Q&A: Head of U.K. Nuclear Review Says Politics Did Not Affect Outcome

Danny Alexander, U.K. chief secretary to the Treasury, delivers a keynote speech at the Liberal Democrat autumn conference in Glasgow, Scotland, in September. He said in an interview that politics inside Britain's coalition government played no role in a report on nuclear posture alternatives.
National Journal
Elaine M. Grossman
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Elaine M. Grossman
Jan. 31, 2014, 9:59 a.m.

Danny Al­ex­an­der — the U.K. Cab­in­et mem­ber who led his gov­ern­ment’s re­view last year on al­tern­at­ive plans for mod­ern­iz­ing nuc­le­ar weapons — says polit­ics played no role in the study’s find­ings.

His party, the Lib­er­al Demo­crats, de­man­ded in 2010 that the study be con­duc­ted as a con­di­tion of form­ing a co­ali­tion gov­ern­ment with the more right-lean­ing Con­ser­vat­ive Party. While Con­ser­vat­ives have favored plans to re­place all four of Bri­tain’s nuc­le­ar sub­mar­ines, Lib­er­al Demo­crats were look­ing for cheap­er al­tern­at­ives they hoped would be more suited to the post-Cold War era.

The study ul­ti­mately found that only one of sev­er­al feas­ible op­tions ex­plored might be cheap­er than the plan Con­ser­vat­ives favored. However, Al­ex­an­der said the Con­ser­vat­ives’ role as the seni­or part­ner in the co­ali­tion did not af­fect the study’s out­come.

“I would say the re­port it­self does not re­flect any co­ali­tion com­prom­ises,” Al­ex­an­der said in an in­ter­view last Septem­ber in his Lon­don of­fice, just two blocks away from the Houses of Par­lia­ment. “Be­cause in a sense, the agree­ment between the parties was to con­duct the re­view. The re­view it­self was not driv­en by polit­ics.”

The plan Con­ser­vat­ives fa­vor is termed “like-for-like.” It would re­place all four of today’s Van­guard-class sub­mar­ines with a new Suc­cessor class, which also would carry today’s Tri­dent D-5 nuc­le­ar-armed bal­list­ic mis­siles.

Re­leased in un­clas­si­fied form last Ju­ly, the Tri­dent Al­tern­at­ives Re­view found that all but one “cred­ible” sub­sti­tute for re­pla­cing the aging Van­guard-class boats would cost even more than the $30 bil­lion or more in es­tim­ated life­time costs re­quired for im­ple­ment­ing the ex­ist­ing like-for-like plans.

That one cheap­er al­tern­at­ive they iden­ti­fied would in­volve re­pla­cing no more than three of the four sub­mar­ines. But this three-ves­sel fleet would no longer al­low Bri­tain to keep at least one nuc­le­ar-armed sub­mar­ine on ocean patrol at all times — a policy called “con­tinu­ous at-sea de­terrence.”

In mid-Septem­ber the Lib­er­al Demo­crats form­ally em­braced the three- ves­sel op­tion, which would trim just $3 bil­lion off of life­time costs.

The Lib­er­al Demo­crats’ re­com­mend­a­tion got a boost on Thursday when a lead­ing U.K. think tank pub­lished a re­port say­ing the na­tion could still main­tain a sol­id nuc­le­ar de­terrent even after a re­duc­tion to three bal­list­ic-mis­sile subs.

“While con­tinu­ous patrolling prob­ably en­hances the cred­ib­il­ity of the U.K.’s nuc­le­ar forces, it does not em­body it,” states the new pa­per by Hugh Chalmers, a Roy­al United Ser­vices In­sti­tute re­search ana­lyst. “It is not im­me­di­ately ap­par­ent if Rus­sia, China or, in­deed, any oth­er state would feel any less threatened by the U.K.’s nuc­le­ar forces were they oc­ca­sion­ally un­avail­able.”

Al­ex­an­der, who serves as chief sec­ret­ary to the Treas­ury in the co­ali­tion gov­ern­ment, ar­gues that it is ap­pro­pri­ate — more than two dec­ades after the Cold War ended — to take some new, in­cre­ment­al steps down the nuc­le­ar lad­der.

