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Monday, June 22, 2009

The Trident Trade-Off

By Henry Kippin

Sarah Tusa writes in the Times today on the thorny problem of Trident – which crosses our path frequently as an example of a ‘quick-win’ initiative for those looking to cut the fat from public spending. David Davis wrote about this in the FT in April, following a pre-Budget publication from think tank Reform. He argued that

“There is no firmer advocate of nuclear deterrence than me, but even I have some difficulty seeing the justification for a wholesale upgrade of Trident. Our system was designed to maintain retaliatory capacity after a full-scale Soviet nuclear onslaught. Now our likeliest nuclear adversary will be a much smaller, less-sophisticated state. Should not the costs reflect that?”

Maybe so, writes the defence consultant, but there are serious trade-offs to think through in scrapping the proposed Trident upgrade, as today’s article makes clear. First is the question of how much such a move would actually save, and how this compares to other large-scale (and seemingly more worthy) initiatives:

“Estimates of £30 billion and over … combine the capital cost…with the annual operating costs for a 25-30 year life… On the same basis, a comparable civil project, the 953-bed Norfolk & Norwich University Hospital will cost not £229 million, as announced in 1998…but £16 billion, including PFI charges, staff and equipment. Any debate should at least be on an apples-to-apples basis.”

The second trade-off is about global status. Tusa’s argument is that failing to replace Trident would relegate the UK to the status of a “second-rank” European country, raising the spectre of losing its seat on the UNSC. On top of this, jobs are at stake – “at least 15,000…could depend on the Trident replacement.”

Whatever the politics of the piece (and I am certainly not convinced by some of it), we should welcome a more sophisticated debate about the choices that face the next Government. There will always be difficult trade-offs to negotiate, and it is bordering on the disingenuous to suggest that ‘quick wins’ are possible even for controversial initiatives such as Trident or ID cards. As the author warns, “there are no easy cuts left in defence”. But wherever the axe falls across Government spending, none of it will be easy.

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Posted by Henry Kippin at 9:56 am
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3 Comments »

  1. Of course, for anyone delving more than skin deep, the ID cards ‘quick win’ is not so much of a win either, given the quick win asssumption is based on the proposition that the card is both ‘unpopular’ ‘an expensive waste of public money’.

    The polling shows that while it may be unpopular with the commentariat and the Guardianista, it isn’t unpopular with the public – support is steady at around 60% with opposition also steady at around 25%. http://ukpollingreport.co.uk/blog/issues/id-cards/

    On the ‘wasting public money which could be better spent on something else’ argument, well it’s a red herring too. ID cards are going to run alongside passports and work on a cost recovery basis. The £5 billion cost of having passports and ID cards over the next ten years is entirely recouped from the fee charged from the said cards and passports. No profit is made and no public expenditure is incurred, so there’s nothing that could be cancelled and spent on something else.

    There is an intelectual argument that cancelling the whole programme and leaving the money in the economy would be agood thing, but having no passports issued (not to mention ID cards) over the next ten years will do far more damage to the economy than a £500 stimulus package would I think. Plus, not popular with anyone who wants to go on holiday either!

    Comment by Nero — June 22, 2009 @ 2:03 pm

  2. Isn’t the better argument than points about cost simply that at a time when the international community is trying to encourage Iran and North Korea to halt proliferation, and Obama has agreed with Russia to speed up decommissioning efforts, we send a very mixed signal by pursuing a Cold War era technology.

    Our global status would, in fact, be enhanced if we halted trident replacement and give us extra leverage with Iran and North Korea.

    Comment by Will Straw — June 22, 2009 @ 5:23 pm

  3. Maybe so. And the wider issue is that if we look for what we think are ‘quick wins’, we are going to end up with a poorly thought through set of reforms/cuts…

    Comment by Henry Kippin — June 24, 2009 @ 8:12 am

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