When it comes to slashing the UK’s budget, David Cameron has had no qualms of sticking it to the poor. He has been praised by conservatives for his dogmatic embrace of austerity and his decisiveness in slashing government programs, no matter the human toll. Yet when it comes to cutting defense spending, Cameron’s dithering.
At issue is whether to replace and modernize Britain’s aging Trident submarine based nuclear deterrent. The problem is replacing the Trident submarine with four new ones is obscenely expensive. The UK plans to cut defense spending by 10-20 percent over the next five years, which means replacing the Trident will require taking money from the British Navy and ground forces which, just like US forces, have been ground down by a decade at war. In essence, the choice could not be starker – Cameron has to choose between a vanity weapon system or maintaining a credible British military.
However, just as Cameron’s decision-making on domestic spending has revealed his inner old-school Tory, his dithering on the Trident has similarly exposed his attachment to an entirely outdated Tory vision of national security and of Britain’s place in the world. Recall that Cameron during the campaign vigorously attacked the Liberal Democrats party candidate Nick Clegg, who is now Cameron’s Deputy Prime Minister, for calling for eliminating the Trident.
The Trident is the definition of a vanity weapon system. Its only national security purpose is to maintain the semblance of British global prestige. Claims that the Trident is needed to deter aggression by giving the UK a second strike capability belie the fact that there are no adversaries for which this deterrent is needed. And while the panic-stricken over at the Heritage Foundation may say the future is unknown, adversaries are looking everywhere – Iran! – the fact that the UK is both in the European Union and in NATO, not to mention its close relationship with the US, essentially gives it this same deterrent. Should the UK be annihilated by a nuclear first strike, the fate of that country that attacked it would be sealed, as NATO and the US would respond. In other words, the UK even without the Trident would still possess the psychological impact of a second strike nuclear deterrent even if it didn’t possess actually possess this capability. Furthermore, phasing out the Trident would not eliminate the UK’s nuclear weapons. It would still possess a strong deterrent and be considered a nuclear power.
So even if there weren’t any budgetary pressures there would be a strong case for eliminating the Trident. But there are budgetary pressures. And even if you think the Trident is a valuable system, the question is whether it is more valuable than possessing a credible British military. Pursuing a new Trident could require eliminating about 25 percent of the British army, while passing on it could enable the British to maintain the current size of their ground forces. As Colin Powell noted nuclear weapons are now militarily “useless,” since in the real world, possessing 25,000 deployable troops is much more of a deterrent than any Trident system.
This is also an issue that should deeply concern the Obama administration, as the gutting of the armed forces of its closest ally to pay for a vanity system could severely impact the special relationship. While the special relationship is based on more than just the UK’s military competency, the fact is that a Britain that both decreases its ability to project power, as well as becomes increasingly estranged from the European Union, will result over the long run in a hollowing out the “special relationship,” turning it into little more than a photo-op.