Lord West: "Corbyn's unarmed Trident plan is dangerous and nonsensical"

Posted On: 
4th February 2016

As the Labour party reconsiders its policy on Trident renewal, Lord West, the former First Sea Lord and Security Minister, is clear: abandoning the UK’s nuclear deterrent is not an option. 

We are entering a hyper-competitive age in which illiberal power is growing and liberal power declining. It is also a hybrid age in which co-operation and competition between states takes place simultaneously. It is a world made dangerous by Europe’s retreat from power, and its willful refusal to invest in power.

There are real dangers of an even more chaotic and highly dangerous world developing over the next decades, not least within the context of possibly irreversible climate change and ever increasing competition for resources of all kinds among a rapidly expanding world population. 

The dramatic rise in numbers of migrants either fleeing war and persecution or economic hardship are a stark reflection of this. Important too are the implications of the changing geo-strategic situation of new powers, notably China, India and, increasingly, countries like Iran, Brazil, South Africa and others.

There are many other trans-national issues;  changing demographic patterns, imbalances in wealth, disease and the aggressive international growth in terrorism starkly illustrated by the growth of Daesh. These affect both the international system and our national security and interests. With them comes the potential for big shocks in an increasingly interconnected world to overturn or radically modify existing assumptions about partners, vital interests and safeguards.

The Arab Spring was a manifestation of this unpredictability. As we have seen over the past 15 years or so, even well-established alliances and partnerships have looked decidedly discretionary when pressure has come from either internal or external sources.

We cannot be sure how much longer the US will be willing, or able, to bear the burdens of being the protector of last resort for the ‘free world’ and remain the ultimate guarantor of a rules-based international system. 

Nor can we assume that the idea of a multilateral, rules-based world for diplomacy and economics will necessarily survive the population and resource pressures of the early decades of the 21st century.

In terms of strategic hardware, it seems reasonable to assume that yet more countries will continue to seek nuclear technology, both as a source of energy and for political/military purposes. It is also feasible that smaller weaponised devices may make their reappearance, especially among those nations aspiring to possess nuclear options.

Our record as human beings in circumstances of intense competition has not been good and I believe that it would be imprudent to be lulled into a false sense of security.

Indeed the transition from a US-dominated world to a more multi-lateral world could be distinctly uneven and contain some unpleasant surprises.

Keeping our armour bright, particularly those elements which provide assurance of our ultimate survival, may prevent, contain or mitigate the consequences of a uniquely threatening combination of global and strategic risks.

These relate particularly to unforeseen shocks, which so many people are unwilling to acknowledge, to the imbalance of population and resources and the actions of opportunistic, possibly desperate, regimes.

Who can predict whether in the next 50 years there may be nations prepared to use nuclear weapons? What is certain is that their use is unlikely if that use means self-destruction. 

It would be foolhardy for any British government of whatever hue to make us vulnerable to possible threats by giving up the power to retaliate. To put it simply, I view these considerations and conclusions as compelling reasons why in this unpredictable and extremely chaotic and dangerous world, the UK must not elect to forego its independent nuclear deterrent or cut its defence forces any further.

Opponents to our possession of a deterrent ask why in that case do countries such as Germany, Canada, Australia and Japan not need the deterrent? The fact they haven’t has no bearing on our decision. The reasons are historical, cost of starting from scratch, alliances, satisfaction with others’ nuclear umbrella, etc. Suffice it to say that all Permanent Members of the Security Council possess nuclear weapons, as do an ever-expanding number of other countries.

We have led the world in reducing numbers of nuclear weapons and delivery systems, but I cannot say that our significant reductions have had any discernable impact, particularly on those states we would hope to discourage from owning or expanding an arsenal of nuclear weapons.

We should put more effort into publicising what we have done and how it compares with other nations and push for greater transparency over true numbers of warheads held. We should make no further reductions until we see a large shift in this direction by others whilst encouraging the US to lead in this area of negotiation.

Maintaining the present Trident system, which necessitates the replacement of the Vanguard class submarines, is the best option assuming the UK is to remain a nuclear weapon state.

Having looked at other options in detail it is quite clear that none of them are as cheap or practical as their supporters claim (certainly not cruise missiles). The very invulnerability of the submarine from detection (now and in the future –one of our deterrent submarines has never been counter-detected.), notwithstanding claims otherwise by unqualified people with no knowledge of the oceans or anti-submarine warfare, and the assuredness of warhead delivery make it the ultimate post-strike system.

Part of that certainty is that an undetectable Vanguard class submarine is on patrol 24 hours a day, seven days a week, every week of every year. Although presently the missiles are not targeted and at a low degree of readiness for firing, the posture can be changed easily – secretly or openly, depending on the government’s reading of any situation.

Having a Vanguard successor with missiles but no warheads fitted is dangerous and nonsensical. There are real issues of training, but more significantly there is the problem of time, having to dock the submarine in the EHJ (Explosives Handling Jetty) in Loch Long to mate warheads with missiles. It would escalate tension dramatically, risk safe deployment and could result in a pre-emptive strike before the weapons are ready to fire.

I have intimate knowledge of the system, having been responsible to the Prime Minister for its readiness and effectiveness from 2002-2006. In addition in 2009, when Security Minister, I was asked by the Prime Minister to confirm the system was completely under UK control and that the US had no ability to intervene. I conducted a detailed and comprehensive investigation, which proved its independence. Clearly if the US ever said it would not refurbish the missiles there would be an impact after a few years.

In terms of cost; the present system, which will run on with the replacement of the Vanguard class, costs 0.06% of GDP each year which seems reasonable for our ultimate insurance policy in a highly dangerous and chaotic world where nothing can be predicted.

The cries from a few military figures that dropping the deterrent will release funds for conventional forces is delusional and clearly those involved do not understand Whitehall. Indeed no great sums would be released at all and in the early years there will be increased expenditure because of decommissioning.

Although not the driving factor, replacement of the submarines will ensure 12,000 plus engineers, scientists and designers are directly employed for the next 25 years, plus a larger number of people in ancillary occupations.

The case for maintenance of our minimum credible deterrent by replacement of the ageing Vanguard class submarines is so self-evident that I expect the Labour party to keep its manifesto commitment. 

Lord West is a Labour peer. He was minister for security, 2007-2010, and First Sea Lord and Chief of the Naval Staff, 2002-2006