Friday, December 01, 2006

Trident - Oh dear, has the fence just jumped up and bitten me in the bottom?

I just got my email from Ming telling me that

"It would be unwise at this time for Britain to abandon its nuclear weapons altogether. But a deterrent of approximately half the current size, and extending the life of the current submarine system, would be sufficient to provide for Britain’s ultimate security until we have more certainty about proliferation..."

Please tell me I am being a little naive here, but.......are we for 'em or agin 'em? Whilst I of course applaud the move towards disarmament outlined in this draft, why only half? If we believe nuclear weapons are wrong how can we support keeping the half we say we want to keep? If we believe they are right, why not keep the lot?

As I am such an incompetent blogger and don't know how to get a slick link up here, I have copied an article from my pal Mick Smith's blog (23.11.07 - Sunday Times) which in the light of our draft policy makes interesting reading:

The Travesty of a Trident Debate

The cabinet had its first sight of the White Paper produced to justify continuing with a submarine-based nuclear deterrent on Thursday ahead of its official unveiling in Parliament in all probability next week. Tony Blair has promised MPs a full debate on the issue sometime early next year and reportedly told last week’s cabinet meeting that he wants to launch the debate very quickly "because a decision needs to be made". It’s a good quote that isn’t it? You can actually hear him saying it, with that little bit of irritation that we just don't get it in his voice. The truth is that a decision doesn’t need to be made now at all. But whether it does or not is irrelevant, because the key decisions have already been made. So MPs from whatever side of the house can go whistle, what they say will not change a thing. Is this what passes for democracy under President Blair? I’m afraid it is and the sooner we get rid of it the better.

There are three parts to the Trident system, the 58 missiles themselves, American-owned and loaned to us each time we use them at exorbitant cost; the 192 warheads, which are at least British-made and owned; and the four British Vanguard-class submarines that fire the missile. According to the spin, it is the last part of the equation, the submarines, which make it essential to decide now.
The Prime Minister and his supporters say the procurement process is so slow and cumbersome that it is imperative that we order new submarines now. It is total codswallop. You, I and every gatepost across Britain know that the key issues here are that a) Blair sold his soul to the neo-cons and part of the deal was that Britain continued to have a nuclear deterrent, and b) he sees it as part of his legacy to leave Britain with a powerful nuclear deterrent – evidence that the old nuke-hating Labour is no more.
As for the submarines, well if you start from the prime minister’s position that we do need a nuclear deterrent – many won’t but let’s humour Blair for the moment and he did after all get voted in on that basis – the submarines are a relatively easy decision. He is right at least that a submarine-based system remains by far the best option simply because it is much more difficult for a potential target to take pre-emptive action. He hasn’t of course expressed this preference because the issue is “still to be debated”. But we and the gateposts know the decision has already been made.
The Submarines
We currently have four Vanguard nuclear missile submarines. We in fact need only three. They are due to go out of service between 2017 and 2024. The British submarine building yard at Barrow has plenty of work on its plate building the Astute-class attack submarine, at present the MoD is committed to three Astute-class submarines and negotiating heavily on the remaining four of what will be a seven-boat fleet.
The seven Astutes will take Barrow up to around 2017 before it can get down to actually building whatever replacement nuclear missile submarine we want to use to fire the missile. So the life of the Vanguards will need to be extended slightly but that is not a major issue. Once Barrow has finished building the seven Astutes, it will be able to fit in building the three new nuclear missile submarines before starting all over again on a new attack submarine to replace the Astute. That will give the Royal Navy a total of just ten submarines and building them will keep the British submarine industry ticking over nicely ad infinitum, doing no harm to the Labour cause in Cumbria of course.
The Missiles
If you take the view that we do need a deterrent, and many see that as essential for no other reason than that the French have one - yes the debate does get as silly as that - then the missiles are even less of a no-brainer than the submarines. The Trident D5 missiles were due to go out of service in 2019 but the Americans, who own the things anyway, are extending the life of their missiles so we can just earn some more browny points in Washington by piggy-backing on that project. This is ideal because Blair can say we haven’t changed a thing, we are continuing with Trident, so nothing we are doing contravenes the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. Er, up to a point. But only because we haven’t come to the key issue yet.
The Warheads
The British warheads are critical to the debate. They’re the one issue where MPs – and come to that the rest of us - might just be able to have an input. I’m frankly not putting any money on it but it is the faintest of possibilities, which is more than can be said for the submarines and the missiles.
The British warhead is based on the US W76 warhead, which is known to have problems, with at least one failing to detonate properly. The reason is that it is a sophisticated two-stage warhead designed to hit specific targets like particular Soviet cities and that meant using lots of clever materials that get much less clever as time goes on. They deteriorate with age and we can’t test them to make sure they are still working because of the nuclear test ban.
The response in America has been the development of the reliable replacement warhead. This is a weapon that ignores the clever bits of the old Cold War warheads that deteriorate quickly and – based on the results of previous nuclear tests going right back to the 1940s – uses the old well-proven reliable components that never deteriorate, the bits we know will work. We don’t need sophisticated bombs that will do clever things, we just need bombs that will go bang when we want them to.Des Browne, defence secretary, has denied that we’re interested in the reliable replacement warhead. But senior defence officials let the cat out of the bag earlier this year by pointing out that we were further ahead in research into the new type of warhead than the Americans, who have been conducting an 18-month programme to design one.
That programme began in May 2005, shortly after Blair was re-elected on a mandate to continue with the nuclear deterrent, and is due to have finished this month, shortly before the British White Paper is published. Is the timing coincidental? I doubt it. The government has poured around £3.5bn into a top secret programme at Aldermaston Atomic Weapons Research Establishment to help Britain’s nuclear scientists either redesign the current warhead or design a new one.
The problem with the reliable replacement warhead is that, even if you take the current warhead apart and rebuild it using the reliable bits, it is a new warhead, and a new warhead will breach the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. We are in a Catch-22 situation. We can’t be sure our old warhead will work without testing it and breaching the nuclear test ban and we can’t replace it with something reliable without breaching the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. The warhead is the weak link. It is the one point at which Blair’s determination to spend around £14bn on a weapon we don’t actually need might falter. That’s where his opponents need to focus their fire. It’s the only place they have a chance of stopping him.

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