Britain cannot afford to abandon Trident

Louis Reynolds

Danny Alexander, discussing his recent policy review of Britain’s nuclear deterrent, sought to highlight the need to ‘move on from the Cold War postures of the past’; unfortunately, it seems that the senior Liberal Democrat apparatchik is forgetting the lessons of history. Mr. Alexander’s recent foray into the perennial nuclear weapons debate suggests that his party’s proposals can only be the product either of ignorance or, as Liam Fox alleges, politicking of the worst sort; that which compromises the long-term interests of the state. Certainly, they are not based on a holistic, historically-minded or even realistic assessment.

The nature of state on state conflict is that it is often unpredictable. Major wars can and have in the past come about due to, in various assortments and to varying degrees, diplomatic misunderstanding, mismanaged gun-boat diplomacy, foolish posturing, poor leadership, and a myriad of other factors. As the International Relations scholar Christopher Coker recently pointed out in a sober lecture on the possibility of a major conflict involving China in the twenty-first century, previous conflicts have come about with very little warning. Even the argument commonly made today, that our intermeshed global economic system would prevent state conflict from taking place, has historical precedence. The same arguments were made concerning the supposed peace-keeping effect of the gold standard and the international credit system in 1913.

When one makes the judgement, as Mr. Alexander has done, that Britain must reduce its nuclear deterrent’s effectiveness in order to save a few million pounds over a decade - 0.17% of the overall budget to be precise - one puts a low price on national defence indeed.

Simultaneously, one puts a huge amount of faith into the ability of politicians to make accurate, long-term calculations regarding future needs. Danny Alexander’s vision of Britain’s nuclear deterrent is fundamentally based, and can only be based, on his long-term vision of a world in which inter-state conflict will not take place. To confidently assert that major interstate conflict - of the kind relatively historically common up to this point - is no longer a threat, one must not merely be assured of the inherent goodness of modern states and the unprofitable nature of modern war. One must also be assured that states always make the most logical decision, always act in the most intelligent manner and always function as a comprehensible, cohesive whole. This is folly.

The Liberal Democrat’s half-baked idea that there should be a ‘surge’ capacity betrays their awareness of their own dangerous optimism and highlights their lack of serious strategic consideration. A ‘surge capacity’ – as if such a thing were possible in the context of nuclear weapons – is exposed as lunacy given a moment’s thought. What might be the effect, I wonder, on an already tense international political landscape, if the United Kingdom were to decide things had become dire enough to initiate a nuclear weapons surge? I would argue that attaching such a function to our nuclear weapons policy might be more than counterproductive.

The Liberal Democrats’ apparent awareness of the limitations of their proposals, combined with the utterly trivial amounts of money that could be saved by a reduction in the Vanguard fleet or a conversion to cruise-missile deployed weapons has lead some observers, including former Defence Secretary Liam Fox, to suggest that the their stance on this issue has more to do with internal politics than national defence. Whether or not this is the case, these musings on nuclear deterrence represent a familiar beast; the reasonably unrealistic and realistically unrealisable Liberal Democrat pet policy. Thankfully, such policies are generally harmless, though there is the potential that similar views, if they became Labour policy, might be very damaging to the United Kingdom’s interests indeed.

Britain isn’t engaged in the Cold War, a major world conflict is not imminent, and defence policies should not be maintained solely on the basis of possibilities; what really matters in international defence are probabilities. Yet it is not ahistorical to suggest that today’s political landscape is particularly uncertain, and as such inevitably to a degree unstable. Furthermore, the Trident programme is already the perfect size for the United Kingdom. A four submarine fleet allows for a constant deterrent, with sufficient training, refitting and rest capabilities, at the lowest possible cost. The UK Trident programme is powerful and limited in scope, it is effective and it represents ultimate security at low cost in an uncertain world; one that is not disarming, in nuclear or even general terms. The Liberal Democrats think that their nuclear policy would represent a step forwards for Britain; in reality, it would represent a foolish and unnecessary leap.

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Hello Grayness, My Old Friend…

Louis Reynolds

The recent rumours of Philip Hammond’s leadership ambitions have brought renewed (and perhaps unfamiliar) attention to the Secretary of State for Defence and his accomplishments since his appointment in October 2011. Yet Hammond’s tenure is a difficult one to judge, not least because of the fact that to him more than any other minister an enduring political truth applies:

Ministers are not omnipotent.

