Saturday, June 25, 2005

Fail Safe

Surprisingly, former defence secretary Michael Portillo had an article in the Sunday Times last week arguing that the United Kingdom should abandon its nuclear capability when Trident comes to the edn of its shelf life. There's a counter argument here that was also published in the Times.

I like Michael Portillo a lot, but I think his argument is flawed. That said, I think the linked-to counterargument is flawed too, in spite of giving the reader some warmed-over Keith Payne and Colin Gray. I think Oliver Kamm chooses a very poor case study in the Falklands War, in which - even allowing for the fact that for the Argentine junta it was more or less a war for regime survival - the notion of a hypothetical nuclear-armed Argentine regime launching a nuclear strike on the UK, either tactically or "strategically" is on the face of it simply not plausible.

The best case for maintaining our nuclear capability - aside from the fact that, rationally or not, it does boost our standing in the international arena - is quite simply that, first of all it is relatively cheap in the long term and second that the nature of defence planning requires a long view to be taken.

The renewal of the British nuclear capability will require a very significant one off payment. However, decommissioning the capability will also involve a significant one off payment - albeit one of a smaller scale. We need to recognise the fact that we are facing a major-league lump sum expenditure one way or another whether we like it or not. There is a limt to the extent to which scrapping our nukes will save us money in the short term.

That said, the danger exists that the powers that be will seek to take the opportunity to indulge in the development and acquisition of various "next generation" capabilities and technological bells and whistles. This would be a major mistake and the cost increases and time drag involved in going down such a route might well erode the current broadly positive consensus that exists regarding renewal among the two major British political parties and the Liberal Democrats.We should look to sustain, not enhance our capability and must not be enticed into trying to do more.

Once the short term costs are out of the way, sustaining the capability is actually a relatively low cost prospect - a matter of 3-4 per cent of the UK defence budget. This gets us a lot of bang for our buck.

The common response to this is that we don't face a foe against which our nukes are a viable deterrent. This may or may not be true but the point is that in defence procurement we must plan not merely for today but for the day after the day after tomorrow. It is hardly an exact science but scrapping our nuclear capability does not involve accepting the reality of today - it involves taking a bet on what the world situation will be like one or two decades down the line. For the sake of a small fraction of our defence budget this is not a bet I personally would like to take.This prudent stance should be equally acceptable to advocates of "expeditionary" and non-expeditionary defence policies alike.

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