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 However, the UK’s global prestige could actually be enhanced by abandoning an outdated deterrent, especially when the US and Russia appear to be on the brink of a new arms race.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.