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Replacing Trident: Who will make the decisions and how?

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Nick Ritchie
1 August 2006

The government has declared that a decision will be made during the current parliament that will determine the medium to long-term future of Britain's nuclear arsenal that consists of the Trident nuclear weapon system. The decision will either be to replace the Trident system, to upgrade the existing system, or to run the system to the end of its service life and then relinquish a nuclear capability altogether. It is unlikely that the UK will choose not to replace or upgrade the Trident system and become a non-nuclear weapon state. It is far more likely that a successor system will be chosen or the service life of the current system extended and that the UK will remain a nuclear weapon power for the foreseeable future.

 Decisions about Britain's nuclear arsenal have traditionally been shrouded in secrecy. Whilst it is clear that some secrecy is needed for the security and effectiveness of nuclear weapon systems once deployed, this justification is often used to render decisions about Britain's nuclear future unaccountable to parliament and the British public. In order to maximise government accountability for its forthcoming decision it is necessary to understand the likely policy-making process and the context within which decisions are likely to be made.

The paper begins by briefly examined what decisions are required in the current parliament. It then argues that there are three powerful drivers in favour of the status quo that will shape the policy-making process. First, the pervasiveness of the concept of deterrence; second, the central importance of maintaining political and military credibility in Washington; and third, financial opportunity costs. The paper argues that these three underlying factors will drive the government's internal debate rather than the government's more public rationale that nuclear weapons are needed for strategic deterrence of unknown future adversaries in an uncertain world.

The paper then explores the likely policy-making process, the government departments involved and the difficulties faced in holding the government to account for its decisions. It argues that the policy-making process will be tightly controlled and secretive with little hope of effective accountability through parliament and advocacy groups. Nevertheless, the timescale for the post-Vanguard policy-making process is long, political decisions are rarely set in stone and although the replacement of Trident with a new or upgraded nuclear capability is likely, it is not inevitable.

The paper concludes by arguing that the British government should take the opportunity afforded by forthcoming nuclear weapons decisions to conduct a full review of Britain's strategic security policy. This should examine the difficult subjects of the nature of the UK's relationship with the US and what role, if any, nuclear weapons have in securing Britain's foreign and defence policy goals. Finally the paper argues that advocacy organisations must also place the post-Vanguard debate in this wider context. It suggests that ideological ant-nuclear arguments will have little or no impact in Whitehall and that the most productive and pragmatic approach may be to argue forcefully for a much reduced and cheaper post-Vanguard nuclear capability to reflect the vastly diminished role of nuclear weapons in Britain's defence posture since the end of the Cold War. 

 

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