“Our own na­tion­al se­cur­ity as­sess­ment is — and ac­tu­ally has been for some time — that we don’t see a state-based nuc­le­ar threat,” he told Glob­al Se­cur­ity News­wire.

“And it’s be­cause of that as­sess­ment that I think we can af­ford to step back right now and have [that] as our policy, based on our not need­ing to do con­tinu­ous patrolling,” said Al­ex­an­der, who also rep­res­ents In­verness and neigh­bor­ing areas of Scot­land in the U.K. Par­lia­ment.

His view, however, is not shared by the U.K. de­fense sec­ret­ary and oth­er lead­ing Con­ser­vat­ive mem­bers of Par­lia­ment, who say the so-called “CASD” patrols must con­tin­ue, and four new re­place­ment sub­mar­ines must be bought to do it.

Some have ques­tioned wheth­er the re­view out­come rep­res­en­ted a com­prom­ise po­s­i­tion between some Lib­er­al Demo­crats who called for a more dra­mat­ic step — jet­tis­on­ing the bal­list­ic-mis­sile ves­sels in fa­vor of put­ting nuc­le­ar-tipped cruise mis­siles aboard at­tack sub­mar­ines — and those Tor­ies who as­sert Bri­tain already has the bare min­im­um pos­ture it re­quires for de­terrence.

Al­ex­an­der in­sisted, though, that the find­ings in­volved no be­hind-the-scenes ne­go­ti­ations or arm-twist­ing, even amid re­ports about last-minute De­fense Min­istry ob­jec­tions about which por­tions of the clas­si­fied ver­sion would be pub­licly re­leased.

“It was car­ried out as a com­pletely ob­ject­ive study,” he said in the in­ter­view. “[There was] a group of seni­or people who are over­see­ing this. And then I was the min­is­ter re­spons­ible. “¦ There wer­en’t oth­er min­is­ters in­volved in it.”

Al­ex­an­der ac­know­ledged that he was sur­prised at the re­view’s con­clu­sion that it would take 24 years if the United King­dom were to de­vel­op a new war­head that would be needed if the na­tion chose to de­ploy a nuc­le­ar-armed cruise mis­sile in place of today’s bal­list­ic mis­sile ar­sen­al. Bri­tain’s Tra­fal­gar and As­tute class sub­mar­ines cur­rently carry a con­ven­tion­ally armed cruise weapon, the Toma­hawk Land At­tack Mis­sile.

The Tri­dent Al­tern­at­ives Re­view found that if the United King­dom began work on design­ing and build­ing a new cruise mis­sile in 2016 — when a fi­nal de­cision is to be made on the way ahead — it would not be ready for de­ploy­ment un­til 2040.

“This war­head times­cale is judged to be longer than the Van­guard-class [bal­list­ic mis­sile] sub­mar­ines can safely be op­er­ated,” the Ju­ly gov­ern­ment re­port said. “The third and fourth Van­guard-class sub­mar­ines are planned to leave ser­vice well be­fore 2040.”

The long de­vel­op­ment peri­od re­quired to shift to a cruise-mis­sile-based nuc­le­ar force would cre­ate a gap in which Bri­tain would field no stra­tegic de­terrent, an out­come that both parties in the co­ali­tion gov­ern­ment agreed would be un­ac­cept­able.

“I would say that that was something that came as a bit of a sur­prise when we found that out” about the lengthy tim­ing, Al­ex­an­der said. “And I spent a lot of time — and the of­fi­cials spent a lot of time — test­ing that to really try and un­der­stand what lay be­hind it.

“And ac­tu­ally, in the end, I’m con­vinced that that is the genu­ine view of the people who do this stuff day-in and day-out,” he said.

Al­ex­an­der said he does not be­lieve that U.K. De­fense of­fi­cials in­tent on pre­serving the like-for-like mod­ern­iz­a­tion blue­print de­lib­er­ately over­es­tim­ated the time re­quired to de­vel­op a new war­head so as to make in­feas­ible a cruise-mis­sile al­tern­at­ive they didn’t like.

“I am ab­so­lutely cer­tain that it is not a times­cale that is polit­ic­ally skewed,” he said.

