Government and Institutions

Debate – should we scrap Trident?

The question of whether Britain should keep its nuclear deterrent has been raging, on and off, since the 1970s, and was a key topic of discussion during the 2016 General Election. Although maintaining Trident remains the official policy of the UK’s two main political parties, the anti-Trident campaign attracts powerful supporters within the House of Commons. Polling suggests that public opinion on the matter is not straightforward.

Supporters argue that Britain’s potential enemies will be deterred only by the absolute certainty that a nuclear attack would be followed by nuclear retaliation. Anti-Trident campaigners, meanwhile, cite the costs – and dangers – associated with nuclear weapons, at a time of shrinking defence budgets.

In today’s debate blog, the IEA’s Chief Economist Julian Jessop and Associate Director Kate Andrews set out the economic pros and cons of scrapping Trident.

YES, argues Julian Jessop

We are used to the idea that the UK has its own nuclear deterrent. But if strategists were designing a national security portfolio from scratch, would it really include a system whose purpose is to launch a devastating retaliatory strike against civilian populations? Even without any moral qualms, would this be the best use of limited resources, given the many other demands on the defence budget? I’m unconvinced.

There are plenty of non-economic arguments both for and against Trident. Some supporters cite the status and influence that comes from being a nuclear power. However, the UK’s global prestige could actually be enhanced by abandoning an outdated deterrent, especially when the US and Russia appear to be on the brink of a new arms race.

Others cite the jobs (perhaps 30,000) that the renewal programme might support. But this is essentially a non-economic argument too, because these people could be employed to better use elsewhere, and at lower cost to the taxpayer.

I’d rather focus on the economics of the weapons system itself. The question, as ever, is whether the costs justify the expected benefits. Some argue Trident is a relatively cheap way of reducing the risk that someone launches a catastrophic strike against us. But in my view the case here is weak, for three reasons.

First, it’s not actually that cheap. The main cost will be the initial investment in the replacement of the submarines that carry the missiles, which could be as much as £40 billion. Annual running costs over the life of the programme are likely to take the bill to at least £100 billion.

This may not be a huge amount in the context of the overall public finances, especially when spread over decades. But this is still money diverted away from other priorities, even without looking beyond the defence budget. The opportunity costs could range from under-investment in cutting edge technology in fields such as cyber security and remotely-piloted aircraft, to basics such as proper protection for soldiers against improvised explosive devices, or support for veterans suffering from PTSD.

Second, the risk itself is overstated. Supporters of Trident stress that the future is certain and that we cannot know what threats we will face, or from whom. But this ‘just in case’ argument isn’t used to justify stockpiling chemical and biological weapons. What’s more, what we do know suggests that the greater risks will come from elsewhere, including non-state opponents, such as terrorist groups or insurgents, where nuclear deterrence is less relevant.

I might think differently if I lived in Israel, a country facing constant existential threats from its own neighbours. Nonetheless, we are not, and that is highly unlikely to change. How realistic is it to think that North Korea is a direct threat to us, or that it will be in the foreseeable future?

Third, if a material risk exists, to what extent do our own nuclear weapons actually represent a credible threat that reduces that risk? We have already substantially reduced our nuclear capability since the end of the Cold War, to just one submarine on continuous deployment at any one time, and it is not even clear that we would actually use it. Supporters of Trident like to think of this ambiguity as constructive, but to me it sounds like an example of what economists call ‘dynamic’ or ‘time inconsistency’. The UK has said that it will only retaliate after it has been attacked, by which time it would surely be too late.

NO, says Kate Andrews

As advocates of liberty and a smaller state, we know that plenty of services currently managed and run by Government would be better provided by the private sector – or, in some cases, not at all. From education to healthcare, our economic and social arguments focus on empowering pupils and patients alike, by moving power and control away from the state.

This is why we should lay out particularly clearly what services Government should provide, and what tax money is legitimately spent on public services. Local government for example has a crucial role in redistributing wealth and resources by providing the safety nets of transport, infrastructure and welfare.

Likewise on the national level in areas like defence spending. Efficient, comprehensive national security surely tops the list of this country’s obligations to its citizens and Government is uniquely placed to provide it. In 2018  this must of course include deterrents against chemical and nuclear attacks on the United Kingdom.

Some insist that this isn’t a cost the UK need bear: if Britain faced a serious attack, we would be sheltered by the United States and France, both allies of the UK and possessing nuclear weapons under the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

But to surrender the UK’s own access to nuclear weapons would be to relinquish the country’s seat at the international table where we are currently part of the most serious foreign policy decisions made around the world. (Indeed, many argue that the current operation is already too dependent on the US, as “British Trident missiles are serviced at a port in Georgia, and some warhead components are also made in America.”)