The final Minister of Defence and first Secretary of State for Defence, Peter Thorneycroft, not only played a major role in the most significant post-war reorganisation of Britain’s defence apparatus, but also contributed heavily to the development of the nuclear policy of the United Kingdom and NATO as a wider whole. Yet while Thorneycroft was an intelligent and ambitious man, his tenure in charge of British defence policy was shaped largely by forces outside of his control. Unforgiving economic necessity brought forth the Mountbatten-Thorneycroft reforms, seismic developments in the global political landscape drove the hasty advancement of British nuclear policy and acute political embarrassment forced through the establishment of the UK Polaris programme.

The myth of the Minister as the master of a department’s destiny obscures the more nuanced truth. Events, expediency, context and any number of other unseen forces conspire to steal direction away from Ministerial agency.  As was the case with the dramatic tenure of Peter Thorneycroft, so it is with the perhaps equally historical if less vivid stewardship of Philip Hammond.

Hammond was perhaps created for the role he currently performs; a fiscal golem to carry out the unforgiving cuts that political necessity has forced upon the Ministry of Defence. A competent, prudent administrator, it is fair to say that before Liam Fox’s fall from grace Hammond had been characterised by quiet efficiency. Andrew Grimson recently opined, with regards to the rumours of Hammond’s leadership ambitions, that it would be far easier to see Hammond as an able Chancellor than a Prime Minister. Certainly Hammond has not captured the hearts of the people, being apparently easily confused with Julian Assange in the eyes of the general public.

But what can be expected? Hammond’s job has been to downsize the MOD significantly, and the scale and grim nature of the task drains both popular-political capital and attention from other endeavours. Moreover Hammond, despite recent and much misunderstood protest, is guided (or dragged along) by the weighty hand of the Chancellor, and perhaps more importantly the internal dynamics of the Coalition. All the significant facets of recent military reform have been shaped almost wholly by fiscal requirement. Surely no one can seriously contend that Future Force 2020, under which not-yet-fully-existent TA soldiers will perform critical front-line duties to make up for a dearth of full-time professionals, does anything but critically undermine British capability to save a few billion in the short term?

If Hammond is necessarily more a Chief Financial Officer than a visionary Minister, he performs admirably in that function. His planned reforms to the defence procurement system are long-overdue and bold, while the cuts already undertaken have been managed well and applied intelligently. The foundations laid by Liam Fox can be regarded as critical to the overall process of bringing martial law to Britain’s belligerent defence ledgers, but it was Hammond who in 2012 presided over the first balanced MOD budget in a decade.

The context of Hammond’s career as Secretary of State for Defence has been the Government’s policy of drastic reductions in state spending, and the accompanying reality has been the ring-fencing of large sections of the overall budget, as well as the spirited defence of Welfare by the Liberal Democrats. Controversial cuts to Defence have been the result, and financial pressures have, in the eyes of the Coalition, trumped military requirements. In such a situation expediency requires a loyal, competent, financially astute and trustworthy manager to preside over a difficult department. All the better that such a man, with an awkward and potentially volatile brief, be rather grey.

In other Governments and in other decades, he might have been unsuitable. When Philip Hammond was first appointed as Secretary of State for Defence, Aaron Ellis criticised the decision in these pages and suggested a number of alternative candidates, many of whom would have represented excellent choices if the role had been that of a conventional Secretary of State rather than that which Hammond has fulfilled.

Hammond, more than the distracting and sometimes awkward Thorneycroft, was truly built to meet the needs of his government and of the realities that have confronted him. Hammond has so far played a very straight role from a position of much less power and influence than is often assumed. Serious rebellion against the further MOD cuts was never a realistic prospect, and Hammond took on the task specifically in order to enforce them. Whether the policies that he has so ably carried out are in themselves in the interests of the United Kingdom is a wholly different matter.

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Better relations with Iran could be key to solving Afghanistan

Aaron Ellis 10.42am

You can’t govern properly by just reacting to events. But that is what the Government’s lauded National Security Council (NSC) does, putting day-to-day crises into a larger context and shaping a strategic response to them.

