Trident renewal: full steam ahead with the UK nuclear deterrent

Andrew Dorman

HMS Vanguard, one of the four submarines of the UK’s Trident nuclear deterrent, on manoeuvres outside the Faslane naval base in Scotland.

In the aftermath of the United Kingdom’s referendum vote to leave the European Union it has been full steam ahead with the acquisition of the UK’s next generation of nuclear-powered ballistic missile-carrying submarines. In one of her first moves as Prime Minister, Theresa May led the Commons debate approving the programme and this month the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, announced the start of initial work on the construction of the first of the four submarines. In the same period the Labour opposition has had three different defence secretaries. First, Clive Lewis replaced Emily Thornberry when the latter was given first the shadow foreign policy and then the shadow foreign investment portfolios in the wake of the mass resignation of the Shadow Cabinet in June and July this year. Then, in the autumn, Clive Lewis was replaced by Nia Griffith in Jeremy Corbyn’s latest cabinet reshuffle following Lewis’ alleged wall-thumping after last minute alterations to his conference speech by the Corbyn team.

Even without engaging with the moral dimension of the nuclear weapons debate, the question about the UK’s retention of a nuclear deterrent remains contentious. Deterrence has long been central to official government thinking, alongside the wider question of Britain’s place in the world. Both concepts are problematic and potentially in conflict following the Brexit vote. In sharp contrast to its predecessor, in the most recent National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review the government emphasized the threat now posed to the UK and its NATO allies from a revanchist Russia, and the subsequent importance of maintaining deterrence. This challenge would have existed regardless of the result of the EU referendum. However, the fact that the UK is leaving the EU — as May has said, ‘Brexit means Brexit’ — represents a major change in the UK’s strategic outlook and raises questions about the acquisition of a new generation of nuclear submarines.

In the post-Brexit world that the UK will enter around April 2019 there will be two further pulls on British defence policy. First, there will be a call from Europe for the UK to remain committed to operations with its European partners. As one of the two leading military powers in Europe, alongside France, there is an expectation that the UK will always play a part, and that its interests will remain aligned with its European partners. This may even form part of the Brexit terms, given that many European countries rely on the UK for the evacuation of their citizens from foreign lands. Second, there will also be a pull to increase the UK’s global presence, both as a sign that the UK isn’t withdrawing from the world stage and also in support of the UK’s drive for new export opportunities. For example, the United States is already looking to include the UK’s two new aircraft carriers as part of its roulement of carriers to the Middle East.

These three dynamics — the geopolitical threat of Russia, the expectations of former EU partners, and the need for collaboration with the US — might all be constrained by financial limitations in a post-Brexit UK. Quite simply, the UK’s armed forces are too small and ill-equipped to commit to all roles simultaneously, and this is where the issue of nuclear replacement fits in. In the post-Brexit landscape, is the preservation of a nuclear capability more important than having conventional forces capable of fulfilling all three roles? One thing is for sure: Jeremy Corbyn’s solution of building the submarines but not deploying them is the worst of all the options.

What is actually needed is both an updated National Security Strategy, and a new Strategic Defence and Security Review. In the wake of the Brexit vote the 2015 versions are now obsolete. This fact is troubling given that they were conducted knowing that the vote would take place and that a vote to leave the European Union was always a possibility. In this sense it would seem that there has been little progress in strategic thinking within the government. The closing line of the International Affairs article, ‘Blair’s wars and Brown’s budgets’, that ‘planning and analysis in the United Kingdom has reached a state of organizational, bureaucratic and intellectual decay’, still remains true.


Andrew Dorman is the Commissioning Editor of International Affairs. He is also a Professor of International Security at King’s College, London.

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