If Britain is determined to remain a global player – especially while seeking to take its first steps back onto the world stage, separate from EU institutions for the first time in over 40 years – it must continue to assert its presence as a strong do-gooder in the world. And as long as nuclear deterrence is part of this mission, Trident still seems the sensible option – economically and strategically.

Of course, keeping Trident operational involves a cost to the British taxpayer. As the former Defence Secretary, now Chancellor, Philip Hammond argued before its renewal, “if there is a more cost-effective way of delivering the required deterrence, of course we should investigate it.”

Suggested alternatives to the submarines that currently host the UK’s nuclear capacity include cruise-based and land-based delivery systems. Both have their strategic problems, including far shorter range, and more vulnerability to attacks and break-ins. Such options have actually been estimated to be more expensive in the long-term, making them unviable on grounds of cost and effectiveness.

Indeed, the genuinely cheaper options tend to be those that reduce capacity, undermining the UK’s strategy of deterrence overall. Such proposals are weighted heavily towards multilateral disarmament – one benefit being that it would be easy to move from less weaponry to none at all.

There is no point spending tens of billions of pounds on a system that can’t deliver comprehensive protection or leaves the UK vulnerable to preemptive strikes. Either you commit the resources necessary to supply a proper deterrent or you don’t have one at all. Given the current state of affairs in other areas of the world – including North Korea and Iran, which are actively pursuing their own nuclear independence – the former position is simply not an option right now.

Hammond managed to identify over £1 billion of cost reductions during his time overseeing Trident, and no doubt more could be found. But comparatively, Trident delivers more bang for your buck than a whole host of other government programmes. The £2 billion annual cost of Trident amounts to around 6% of the UK’s yearly defence budget – equivalent to the weekly spend of the NHS, and 1% of government spending on social security and tax credits in 2015/16.

While the Trident system is by no means perfect, it seems to deliver the security the UK needs at a price that on careful analysis appears efficient compared to its alternatives. While the UK needs nuclear capability to continue positioning itself as a global force for good, we should aim to adapt and improve on Trident – not scrap it.

Julian Jessop is an independent economist with over thirty years of experience gained in the public sector, City and consultancy, including senior positions at HM Treasury, HSBC, Standard Chartered Bank and Capital Economics. He was Chief Economist and Head of the Brexit Unit at the IEA until December 2018 and continues to support our work, especially schools outreach, on a pro bono basis.

Kate is Associate Director of the IEA. Kate oversees the IEA’s Media Centre and digital platforms, creating and commissioning content for the website, social media, and ieaTV. Kate regularly features across the national media, including appearances on BBC News, Sky News, Channel 4, Channel 5, ITV and BBC’s Question Time.

4 thoughts on “Debate – should we scrap Trident?”

  1. Posted 24/10/2018 at 15:27 | Permalink

    The Government’s procurement strategy for Trident successor is completely at odds with its latest thinking on acquisition of military equipment for the Armed Forces, specifically its policy of buying off-the-shelf.

    Whereas the Government will not come out and say so publicly, it has revised its defence procurement policy to consider buying, as its first and foremost priority, new military equipment which automatically falls in the off-the-shelf category – specifically because an off-the-shelf equipment is a fully engineered and supported technical solution which satisfies the key user requirements at no additional cost or risk to the Exchequer, that is to say, it does not require any UK-specific modifications or related development work laden with risk to be performed upon it.

    The reason why the Government has moved away from its long-standing procurement policy of buying equipment designed to a tailored technical specification requirement set by the military customer is because, it is no longer confident in the ability of its own people to identify, manage and control technical risks inherent in a starting-point for the technical solution that requires development work to be performed upon it – which has been the cause of persistent delays and cost overruns on equipment acquisition programmes for as long anyone can remember.

    This shameful situation has come about because it does not possess the capability in the form of intelligent and experienced procurement officials who have an adequate understanding of what it takes (in terms of skill types, funding, tools, processes, materials, scheduled work plan, inter-business contractual agreements etc.) to advance an immature technical solution from its existing condition, to a point where it will satisfy the technical specification requirement, within a Private Sector setting driven by the profit motive and people who instinctively employ unethical business practices. Consequently, they are not able to establish what the true status of the evolving technical solution is, based upon claims made by Contractors. The harsh truth is that, these people have no business acumen at all – on account of not having spent a single day of their lives in the Private Sector, which means that they have no idea what it is like to ‘feel the heat’ of competitive market forces.

    Nor is the existing defence procurement process (which has evolved over the years) conducive towards delivering equipment to the Armed Forces which is fit for purpose, adequately sustained in-service and constitutes value for money through-life, because it has been tampered with by Defence Contractors (most notably the Select Few) who have skewed it decisively in their favour, at every turn.