Speaking in Washington, D.C. several months after its creation, William Hague boasted that the NSC had already made Britain’s policy in Afghanistan strategically “coherent”.

Yet our handling of Iran suggests otherwise. The Iranians ought to be our allies in Afghanistan but Western sabre-rattling towards the Iranian nuclear programme undermines our efforts there. If the Government truly wants to resolve these crises, it must adopt a truly strategic approach. It cannot just react.

It was reported this week that Iran may have tried to exacerbate anti-American riots in Afghanistan in February, after careless US soldiers burned copies of the Qur’an.

The typical reaction of hawks to these stories is to see Tehran’s mischievousness as a sinister bid for global mastery - rather than defensive measures to deter Western military action against them. When Iranian weapons allegedly destined for the Taliban were seized in Afghanistan last April, the former Defence Secretary, Liam Fox, said:

"This confirms my often repeated view of the dangers that Iran poses not only through its nuclear programme, but its continuing policy of destabilising its neighbours. Supplying weapons to help the Taliban kill [ISAF] soldiers is a clear example of the threat they pose."

The hawk-talk about Iran in Afghanistan adds another stroke to the war drums beaten over Iran of late, but it also undermines the Government’s goals in both countries. It is unlikely that Iran will participate in a regional settlement if we persist in branding it a malign actor. Any solution to the nuclear impasse also grows more difficult to find.

Instead of reacting to these crises separately, the Government must adopt a combined approach. Sound strategic thinking involves reappraising Iran’s role in Afghanistan, recognising that our actions towards one impact the other, and taking various diplomatic steps to achieve the various goals stated above.

Though some actions suggest different, Iran’s interests in Afghanistan coincide with Western objectives. The Government has to be mindful of this. One former senior diplomat has noted, correctly, that Tehran has no “rational interest in continuing instability in [the country], or in a Taliban victory.” This point was covered in great detail in a RAND paper last year.

Given this, why the Iranian mischief-making? The RAND paper’s authors, Alireza Nader and Joya Laha, point out that Iran’s enmity towards the US determines its interests in Afghanistan.

Iranian leaders view the US and coalition presence in Afghanistan with great anxiety, especially in light of the US military threats against Iran’s nuclear facilities. As it has reportedly been employed in Iraq, Iran’s asymmetric strategy would use proxy insurgent forces to tie down and distract the United States from focusing on Iran and its nuclear program, and provides a retaliatory capability in the event of US military action.

The Government has to rethink its rhetoric about Iran, and recognise that country’s involvement in Afghanistan is defensive rather than offensive. We can forget any regional settlement post-2015 if we exclude one of the region’s biggest stakeholders. We must also restart diplomatic dialogue between Tehran and London.

This means first reopening the embassy in Iran. As former diplomat Mark Malloch-Brown has written, “Without embassies the basic function of diplomacy - keeping some kind of dialogue going even when views are diametrically opposed - is essentially suspended.”

Then Britain must begin talks with Iran about how we can co-operate over Afghanistan. If we persuade the Iranians to help, not hinder, the winding down of the war there, it might be easier to negotiate a solution to the nuclear impasse.

Mr Hague once said that the National Security Council would not only minimise the risks we face but also “look for the positive trends in the world, since our security requires seizing opportunity as well as mitigating risk.”

Yet with Iran and Afghanistan, the Government has emphasised risk over opportunity. If we want to achieve our goals, this emphasis must change.

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PMQs: Amid the cacophony, a curious silence

Jack Blackburn 1.26pm

It has been sports day in the Commons today: a spot of Fox-hunting followed by some statistics-tennis.

Edward, once again like a child in a sweet shop, didn’t know which topic to choose and so plumped for two, latching onto the Fox-Werrity scandal, which he let lie last week, and then going back to his favourite activity of talking in vague terms about the economy.

Mr Cameron stood wearily at the dispatch box yet summoned enough energy to be exasperated at the adenoidal interrogation coming from the other side - and frankly couldn’t be bothered to answer most of the questions. Edward asked how Mr Cameron allowed the scandal in the MoD to happen. Dave pointed to the inquiry and didn’t answer the question.

