There’s been a lot of coverage of the call by retired generals to scrap the planned replacement for Trident. This will undoubtedly be grasped by many people (especially our friends on the left) as a further sign that replacing Trident will be a massive waste of money/militarily useless. However, there are several health warnings about the advice of the generals.
Firstly, generals will always (understandably) be a partisans for their service: Trident is a piece of naval equipment and therefore only serves to give prestige to the Navy. Ergo, the army don’t like it.
Secondly, the time frame required to replace Trident is exceptionally long: no security/defence analyst now can honestly predict the strategic environment that we’ll be faced with in 20-30 years. Replacing it is therefore a very good insurance policy: the recent resurgence of Russia is a case in point and would have taken an extremely high level of prescience to predict during the mid-nineties. Furthermore, other countries are likely to retain nuclear weapons for the time being: putting it simply, having nukes means that people listen to us. Putting it crudely, we want to retain our relative power position in the world in order to pursue a robust foreign policy where necessary.
Thirdly, deterrence is a necessary option for a country of our size: during the Cold War it was often repeated that all the Red Army needed to invade Britain was enough boots. We are a small nation in terms of population/forces we can put in the field: given that it is not inconceivable that another state power may wish to coerce us by force in the future, it’s absolutely necessary the UK possesses something that could make them think twice.
Lastly, whilst I sympathise with the plight of the army (I would like to see funding for the military increased to address pay/conditions/kit issues that the Generals rightly bring to the fore), it is frankly a bit rich for the army to talk about obsolescence when the army order of battle has changed itself so little from the Cold War period. If we want to talk about ineffective weapons systems lets look at tanks. Impossible to deploy quickly (so much for rapid reaction), only useful against other tanks (and there are much better means of killing tanks), the number of cavalry regiments remains artificially high simply for the reason that they have a greater social cachet (and therefore more friends in high places) than infantry regiments. The same goes for 90% of the artillery.
Massive resources are tied up in army equipment that has a role that can be better performed by something else. Yet, when the army last restructured the number of infantry regiments was cut whilst cavalry remained the same: to reiterate this point, the continued requirement for cavalry/artillery regiments to do ‘dismounted’ tours (i.e. as infantry) acts as a pretty stinging indictment of the current order of battle. In this regard then, the army needs to have a long look at itself before criticising other services (and there are undoubted criticism of the navy and air-force that can be made that move well beyond Trident).
So, whilst I welcome the chance for a healthy debate about the future of defence spending, I think it’s necessary for people to be aware of the problems surrounding the general’s advice. Trident is a vital part of our defence posture and needs to be replaced.