    The Government’s considered assessment is that it is unlikely to accumulate an in-house capability of the desired quality and numbers anytime soon, certainly not in the foreseeable future. It has also been realistic and concluded that it is nigh on impossible to reconstitute the existing, flawed procurement process alongside the tough 2015 Spending Review commitments further complicated by Brexit, the effort on which has commandeered the brightest people in Whitehall and made the task of balancing the MoD’s finances even more difficult – hence its preference for the off-the-shelf option.

    Ironically, one of the most spectacular benefits to be derived from buying off-the-shelf equipment is that the leadership at MoD will be absolved from its burdensome responsibility of having to upskill its existing procurement staff to a level comparable with that exhibited by counterparts in industry, because this type of acquisition is relatively straightforward, and can even be undertaken by mediocre post holders with no business sense – not least, because it is devoid of any hidden financial, technical or schedule risks.

    If anyone has any doubt about the determination of this Government to press ahead with considering the off-the-shelf solution as its first option, then they should look no further than its decision to buy the standard Boeing P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft to plug the capability gap left behind by the cancellation of Nimrod MRA4. Settling on the choice of the P-8A means that these aircraft cannot be refuelled in-flight by the RAF’s Voyager tanker planes to extend their range and endurance on-station, because the former are fitted with the flying-boom receptacle whereas the latter are equipped with the probe-and-drogue system – making them entirely incompatible. The Government has taken a lot of flak from informed commentators and endured negative publicity in the press and media for this serious operational deficiency – nevertheless, it has decided to go ahead with the purchase.

    In addition to the three off-the-shelf purchases which are currently under way – namely, the P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft, the Apache AH-64E attack helicopter and MQ-9B Protector (Certifiable Predator B) armed drones that can be operated in UK civilian airspace – the Government has confirmed its decision to re-join the multi-role, Boxer armoured vehicle programme with a view to fulfilling its Mechanised Infantry Vehicle capability requirement and also down-selected the E-7 Wedgetail to satisfy its airborne early warning aircraft requirement, based upon a market survey and comparative analysis of existing, in-service platforms.

    Many people will know that the Trident nuclear capability comprises the submarines with their associated mission equipment and life-support systems, the missiles that serve as the delivery vehicles and the nuclear warhead fitted on top of the missiles.

    Given that the UK leases the Trident missiles from the US, which also builds and maintains them, why not procure all four Trident submarines off-the-shelf from the Americans too? While they are at it, the Government could even try to buy the nuclear warheads directly from the US, instead of designing and manufacturing them separately, at its dedicated facility at AWE Aldermaston.

    In so doing, the Government will get a much reduced price for Trident successor due to the triggering of the market-based mechanism of economies of scale – as the UK’s order will be added to that of the US.

    It makes sense. In fact, it is common sense because the very considerable financial risks will also be dealt with and consequently, taxpayers will get better value for money.

  2. Posted 24/10/2018 at 17:47 | Permalink

    The only numbers we have to go on, 40bn over a service life of 30 years, puts the price at 0.15% of uk govt expenditure per year, on 2018 spending.

    Small change in exchange for -absolute- territorial security.

  3. Posted 25/10/2018 at 11:09 | Permalink

    The weakness in Julian Jessop’s argument, I feel, is that once you scrap Trident it will be near-impossible to ‘unscrap’ it (or at least it would take around 10-15 years or more once we have decommissioned not just the submarines and warheads but the capability to build them, so it is not comparable with building stockpiles of other weapons), so we would need to be confident that the situation would never change. Can we really see that far into the future?
    Trident only represents something like 6% of the defence budget which itself is only 2% of GDP.

  4. Posted 01/11/2018 at 04:45 | Permalink

    “Small change in exchange for -absolute- territorial security.”

    There’s no such thing as absolute territorial security. How would Trident save us from the much more likely and deadly threat of terrorists with a nuclear device?
    As a former soldier and cold warrior myself I was once an ardent advocate of the MAD(no pun intended) theory of defence. I have however been much persuaded by the writings of the late Enoch Powell on this one. We assume that our adversaries will be rational players but that may well not be the case.
    Are we really prepared to annihilate the civilian population of a rogue state in what would ultimately be an act of vengeance rather than self defence? If we are attacked by a nuclear strike, deterrence has in fact failed.
    Not to mention the fact that by the time we finish the replacement of the submarines…they could be obsolete.
    I think a serious rethink on this is needed and as a libertarian I find it almost impossible to justify spending taxpayer’s money on it.

    How about getting those who agree with Trident to subscribe and pay for it?

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