“Show a bit of humility, eh?” sniffed Edward, to an unsurprisingly raucous response from all sides. Alhough he went on to ask for a guarantee that no other Minister was in cahoots with similar flabby cheeked friends in morning suits, his plea for humility provided the PM with a smokescreen that Mr Cameron used in order to avoid answering the question, bluntly reeling off all the matters for which Labour should be humble, most of which came from Stephen Byers’ greatest hits.

Edward, his first sweet having turned out to be a bitter and rather infuriating piece of liquorice, raised the ghost of Coulson and asked whether this Government really was different. Mr Cameron, who had been uninterested with this line of questioning when it started and by now was so bored by it that he veritably slumped his way back to the microphone to inquire as to whether the Leader of the Opposition had noticed that Mr Fox had resigned, and in a tone of disbelief told poor Edward, “You’re just a bit late.”

After a brief break, Edward calmed himself and went for sweet number two, which he thought was his favourite toffee, the economy. “Highest unemployment since the last Tory government”, he cried. “Highest inflation since the last Tory government”, he continued. “Back to the future”, a backbencher quipped.

Having used the National Insurance holiday embarrassment last week, this time Edward went with the Regional Growth Fund. How many businesses had taken this up?

The Prime Minister did not know the specifics, and Edward leapt on this, his schoolboy “charm” coming right to the fore as he revealed that two businesses had been helped in the last 16 months, while 16,000 had gone bust. “All we have is a Prime Minister who is hopelessly out of touch”, he snorted before sitting smugly back down.

Surely, this time he’d won? Surely, he’d embarrassed the Prime Minister and had deployed enough figures to win the rally of statistics tennis?

But Dave, an accomplished tennis player, had stats of his own. “All he wants to do is talk down the economy”, he growled toward the Labour Leader, before saying that since the election, we now had 300,000 new business and 500,000 people with new jobs.

Having been on the back foot for twenty minutes, Mr Cameron suddenly advanced on his opponent, who was now out of questions and defenceless, save for a wildly gesturing Ed Balls telling the PM to calm down. “Where is his plan?” shouted the PM, as the Speaker interjected for order again and again.

Yet, strangely, through all the cacophony of claim and counter-claim, once again there really was nothing but silence: a curious noise, full of words, and figures, and signifying nothing.

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The ‘Tory right’ isn’t Cameron’s biggest problem, it’s those MPs with nothing to lose

Nik Darlington 6.00am

The mini reshuffle prompted by Liam Fox’s resignation has made parts of the media wonder what it means for the ‘Tory right’.

Onlookers read a lot into elevations (and non-elevations), but how much do they really mean? Is there genuinely a groundswell of dissatisfaction across a homogenous ‘Tory right’ grouping?

I’m not so sure that there is. If Liam Fox was ever a ‘standard bearer’ for the traditional right-wing, there is no one to assume his mantle. The usual suspects have been discussed, namely John Redwood, Graham Brady, Andrew Tyrie and David Davis - sometimes by others, sometimes by themselves. But if any one of these (or others) decided to break cover and attack directly the Conservative leadership, I can’t see a clamour of jejune backbenchers following them. Just ask Mr Tyrie.

There are key issues that the Tory backbenchers generally agree on. Europe is foremost, and particularly the opportunity to debate an EU referendum and eventually hold one. But the Backbench Business Committee can control, unsurprisingly, backbench business. With enough demand (and it exists) they can have that debate without the Government’s blessing. Liam Fox’s departure is irrelevant to this.

There are differing mentalities on the Tory benches too. The 2010 intake has its dissenting voices, and it is noticeably eurosceptic (but realistically so), but by and large these are young politicians eager for promotion at some point. The appointment ofChloe Smith to the Treasury, replacing Justine Greening (the new Transport Secretary), only two years after entering Parliament is instructive. The Prime Minister wants to bring forward a new generation of Conservative ministers. Young MPs were surprised at Miss Smith’s rise, however capable she is, but must recognise that it gives them hope of their own promotion sooner than they thought.

