The sovereign can no longer say, "You shall think as I do on pain of death;" but he says, "You are free to think differently from me, and to retain your life, your property, and all that you possess; but if such be your determination, you are henceforth an alien among your people."

(Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 1835)

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

British Troops vs. British Nukes

The title is taken from this New York Times editorial, which suggests the UK should scale-back its plans for a like-for-like Trident replacement in order to maintain current troop numbers. Swingeing cuts mean something in the MoD has got to give, but what should it be?

The ongoing Strategic Defence and Security Review (to be completed by October 20th) will certainly inform cuts to the U.K. defence budget. One outcome may be along the lines of the NYT article above, in which the U.K. security and defence establishment concludes that current threats require maintaining troop levels. This may mean scaling-back the Trident replacement. Another argument is that scaling-back Trident would mean planning for the future on the basis of today's threats. Tomorrow's threat could be a nuclear Iran. How can these two arguments be reconciled? One suggestion is that defence be ring-fenced, just like overseas aid.

There is a real argument to be made for cutting the Trident replacement to three submarines instead of four. The question is how much money this will actually save. A great deal of the cost in developing a new fleet of submarines is at the research and design phase. It's also basic economies-of-scale that the more vessels you build the cheaper each will be. So although there is a saving to be made in going to three, it's unlikely to be 25%.

So what else can be cut? A big problem the UK faces is that so many procurement projects have been bunched together into a relatively short period. These include the purchase of Typhoon aircraft, two new aircraft carriers, 135 F-35 strike fighters (for the aircraft carriers), and seven new Astute-class submarines. This is on top of the Trident replacement, which will cost around £20 billion. Something clearly has to give. It may be that they decide to cut the Trident replacement to three submarines in combination with the purchase of a reduced number of F-35s and Astute submarines. Another possibility is scrapping the aircraft carriers, but the amount of money already spent, coupled with how far along they are with construction, makes that unlikely.

So although the NYT article raises an interesting question, it's simply too simplistic to paint the argument as 'Troops vs. Trident'. Doing so ignores the delicate balance that needs to be found between fighting today's war and ensuring you are prepared for tomorrows, whatever it may be.

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