Lord Hutton: Labour's defence proposals 'belittle our party'

Posted On: 
9th February 2016

Former Labour Defence Secretary Lord Hutton of Furness is highly critical of the Labour leadership on its trident proposals and calls on Emily Thornberry to ‘follow the evidence’ on the submarine renewal programme.

I have bitten my tongue on a number of occasions recently as fanciful notions on defending the country have been aired in the name of the Labour Party, which I had the privilege of serving as defence secretary.

But it would be wrong not to challenge what shadow defence secretary Emily Thornberry said on the radio this morning: namely, that the prospect of futuristic drone technology could soon be able to detect the Royal Navy’s deterrent submarines and thus render the seas ‘transparent’. That because of this risk, the opposition should seriously consider withdrawing its support for the submarine renewal programme that will soon be brought back to parliament.

It would be lamentable for Labour to use this tired old science fiction as an excuse not to vote for the programme it devised in government and has continued to support in opposition.
The fear that technology will make our submarines discoverable has been around since the 1950s, as the excellent recent history of the British submarine service by Lord Peter Hennessy and James Jinks makes clear. The supposition was highly improbable then and remains so now.

Or to put it in the words of former chief of the defence staff, First Sea Lord and submarine commander Admiral Lord Boyce, we are more likely to put a man on Mars within the next six months than we are to make the seas transparent within the next 30 years. Lord Boyce makes the point that the huge size of the ocean and the unique physical structure of water which makes it almost impossible to penetrate in this way.

Of course, UK intelligence services are aware that our potential adversaries are investing in underwater drone technology and have been for many years. Yet if the probability of future advances in anti-submarine warfare genuinely made it foolish to continue investing in submarines, why would nations exploring the area remain so keen to renew their own deterrent submarines? Far from preparing a major shift away from the established posture of hiding nuclear weapons in the ocean, not only is the United States renewing its submarine fleet in tandem with the UK, so is Russia. Others may try to follow. In fact, the Russian Federation is placing such priority on this that it is doubling the size of its fleet despite a prolonged and severe economic recession afflicting the country.

To understand the true reason why the threat of drones are being wildly exaggerated now, one need only to look at who is doing the exaggerating. In the main, they are people who have been implacably opposed to the renewal programme for many years and have simply changed the stated reason for their opposition as each argument is knocked down. These nay-sayers behave like children jumping from sandcastle to sandcastle as the tide washes each fresh objection away. It belittles our party for Ms Thornberry to become their mouthpiece after only a month in the job, while apparently dismissing those who may have devoted their whole life to countering the nuclear threat.

There are no certainties in predictions of global security; you have to choose what gives you the best chance of ensuring the nation’s continued protection. Every time this question has been seriously examined the answer comes back the same: renew the deterrent submarines because all other options are mostly costly and offer less protection while pursuing multilateral disarmament. Recent delays in the build programme mean there simply is not time to go round the houses yet again only to come back to the same conclusion.

If Labour wants to retain any credibility on defence whatsoever, it had better recognise the abject futility of what it's leadership is currently proposing and stick to the path of support for the submarine renewal programme that will enable the UK to continue deterring nuclear blackmail for decades to come. The one thing on which Ms Thornberry and I do agree is on her call to follow the evidence. That means we should renew on the current lines.

The Rt Hon the Lord Hutton of Furness is a Labour peer and former Defence Secretary