Thursday, April 22, 2010

Lib Dem Fudge and Fall-Out

We had the first proper hustings of the Gordon campaign last night in Ellon Academy, organised by the community council. A good couple of hundred people turned out to hear a wide ranging debate on subjects ranging from the current economic situation to how the various parties would approach a parliament where no party had an overall majority.

However, one issue dominated, whether the subject was defence or the economy, and that was the future of Britain's nuclear 'deterrent'. As you'd expect, both myself and the Green were against a £100bn Trident replacement, while Labour and the Conservatives were in favour. The curiosity was the Lib Dem position, which claims to be against a 'like for like' replacement.

It smacks of a classic Lib Dem attempt to be all things to all people, allowing them to hear exactly what they want. To those who support nuclear weapons, it gives the impression that the Lib Dems are in favour of a British nuclear weapons system – just not Trident. Meanwhile, to those who support doing away with British nuclear weapons, it can give the impression that just like you, the Lib Dems also support disarmament.

The fact is that it is the first of those statements which represents their real position - the Lib Dems support British possession of Weapons of Mass Destruction. Which begs the question – if not Trident, then what delivery system would they have in its place?

It's worth taking a short walk through the history of British nuclear weapons at this point, and why we arrived at having a submarine based system. Initially, British weapons were freefall bombs, deployed by the RAF using V-class bombers. However, bombers are vulnerable to counter measures, whether by opposing fighters or surface to air missiles. For that reason, a number of missile-based systems were considered instead.

The trouble with both bombers and land based missiles in the UK, however, is that both are highly vulnerable to a first strike from Europe, Asia, Africa and the Middle East. This made submarines, which can remain mobile, undetected, launch their missiles while underwater and survive a nuclear attack on the UK, the obvious method of delivery. Although the UK retained a stockpile of 'tactical' freefall nuclear bombs well into the 1990's, so it was that first Polaris, then Trident, became the main means of delivery.

But back to the Lib Dems. If the UK were to have a nuclear weapons system which was not Trident or similar, it would need to involve a new fleet of bombers or land based missiles, both of which would retain exactly the same vulnerabilities which led to the adoption of Polaris. With international treaties prohibiting the use of either outer space or the sea bed for the deployment of nuclear weapons, a submarine based system remains the only practical option.

A cruise-missile based system could be adopted, although the range of cruise is considerably shorter at 3,000 miles than the present Trident system at 7,000 miles. Cruise is also limited in the size of warhead it can deploy. A ballistic-based missile system therefore continues to provide the greatest flexibility.

If a ballistic system is chosen, then that clearly requires a class of submarine capable of launching the missiles. If the deterrent is to be operative 24/7/365, then four vessels, as are available presently, will also be needed. It's a brutal, grim logic, but given the infrastructure already in place, a variation on the present Trident system will be far and away the cheapest and most effective option if you wish to retain a British nuclear weapons system with the current capability of being able to ride out attack, and also be able to attack or retaliate anywhere in the world.

From a personal point of view, I believe that replacing Trident risks leaving us both financially and morally bankrupt, while offering us little or nothing in the way of tangible security benefits. No matter how many anti-nuclear votes the Lib Dems might think they can harvest on the sly, or what they might like us to believe regarding the chimera of cheaper alternatives, there really is no clever-clever alternative out there waiting to be discovered by Menzies Campbell and his 'review' which has been hitherto overlooked by lesser mortals.

Ultimately, the decision about whether or not to possess WMD is a matter of principle and not tactics. Maybe that's why the Lib Dems are having such difficulty wrestling with it.


Doug Daniel said...

Excellent, detailed argument. This is exactly the kind of alternative viewpoint that these "Leader Debates" are missing, and why it is so criminal that the SNP have been shunted to the less publicised Scottish-only debates. This really needs to be brought out into the open by the media, instead of letting the Lib Dems get away with duping anti-nuclear voters into voting for them, or leaving it to Labour and the Tories, who give no detail and just make it sound like they're stuck in the past (which they are, of course).

theshooglypeg said...

That's an interesting and detailed argument that I wasn't previously familiar with. Obviously as you're a politician I shall have to assume that it's all lies and check it out for myself, but it gives me a useful starting point ;-)

I'm going to my local hustings tonight: I hope there will be a similarly detailed level of discussion.

Anonymous said...

"Scottish First Minister and SNP leader Alex Salmond joins actress and comedienne Elaine C. Smith and local SNP candidate Richard Thomson for a public question and answer session at Inverurie Town Hall in Aberdeenshire. Also features local SNP candidate Richard Thomson.""

When is this?