Trident tested for a few more years at least

by Stephen Tall on January 26, 2007

The two Jonathans’ (Calder and Wallace) postings on replacing Trident reminded me of the interview I heard this week on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme with Professor Richard Garwin, former chair of the US government’s science advisory committee and consultant to the nuclear weapons programme.

Only five minutes long, it’s well worth listening to here (it’s available online for another four days). A few extracts from what he said, below:

The question is whether we make the decision now to build new submarines to be operating in 2024 as a direct replacement for the Vanguard-class that would carry the Trident D5 missiles of which the UK has rights to about 58, and those missiles would last for the life of the new submarines.

To my mind, it’s entirely premature to make that decision now because I believe, and I think colleagues believe, that the life of the Trident submarines Vanguard-class can be extended by 15 years or so, as have been the life of the American Trident submarines, and that would give us more time to decide what we need to do in this new era.

The problem is – the opportunity is – that the Cold War is over, we don’t need 12 warheads on each of these big missiles, we don’t need the big missiles at all. Technology has changed, so it’s likely that an optimum replacement, even if one needs nuclear weapons 30-50 years from now, would be small intercontinental range ballistic missiles on new submarines that would be a lot smaller and cheaper and would have single warheads on the missiles. …

The real problem now is the Government says the submarines can have their life extended by only five years to 30 years. We believe the submarines were not designed for a 25-year life; they were designed for a 25 year minimum life. If the steam generators, part of the nuclear plant, show leaks they can be fixed, and they can be replaced, which is routine. … The submarines will be just as effective with their life extension and refurbishment programme. It would be better to delay this decision confident we can do so at reasonable cost. …

It’s routine for project managers and governments to hurry the decision in order not to have these things in question. They often argue it’s too soon to object to because we’re not spending any money; and then you’re too late to object because it’s too late to stop this programme, and to not go through with it. The solution is to discuss these things on the facts up-front.

Shrewd observers will notice the similarities between Professor Garwin’s comments, and those advocated by the Lib Dems’ Trident Policy Working Group, and endorsed by Ming Campbell, last month:

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.

As the Defence Select Committee has concluded we can delay making the final decision without wasting billions in the meantime. A nuclear weapon-free world is highly desirable. Cutting our stockpile in half would send a strong signal that nuclear disarmament is back on the international agenda and that Britain is prepared to act first.

When Ming suggested this to the House of Commons, this was the reaction he received, according to thegrauniad:

The Liberal Democrat leader, Sir Menzies Campbell, was loudly jeered by Tory MPs and some Labour members for suggesting a delay on taking a decision until 2014. The Speaker had to intervene to scold Tory MPs.

As Jonathan Calder noted at the time: “the performance of the Conservative benches in the Commons today showed that the party has learnt nothing from its error over the Iraq war.”

In 2003, you may recall, Lib Dem MPs were shouted down by an alliance of Tory and Labour MPs for daring to suggest the UN weapons inspectors be given more time to determine if Iraq really did possess weapons of mass destruction.

The Tories are very quick to see hypocrisy in Mr Blair’s dealings. I’m surprised they can see it for the mote in their own eyes.