Friday, January 26, 2007

Is 'Trident' a deliberate diversion from the real nuclear debate? 

Colin Ross has done us all a service by abstracting key Libdem contributions to the House of Lords debate on Trident.

I’d like to take up two points. One is on the massive expansion of warhead building capacity at AWE (Atomic Weapons Establishment) Aldermaston, the second is on the role of BAe systems in this ‘Trident’ decision process.

The first I have not seen mentioned in the debates by anyone, certainly not by LibDem representatives – have I missed something? The second is a point our Noble Lords made that isn’t emphasised in the abstract.

Firstly, Aldermaston is seeing the biggest single building programme in Britain, larger apparently than Heathrow Terminal five.

According to a report in the Daily Mail last December, Aldermaston is installing two vital new pieces of kit – the ‘Orion’ laser and a hydrodynamics research unit. Together these give the capacity to gather the information previously only available through live testing of nuclear devices. Their only real purpose is to design new warheads. In addition two huge new computer projects have been implemented making Aldermaston the most powerful computing complex in western Europe. And 700 new staff are to be recruited over the next two years, pretty openly to build bombs.

It seems to me that the Government has taken the decision to design and build a new generation of nuclear warheads, is proceeding with this regardless of decisions on deployment and launch platforms, has done so without any public debate whatsoever, has committed thousands of millions of pounds to this, is hiding the costs of this from public scrutiny, and is using the so-called ‘Trident’ debate as a kind of smoke and mirrors diversion to make it look as if democratic procedures on ‘nuclear’ issues have been respected.

Why should the Mail, of all papers, take up this Aldermaston issue? Well it does allow them to say:

What evidence it is possible to deduce about the activities inside Aldermaston's closely guarded 700 acres would suggest that this Prime Ministerial declaration, like so many others before it, is misleading at best and an outright lie at worst.

Why are we in the LibDems not taking up this question of Aldermaston? And in particular the connection to the development of the ‘Reliable Replacement Warhead’ in the USA – a concept which would allow for the development of ‘battlefield’ nuclear weapons of a kind we in the UK are supposed to have completely renounced.

The second point is on BAE.

The reality of the decision we now face is that we are to build new nuclear powered submarines. Our military-industrial complex has the capacity to build these subs. If we do not order a steady stream of these, the UK will lose this industrial capacity. Two of our LibDem peers picked up on this point and explicitly liked it to pressure from BAe systems.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire
Then there was the question of the needs of BAE Systems, a company much favoured by Mr Blair’s Government, with its specialists pleading that commitments are needed now to maintain specialist submarine-building skills in Britain by
maintaining a long-term order book in Barrow-in-Furness. We insist that there is enough time for an informed public debate, and it is not necessary—at least it is not possible—to reach an irrevocable decision now, before our current Prime Minister leaves office.
Lord Garden
However, I will just focus on why I think that the decision is being rushed. It is industrial pressure; indeed, that is what BAE Systems told the Commons Defence Committee when it gave evidence. It argued that it would need to build a new submarine every 22 months in order to maintain their design and build capability. I do not know how many nuclear submarines that means we will have by 2050, but it will be quite a lot if we have to buy one every 22 months. I do not think that the Minister necessarily can afford that many. But we are in danger of having this most important strategic decision driven by an industrial demand rather than by the right analysis.

We all know there is something funny in the woodshed in the relationship between BAe systems and the Government. Maybe the public should take more note of this? I am glad our Parliamentarians appear to be on the ball on this point.

But I am starting to think that the ‘Trident’ (really Vanguard submarine) replacement ‘debate’ is an attempt to corral discussions into predictable ‘reservations’ where participants can be marginalised through chanting predictable scripts. We do need to understand how decision makers within the system are framing the questions for themselves. But we need also to break out of the reservation if we are really going to influence the decisions now being made. In the LibDems we need to take care that our official ‘Trident’ policy, internally consistent though it may be, and convenient for political positioning, does not act as a ‘reservation’ limiting our impact and insight on the whole question of so-called Nuclear Weapons.

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