In recent weeks, senior officials in the Pentagon have raised the alarm about the progress of Iran towards acquiring nuclear weapons capability. President Obama's conference on global nuclear security reminded us of the urgent need for action on safeguarding the world's nuclear materials to prevent terrorists or other non-state actors from obtaining nuclear weapons. And there remain financial incentives for rogue elements from international regimes to sell their knowledge for profit. So the danger that nuclear know-how will fall into the wrong hands is very real.
And yet this week, the man with the electoral momentum in Britain's election campaign is the one who proposes that the UK become the first major world power to relinquish its Trident nuclear weapons. How is this happening?
Of all the things in the three main parties' manifestos, this stands out for being the most outlandish and unrealistic. And in the debates, Nick Clegg, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, also gave an extraordinary reason for it. He wants, he said, to scrap Britain's nuclear deterrent -- Trident -- in order to help reduce the national debt.
Agreed, the debt is probably the most silently urgent of all the issues facing Britain today. But when Clegg reacted to the topic in the first debate by starting to talk about Trident, it was a dodge. It is when the other two should have pounced. Because it is an argument so out of touch with reality as to almost qualify as a gaffe.
Let's look at the figures. Firstly, the cost of Trident at the moment is not a great deal. For the last forty years or so, Britain has had one submarine submerged every moment of every day, silently ensuring that no other nuclear power in the world would ever think about using the ultimate weapons of mass destruction against her. It is, as they say, the ultimate insurance policy. This costs £1.5 billion per year, a drop in the ocean of government's yearly expenditure.
Compare that to the cost of doing what Britain would have to do not to lose that security: the government have proposed a modernization which means retaining the nuclear deterrent at a cost of £21 billion over the next twenty years or so. That is, of course, just £1 billion each year. A nuclear attack, of course, doesn't bear thinking about. As a cost of retaining the ultimate insurance it, a further £1 billion per year is cheap.
Now look at the actual cost of the debt. This year it will be a staggering £167 billion. On any reckoning, the £1 billion per year to renew it which Nick Clegg seemed to claim was a debt panacea is nothing of the kind. It barely makes an impact. Of course as a debating tactic, switching the topic from the debt to Trident enabled him to move the debate away from an area which he didn't want to talk about to one which he did. But as a realistic claim, the idea that scrapping Trident will make a serious contribution to debt reduction is laughable.
And then there is the message it sends. Abandoning our nuclear deterrent would send the clear message that Britain no longer cares about her international standing. That she is happy to delegate our nuclear defense to the USA. And that she can just shrug her shoulders and turn our backs on the reason we have a seat on the United Nations' Security Council in the first place.
But ultimately, Clegg is wrong because his proposal falls into the oldest of traps: believing that because there are no clear and present dangers to the UK who we can envisage using nuclear weapons, that there could never be in the future. History has shown again and again that making decisions on defence based on only foreseeable threats is a dangerous mistake.
In the long-term, a nation's nuclear capability is an insurance policy. Just because you had no accident last year does not mean you do not need to pay it this year. As General Sir Richard Dannatt, the former chief of the General Staff has observed, 'the man who looks ten years out and says he knows what the strategic situation will look like is, frankly, the court jester."
As for Clegg's claim that scrapping Trident would make a significant impact on the national debt -- it should be a cause for him to take another good look at the figures, and for the British electorate to take another good look at him.
Azeem Ibrahim is a Research Scholar at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, Member of the Board of Directors at the Institute of Social Policy and Understanding and Chairman and CEO of Ibrahim Associates.