It has other ramifications for more ‘senior’ MPs elected in 2001 and 2005. There have been mutterings that the Treasury job vacated by Justine Greening should have gone to Greg Hands, the Chelsea & Fulham MP and until recently the Chancellor’s PPS. He has been sent to the Whips office, but as someone who arrived in Parliament in 2005 and with an economic bent, he would have been a good candidate. There are many from that class of MPs who might feel aggrieved.

That is the real potential problem in store for the Prime Minister. Not talk of leaders on the ‘Tory right’, or frustration at a lack of ‘proper’ and ‘traditoinal’ Tory policies. That latter point is nonsense, as any cursory glance at the coalition’s programme over the past eighteen months would show.

A Prime Minister’s most potent power over his or her backbenchers tends to be the ability to dispense patronage - offering people the possibility of something to gain. They are quite dangerously weakened if there are people who feel as though they have nothing to lose.

David Cameron has chosen the wrong replacement for Liam Fox

Aaron Ellis 7.01am

There are few pastimes as pleasurable for politicos as ministerial musical chairs.

They are opportunities for them to show off their smarts about the Westminster bubble: listing the virtues and vices of one obscure politician after another, weighing up their chances; dismissing absurd suggestions.

On Friday, as soon as it was confirmed that Dr Liam Fox was resigning as Defence Secretary, all kinds of names were put forward as his replacement.

Andrew Mitchell was the most credible candidate in the Cabinet: he is an ex-Army officer and has proven to be a success as International Development Secretary.

There were occasional mentions of Philip Hammond, the grey Transport Secretary, but at the time I dismissed this as absurd. How was he qualified for the role, apart from having a reputation for administrative competence?

Perhaps the Prime Minister would choose a figure from outside the Government to avoid a reshuffle. Sir Malcolm Rifkind was talked of, and what about Bernard Jenkin? Maybe he would pick a Lib Dem heavyweight like Lord Ashdown? Oh hell, make it Bill Cash!

I thought it was important to consider what David Cameron could be looking for in a new Defence Secretary. They had to have experience and knowledge. “When the country is at war, when Whitehall is at war, we need people who understand war in Whitehall”, Mr Cameron said at the Conservative party conference in 2009.

They needed to be dissimilar to Liam Fox, in terms of their personality, but also considered as ‘sound’ by Tory backbenchers.

Once all these things had been tallied, it was obvious to me who it should be: James Arbuthnot, MP for North East Hampshire.

Mr Arbuthnot combines experience with knowledge, having served as a junior defence minister under John Major and as Chairman of the Defence Select Committee since 2005. He is not ‘charismatic’ in the risky mode of Liam Fox, but he is a solid figure and favourable to his party’s right wing. His candidacy is strengthened by the fact that he is standing down as a MP at the next election - it would give Mr Cameron the opportunity to bring in ‘fresh blood’ should he win in 2015.

But the Prime Minister did not choose Mr Arbuthnot, or Sir Malcolm Rifkind, or, indeed, any of the many experienced, knowledgeable politicians on offer to him in the Conservative party. He chose Philip Hammond instead, who, according to Fraser Nelson, “has little interest” in defence. It was a bad choice by Mr Cameron, if only because it undermines further his grand ambitions for British foreign policy.

The dominant media narrative about ‘Cameroon foreign policy’ is that it was simply about selling stuff to foreigners until it found a purpose in the Arab Spring. In reality, Mr Cameron and William Hague, the Foreign Secretary, have always fancied themselves as grand strategists who will reverse the drift of the Labour years, revive damaged institutions like the Foreign Office, and ready our country for the challenges of the 21st century.

Since October 2010, however, they have consistently fallen short of these goals: the National Security Strategy (NSS) was bland; the defence review (SDSR) was a mess; and Libya was a distraction. The elevation of the competent but uninformed Hammond to the MoD is just the latest in a long list of things that have shown up this Government’s claims to be re-making British foreign policy.

We have had seven Defence Secretaries since September 11th, 2001, one of whom doubled as the head of another department. David Cameron reassured many in the military when he promised there would be no “revolving door” at the MoD if he were Prime Minister. Liam Fox’s unavoidable resignation means that we are stuck with Mr Hammond for another four years in order for him to keep that promise. Four years of awkward photo-ops in Helmand, of feigning interest in the jargon of the generals, of polite applause at RUSI events after dull speeches on the future of our Armed Forces.