Ed­ited ex­cerpts of the Sept. 25 in­ter­view with Al­ex­an­der, who has served in his cur­rent post since May 2010, fol­low:

GSN: If your party feels con­fid­ent enough in the U.K. de­fense pos­ture that you are will­ing to take a little bit of de­grad­a­tion in the nuc­le­ar pos­ture, do you ima­ging re­ly­ing on your con­ven­tion­al force yet more? For ex­ample, un­der the Lib­er­al Demo­crats’ new policy, if a crisis emerges when Bri­tain has no sub­mar­ine on patrol, could you handle threats con­ven­tion­ally rather than send­ing a nuc­le­ar-armed sub­mar­ine out on emer­gency patrol?

Al­ex­an­der: Well, cer­tainly. “¦ In the Cold War, we had a very clear and present threat from nuc­le­ar-armed states, which def­in­itely re­quired con­tinu­ous patrolling.

Right now we don’t see any such threats on the ho­ri­zon. Our own na­tion­al se­cur­ity as­sess­ment is — and ac­tu­ally has been for some time — that we don’t see a state-based nuc­le­ar threat. And it’s be­cause of that as­sess­ment that I think we can af­ford to step back right now and have as our policy, based on our not need­ing to do con­tinu­ous patrolling.

However, I think that we also re­cog­nize that whilst there are oth­er un­friendly states with nuc­le­ar weapons in the world — or po­ten­tially un­friendly states — [so] that we can’t rule out the pos­sib­il­ity that such threats might ree­m­erge in fu­ture.

And there­fore, I think that a policy that says let’s re­duce the level of threat our weapons pose now — sort of [a] Brit­ish ver­sion of deal­ert­ing “¦ our weapons.

But [re­tain­ing] the cap­ab­il­ity to step back up to that sort of pos­ture, should threats emerge in fu­ture, seems to me to get the bal­ance right between what we know about the world now, and what we can fore­see about the world, with the re­cog­ni­tion that things can change.

GSN: Do you mean step­ping back up just tem­por­ar­ily to handle an im­me­di­ate threat or crisis, or step­ping back up in a long-term way, if need be?

Al­ex­an­der: None of the ana­lys­is that I’ve seen sup­ports the as­ser­tion “¦ that a state-based nuc­le­ar threat to the United King­dom could ree­m­erge overnight — at a mo­ment’s no­tice — that would be un­pre­dict­able. “¦

What’s much more likely is that cir­cum­stances change over time. You know, there’s an in­crease in ten­sion. “¦

So the al­tern­at­ive pos­tures that we de­veloped in the re­view were de­signed on the basis that so-called fo­cused de­terrence — that you’d re­tain the cap­ab­il­ity to sort of surge, if you like, back to a con­tinu­ous pos­ture, should a level of threat emerge that makes that ne­ces­sary, for a peri­od of months or even a peri­od of a small num­ber of years.

And with a three-boat sys­tem, one could do that. And I think that is a kind of prudent, bal­anced ap­proach.

Clearly, if cir­cum­stances really change in fu­ture, then a fu­ture Brit­ish gov­ern­ment might have to “¦ de­term­ine wheth­er they had the equip­ment ne­ces­sary to carry out the policy they wanted to carry out. “¦

The oth­er point I’d make is that there is in gen­er­al terms around the world — and ac­tu­ally it’s be­ing led by Pres­id­ent Obama — a kind of move to say let’s con­tin­ue to work to re­duce the level of threat that nuc­le­ar weapons pose in the world. And of course, there are states that are seek­ing to pro­lif­er­ate, and we work closely with Amer­ic­ans and with oth­ers to try and counter that.

But equally, I be­lieve as the United King­dom we also have a re­spons­ib­il­ity to look to see wheth­er there are fur­ther steps down the lad­der of dis­arm­a­ment that we can take — re­spons­ibly — along­side the steps that the Amer­ic­an gov­ern­ment has talked about “¦ So that we can also play a part in that very long jour­ney to a world free of nuc­le­ar weapons.

GSN: Some crit­ics have said that at times when all of your pro­posed three sub­mar­ines are in port, they could be vul­ner­able to a dis­arm­ing strike or ef­forts to block their pas­sage to sea. Your re­sponse?

