Labour leader says he wants the 'least-cost nuclear deterrent we can have' in comments that open the door on reaching a possible coalition with the SNP
By Matthew Holehouse, Political Correspondent
Telegraph Online – 5 January 2015
Ed Miliband has indicated he would like to see Britain’s submarine-borne nuclear arsenal replaced with a cheaper system. The Labour leader said he wanted to see Britain have the “least-cost nuclear deterrent we can have”, ahead of a decision on whether to replace Trident's four submarines. The remarks open the door to a possible coalition with the Scottish National Party, whose leader, Nicola Sturgeon, has made scrapping Trident’s submarine base in Scotland a precondition of any pact with Labour in a hung parliament.
Next year MPs are expected to hold a final vote on whether to build a new generation of submarines as a like-for-like replacement, at an estimated cost of £20 billion. Advocates of the current system fear a Parliament with large numbers of left-wing Labour, SNP or Liberal Democrat MPs could sink the plans.
A 2007 vote under Tony Blair to begin the work of renewing Trident saw 161 opponents in the Commons, including 95 Labour rebels.
Mr Miliband was asked by an activist at rally in Salford, Greater Manchester, to launch Labour’s 2015 election campaign whether he would be “radical” and scrap Trident altogether. He replied:
“I want to see multilateral disarmament. I’m not in favour of unilateral disarmament. What does that mean? That means we’ve got to have the least-cost deterrent we can have. That’s my philosophy. We will make sure any decisions we can take will have that least-cost. I wouldn’t say we should get rid of it unilaterally – that’s not my position.”
The Trident system sees nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles kept at-sea around the clock on one of four submarines, patrolling the deep oceans ready to strike if an attack were launched on Britain. The missiles can hit a city 7,000 miles away and travel at speeds of up to 13,000 miles an hour.
Mr Miliband acknowledged the government’s Trident Alternatives Review, which was published last year on the orders of the Liberal Democrats. It concluded that scrapping the Vanguard-class submarines and placing warheads on cruise missiles could cost more in development costs, and prove less of a deterrence to rival nuclear state. However, the review suggested that costs could be cut from Trident if the number of submarines were cut to two or three, with the missiles sent to sea only when Britain faced a heightened threat – a position favoured by the Liberal Democrats.
Critics argue that position leaves Britain vulnerable to a surprise strike, therefore undermining the whole rationale of a nuclear deterrent.
During the Cold War, Britain’s nuclear warheads were designed to be dropped from Vulcan aircraft. The United States has an arsenal that can be launched on cruise missiles from aircraft, or fired from underground silos. Unlike submarines, such systems are vulnerable to “first strikes”, nuclear strategists argue. Nuclear non-proliferation treaties mean that some new technology would have to be developed in the UK rather than supplied by allies, increasing replacement costs. The current system will run until the late 2020s, but building a replacement will take more than a decade.
Mr Miliband’s suggestion he is open to an alternative to Trident will be studied closely by the Scottish Nationalists. In a rally after succeeding Alex Salmond as First Minister, Ms Sturgeon said a pledge from Mr Miliband not to station any successor to Trident at its current base in Scotland would be her price for supporting a Labour government.
“They’d have to think again about putting a new generation of Trident nuclear weapons on the River Clyde,”
she said. Mr Miliband’s comments indicate a recent change in thinking in Labour, with Vernon Coaker, the Shadow Defence Secretary, reaffirming the party’s support for a continuous at-sea deterrent in a letter to the Prime Minister in November.
Dr Julian Lewis, a former Conservative defence spokesman, said it would be “shocking” if Mr Miliband abandoned Trident in its current form with four submarines.
“Shadow Defence Ministers have said time and time again that Labour is committed to maintaining a continuous at-sea deterrent. It would be a shocking reversal of policy for Ed Miliband to resile from that bipartisan and sensible position.
"Trident has often been described as our ultimate insurance policy against nuclear blackmail, and there are no viable alternatives to Trident.
“It shows the corrosive impact of hung Parliaments for the leader of one of the two main parties to contemplate for one moment abandoning a system which he knows, and has repeatedly stated, to be vital for the security of our country for the next thirty to fifty years."