In case you haven’t been watching, some very interesting fissures are now evident in the support for an independent British nuclear deterrent.  This is going to be very interesting.

There are two factors at play — the looming UK budget crisis and the possibility of an independent Scotland.  Together, these two factors may achieve something very interesting: an NPT nuclear weapons-state undergoing disarmament.

The first sign of serious strain is appearing among the Liberal Democrats, junior partners in the coalition government with the Tories.  This is an interesting split, worthy of some consideration.

1.

In case you don’t follow UK politics all that closely — and I don’t really, so let’s see how many mistakes I make — the current UK Government is a coalition between the Conservatives (Tories) and the Liberal Democrats (liberals in the European sense of the word.)   Although the Tories strongly backed replacing the UK’s nuclear deterrent, the Liberal Democrats expressed concern about the measure on cost grounds, arguing that they would rule out “like for like” replacement and pursue unstated “alternatives.”

The Tories won the election, but were forced into coalition with the LibDems to form a government.  The positions of the two parties are mutually exclusive — The Tories support “like-for-like” Trident replacement, the LibDems oppose it.  What’s a coalition government to do?  Punt!  The UK government took the time-honored, if not particularly creative, route of commissioning an study of alternatives.   This will kill time until 2015, when the tough decisions are expected.

2.

What is interesting is that there appears to be a split emerging within the LibDems.  The alternatives study appears set to recommend building three more Astute class attack submarines, and arming those with nuclear-armed Tomahawk missiles.  The approach, championed by Nick Harvey, the LibDem Minister for the Armed Forces (a strange UK job subordinate to the Minister of Defense), was leaked to the Sunday Times (subscription only), which gave it a rough reception.  Dubbing it Tuppenny Trident — roughly Dime-Store Deterrent — journo Mark Hookham suggested the system would be more vulnerable to anti-submarine warfare, easier to intercept with missile defenses and crisis unstable, since Russia might confuse the launch of a conventionally-armed cruise missile for something else.

I have different doubts about Tuppenny Trident — what a brutal sobriquet.  The UK would probably have to build a new warhead, precisely at the same time the United States was taking a wait-and-see approach to the W80. The nuclear-armed Tomahawk has undesirable guidance issues, as I have noted before, that could only be partially addressed with introduction of GPS-guidance, which in itself raises  serious concerns about GPS-spoofing. And then there is arms control — the United States and Russia have never been able to agree to a regime to deal with sea-launched cruise missiles. I disagree with many of the objections to Tuppeny Trident as outlined by Hookham — at 1500 nautical miles, Moscow is within range of UK home-waters.  Moreover, cruise missiles are harder, not easier, for missile defenses.  And it isn’t clear to me that Russia would even detect a SLCM launch. All of which means that Moscow might be very worried about UK nuclear-armed cruise missiles and, in response, might choose to invest heavily in new nuclear-armed sea-launched cruise missiles of its own.

I’ll read the study of alternatives carefully, of course, but my initial response is concern.

3.

One may find nuclear deterrence unnecessary, but there was a good reason Britain chose Trident rather than the alternatives.  Which brings me to a very interesting paper — Dropping the Bomb: A Post-Trident Future — written by Toby Fenwick and published by CentreForum, a LibDem leaning think tank.  Fenwick reaches a very interesting conclusion — Trident is the very best nuclear deterrent for Britain, but the UK simply can’t afford Trident and a strong conventional military. Forced to chose, Fenwick thinks the choice is an obvious one:

There will undoubtedly be those who want to have Trident as well as the full spectrum conventional capability. Simply put, the current – and any likely future – MoD budget precludes this.

The old aphorism is that to govern is to choose – so let’s make informed, forward looking choices that will facilitate Britain playing her full and active international role. The world is a much better place with a fully engaged Britain than being “Switzerland with rockets”.  Many in the military privately agree.

Although the UK discusses the rationale for its nuclear weapons in very abstract terms, it seems to me the real reason is rather simple. US deterrent guarantees make redundant much of the deterrent value offered by Trident.  The hard case is scenario like the recent military operations against Libya, except in the case where Libya is nuclear-armed.  In this case, a non-nuclear UK might deterred from either supporting NATO operations or acting alone if NATO is uninterested.  But if Britain spends the money to replace Trident, it probably won’t be able to afford to project conventional power in the first place.  Were I British — oh, none of the jokes were work safe — I would be hard-pressed to conclude an independent nuclear deterrent was affordable.

4.

What the budget crisis is starting, independence for Scotland may finish.  UK observers have long warned that an independent Scotland would be strongly anti-nuclear, sort of the New Zealand of the Northern Hemisphere. (With a lot more oil.) There are no good places, outside of Scotland, to base the nuclear deterrent.  I first observed this real possibility in a 2002 article entitled “The United Kingdom, Nuclear Weapons and the Scottish Question,” by Malcom Chalmers and William Walker.

What Chalmers and Walker meant then is captured by this contemporary statement by the Scottish National Party, which now holds a majority in the Scottish Parliament and is pressing for an independence vote:

Our opposition to the UK’s Trident nuclear missile system and its planned replacement remains resolute. There is no place for these immoral and unwanted weapons in Scotland and we will continue to relentlessly press the Westminster government to consign them to the dustbin of history.

The SNP has already made clear that it has no patience for the Tuppeny Trident either, trotting out an MP to say ‘A normal country with the power to decide its own defence and security policy would never be pushed into this crazy situation.”

If Scotland were to vote for independence, then ask the UK to withdraw its nuclear weapons, where would they go?

What Chalmers and Walker saw in 2002 was something profound that goes deeper than an accident of geography. In thinking about the prospects for disarmament in general, they observed that “the stability and continuity of the U.K. deterrent cannot be taken for granted, and that this stability and continuity may have to be rebuilt politically in significiant ways if the deterrent is to survive.”

They meant the case as a general caution — one day the Soviet Union seems invincible, the next it is gone — about assuming that nuclear weapons states would never disarm.  But the observation that support for maintaining a nuclear deterrent must be continual strikes me as one of the most important but overlooked aspects of nuclear weapons policy. Policy-makers, when it comes to nuclear weapons, often prefer to commit errors from not acting rather than be blamed for making a choice.  I find this is especially true when the conversation relates to forces and extended deterrence.  But not acting has costs, and in the UK case that cost has been the steady erosion of support for maintaining a nuclear deterrent.  The stability and continuity of the UK nuclear deterrent has not, to date, been rebuilt in politically significant ways.  As a result, modern concerns about the cost of replacing Trident or re-basing submarines after Scottish independence may simply be contemporary manifestations of the erosion of the support for possession of nuclear weapons.

Under such conditions, surprising outcomes are possible.  That’s why I find the emerging split within the LibDems so interesting.