option of having nuclear weapons on mainland bases makes them a target in a nuclear exchange for a pre-emptive strike.

    We're not a huge country. If we have to have nukes, it's Trident or nothing.

    No half measures.


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