Global Insider: U.K. Defense Cuts Sharpen Tradeoff Between Conventional and Nuclear Capabilities

Global Insider: U.K. Defense Cuts Sharpen Tradeoff Between Conventional and Nuclear Capabilities

This month, the U.K. published its international defense strategy amid cuts in the U.K. defense budget and debate over the role of the U.K.’s nuclear deterrent, known as the Trident system. In an email interview, Malcolm Chalmers, research director and director of U.K. defense policy studies at Royal United Services Institute, explained U.K. defense priorities in the context of shrinking budgets.

WPR: What is at stake in the Trident decision, both economically and strategically?

Malcolm Chalmers: The decision to replace the existing U.K. Trident system, starting with a new generation of missile submarines, was taken by the government in 2006 and endorsed by parliament in 2007. Since then, however, the international financial crisis has forced the U.K. to make painful reductions in its defense budget, sharpening the tradeoff between conventional and nuclear capabilities. The fundamental issue is whether the U.K. wants to remain a nuclear-armed state beyond 2030, when the first new submarine is set to come into service. But the secondary issue is whether the U.K. can remain a nuclear-armed state but avoid the considerable costs of current plans. The Liberal Democrats, junior partners in the coalition government, believe this is possible. But they have not so far said what alternative they favor. A cheaper alternative would probably involve both the abandonment of the “Moscow criterion” -- essentially the capability to overcome the sophisticated defenses that a major-power adversary might deploy in the 2030s -- and a dilution of “continuous at-sea deterrence,” under which a missile submarine is at sea all the time. Even under these conditions, however, it is far from clear that a politically viable alternative system exists. Given the financial pressures, though, a further delay in existing replacement plans remains a distinct possibility, especially if it can yield significant savings in the early 2020s.

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