The current wrangling between Britain's Treasury Department and the Ministry of Defence (MoD) over defence cuts will decide the fate of the Royal Navy's blue sea capability, and by extension the safety and rule of law on the high seas. The stakes have been raised recently because the Treasury ministers are now saying that the MoD must fund Britain's nuclear deterrent, embodied in the £20 billion renewal of the Trident submarine defence system, from within its own core budget, currently running at about £35 billion a year.
Liam Fox, the Defence Secretary, insists that the Treasury must stick to a commitment made by the last Labour Government, that the nuclear deterrent is of special strategic significance and that the cost of renewing it, therefore, must be ring fenced from spending on conventional defence equipment. If not, then the MoD claims that within 10 years the Trident replacement programme will absorb a huge chunk of the equipment budget, about 25%. This would mean a hugely skewed defence structure, dominated by two aircraft carriers, fast jets and Trident.
The problem is not just a shortage of money brought on by the credit crunch, oxygenated by a global, casino-style environment. It is also a function of a globalized economy in which money moves at electronic speed and punishes those deemed to be financial delinquents.
For Britain, in some ways still cursed by its imperial legacy, the problems are greater than for other countries. It must decide if the wellbeing of the economy and the approval of foreign creditors, who could so easily pull the plug on Sterling, are more important than a defence commitment to replace the ageing Trident nuclear submarines. If the decision to go ahead with the costly Trident replacement prevails, then the Royal Navy's blue sea capability will almost certainly be seriously impaired, if not reduced to a brown sea navy status confined to protecting home shores.
The jury may still be out on whether Britain still needs a sea-borne nuclear deterrent in a post cold war environment but what cannot be in doubt is that such a costly project, if approved, will cost far more than current estimates. Such huge capital projects involving taxpayers' money invariably over run substantially and the MoD is the least reliable department to trust on estimates. A department that has had its accounts qualified for three successive years and has lost track of over £170 million of battlefield radios, can surely never be trusted to come clean.
Other bodies, like Greenpeace, believe that the Trident replacement bill will be at least £34 billion once costs like VAT are factored in. Nick Clegg, the coalition government's number two, claims that the lifetime cost of Trident will be £100 billion for a defence system that he claims no longer meets Britain's needs.
There is, however, another costly fly in the ointment. Critics argue that Britain is so technically dependent on America that, in effect, Trident is not an independent system. The British Tridents, for example, are serviced in a Georgian port and the warhead components are also made in America. But the United States Government, like Britain's, is also looking at its defence budget because its own economy is, in some ways, messier than Britain's. The US navy plans to build 12 new submarines to replace the Ohio class nuclear submarines that carry the Trident missiles but the US Defence Secretary, Robert Gates, is expected to challenge these plans, which could cost up to $80 billion. Up to another $120 billion could be spent on 60 of America's latest guided missile destroyers. If cuts are made to America's proposed submarine nuclear deterrent then, owing to Britain's dependence on the US, this could raise UK costs hugely.
Given the parlous state of Britain's economy, logic suggests that the case against replacing Trident is overwhelming on economic grounds and therefore economics should overrule politics.
There are precedents on what harm profligate military spending can do to economies, from which not even super powers are immune. Was it not the threat of an American star wars defence shield which finally forced Russia into a rapprochement with America because the cost of developing its own such shield would have been cripplingly expensive? And did this not lead to a partial dismantling of its nuclear capability?
Britain's former First Sea Lord, Sir John Slater, believes that submarine-borne nuclear weapons are the best means of deterrent because they are almost undetectable under water. If that was ever true it is far less so today, as some nations have sea bed listening devices capable of tracking submarines over vast areas. There are also other weapons, extant or under development, in national arsenals capable of killing whole populations but at far lower costs than nuclear weapons, such as biological* and weather warfare through projects like HAARP.#
This is not to argue that Britain should relinquish all of its nuclear weapons now. Rather, it should examine ways and means to a much cheaper nuclear stance, perhaps based on cruise missiles launched from mobile platforms, despite being much slower than Trident, of shorter range and more prone to effective counter measures.
The problem for the Royal Navy in parlous economic times is that if Trident is not scrapped, whether ring fenced or not from the MoD's core procurement budget, it is hard to justify a Royal Navy without a reduced blue sea reach. The two costly aircraft carriers now on the stocks will preserve some of that reach but they will have no impact on the navy's splendid work, for example, curtailing the Caribbean drugs trade or piracy wherever it rears its ugly head. That would be tragic for safety issues on the high seas. The go-ahead for Trident could also spell the end of at least one naval dockyard, with Portsmouth and Devonport the most likely contenders for closure.
*Although biological weapons are subject to a global ban, many countries have not signed up to it.
#High-Frequency Active Aural Research Programme. Run by the US air force and navy, it is the Pentagon's main weather warfare programme. It constitutes a system of powerful antennas capable of creating controlled local modifications of the Ionosphere.
"When might is right money takes flight"