This does not bode well for the Government’s desired reforms. A vignette from the memoirs of Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, the former UK Special Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, makes this point best:

I suggested to one of the Cabinet Ministers considering the paper that he might want to question whether the deployment made any sense…His reply illustrated all the difficulties of civilian politicians with no military expertise assessing military advice. “Sherard,” he said, “I don’t know the difference between a tornado and a torpedo. I can’t possibly question the Chief of the Defence Staff on this.”

I hope to be proven wrong about Philip Hammond. Perhaps he will be the Robert Gates to Dr Fox’s Donald Rumsfeld, only without the decades of experience that Mr Gates brought to the Pentagon – so making the comparison redundant.

But unless he displays even a fraction of the wisdom and leadership of that great US Defence Secretary, I shall view Philip Hammond’s appointment as a mistake. A mistake that the Prime Minister is responsible for.

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PMQs review: Miliband spurns another chance to make PM’s life miserable

Jack Blackburn 2.55pm

The chances of today’s PMQs going well for David Cameron were roughly similar to the chances that Scotland faced against Spain yesterday.

After a torrid week of deepening scandal surrounding Liam Fox and depressing unemployment figures this morning, the PM needed a minor miracle.

Fortunately, his opponent is Ed Miliband, who walked into the chamber with enough political ammunition to make the next few minutes of Mr Cameron’s life a misery, and yet he managed to make them merely a fleeting inconvenience.

What actually happened was that the two leaders started to read out précises of their conference speeches to each other, the Leader of the Opposition having decided to use the unemployment figures as yet another proof that the Government’s economic strategy isn’t working. David Cameron said that the figures were “disappointing” but that it would be foolish to abandon the plan which had given us record low interest rates.

Mr Miliband demanded that the PM take responsibility, which was a rather extraordinary thing to demand. No one can claim that Mr Cameron had shirked his responsibilities at any point, and he responded by cutting through the waffle and bringing it all down to the question of deficit reduction.

Edward said that the government didn’t have a credible plan for growth. Dave said neither did the Opposition, citing the doubts of Alistair Darling and Charles Clarke about the Labour party’s economic policies.

And so this tedious game of back-and-forth went on. Edward had endless quotations from Conservatives who doubted the Government’s plan. Dave could match him blow for blow. Ed had endless dispiriting figures. Dave had his positive figures.

Edward landed a rare hit by pointing to the failure of the National Insurance holiday (the Chancellor hoped it would benefit 400,000 business, but only 7,000 have taken part); but he shot himself in the foot by saying that it had been his actions that prompted energy companies to change their ways, a comment so fanciful in every way that Dave was able to get some points back by comparing Edward to Walter Mitty.

Meanwhile Liam Fox was absent (with merciful leave) in Paris. Edward must have forgotten this, as he glanced towards his non-existant quarry on the front bench. But Dr Fox was a ghostly figure in the chamber, hovering over the leaders’ exchanges.

Subsequent questions ensued about Fox-Werrity, often from MPs doing their best impressions of headless chickens. Nia Griffith (Lab, Llanelli) asked for a list of all meetings by Government ministers with Adam Werrity since the election, whether on official or even social business. Social meetings? Werrity had suddently become a name whose utterance was akin to that of “Voldemort”. Accusing eyes flitted across the chamber at the sound of it, as if to say “I saw you in the same queue as him at Starbuck’s once. You’re complicit too.”

All of this was positively enjoyable after the dirge of the leaders’ exchanges. The Prime Minister should have been put to the sword by the Labour leader today, but he escaped with a narrow defeat, because Edward is incapable of judging his delivery, or delivering his judgement, well. Every word he says is fighting an election campaign that is nearly four years distant.

Severe doubts exist about the Government’s strategy. However, at least they have a complete plan. British people continue to lose jobs while these two and their front benches repeat the same, tired catchphrases.

Sessions like today’s inspire little confidence that these men actually have any ability to arrive at better ideas than they have at present. After all, neither of them claim to have found the perfect solution, but rather than work for improvement, they’re relying on hope.

David Cameron is hoping for recovery and good fortune, but with his lack of real policy detail, the question must be asked: what is Edward hoping for?

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