Al­ex­an­der: I think that was one of the most ri­dicu­lous as­ser­tions that I heard at [a Septem­ber Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion event in Wash­ing­ton to dis­cuss the find­ings]. “¦

Our nuc­le­ar sub­mar­ines come and go at the mo­ment. They are re­quired to do so. We have pro­ced­ures that I’m not go­ing to de­scribe to keep the [Gare] Loch [port] se­cure. This [Lib­er­al Demo­crat­ic policy pre­scrip­tion] is not sug­gest­ing that we would get rid of those pro­ced­ures or sud­denly aban­don the fun­da­ment­al mil­it­ary ten­et that says you work to keep your bases se­cure, or to keep your abil­ity to enter and exit those bases se­cure.

We also have a fleet of non­nuc­lear sub­mar­ines. We have sub­stan­tial cap­ab­il­it­ies in that area, which are there pre­cisely to keep our abil­ity to de­ploy our weapon sys­tems. And those would need to be main­tained.

Nowhere in the re­port do we re­com­mend keep­ing our de­terrent less se­cure in fu­ture. I cer­tainly wouldn’t re­com­mend that.

GSN: What com­prom­ises did Con­ser­vat­ives and Lib­er­al Demo­crats in the gov­ern­ing co­ali­tion make in or­der to agree on the same set of Tri­dent Al­tern­at­ives Re­view con­clu­sions?

Al­ex­an­der: Very good ques­tion. And I would say the re­port it­self does not re­flect any co­ali­tion com­prom­ises. Be­cause in a sense, the agree­ment between the parties was to con­duct the re­view. The re­view it­self was not driv­en by polit­ics.

The re­view it­self was con­duc­ted by seni­or of­fi­cials in the Cab­in­et of­fice, draw­ing upon evid­ence provided by of­fi­cials “¦ in vari­ous parts of the Min­istry of De­fense and in oth­er areas.

And it was car­ried out as a com­pletely ob­ject­ive study, with­in the re­mit that it was giv­en. It was over­seen by a board, which in­cluded De­fense of­fi­cials, and Cab­in­et of­fice people, and For­eign Of­fice, and so on.

So there’s a group of seni­or people who are over­see­ing this. And then I was the min­is­ter re­spons­ible. So dur­ing the pro­cess of the re­view be­ing con­duc­ted, it re­por­ted to me and only to me. There wer­en’t oth­er min­is­ters in­volved in it.

And then when the re­port was com­pleted, the fin­ished doc­u­ment was presen­ted by me to the prime min­is­ter and deputy prime min­is­ter, and shared with the For­eign and De­fense sec­ret­ar­ies. And then the pub­lished doc­u­ment, which was ob­vi­ously a de­clas­si­fied sum­mary, was pro­duced.

And dif­fer­ent parts of gov­ern­ment had views “¦ about what we could say in dif­fer­ent areas. But the ana­lys­is is the facts as we found them.

And I think it’s pretty ro­bust be­cause of that. And I think also the “¦ ex­tent of the evid­ence that is presen­ted, I hope, will be use­ful for a long time to people who study this area.

I mean, there are things that came along in the study that we hadn’t ex­pec­ted. So, for ex­ample, the con­clu­sion about the time lines that it would take to pro­duce a war­head for [a cruise mis­sile] sys­tem — I would say that that was something that came as a bit of a sur­prise when we found that out. And I spent a lot of time — and the of­fi­cials spent a lot of time — test­ing that to really try and un­der­stand what lay be­hind it.

And ac­tu­ally, in the end, I’m con­vinced that that is the genu­ine view of the people who do this stuff day-in and day-out.

GSN: Was there con­sensus on those pro­jec­ted time lines, though, for de­vel­op­ing and field­ing a cruise mis­sile? Since the re­port came out, that has drawn a lot of pub­lic de­bate and cri­ti­cism. And some have the view that the tim­ing es­tim­ate was polit­ic­ally skewed, par­tic­u­larly be­cause U.S. tim­ing pro­jec­tions for build­ing a Re­li­able Re­place­ment War­head were con­sid­er­ably short­er.

Al­ex­an­der: Well, look, firstly I am ab­so­lutely cer­tain that it is not a time scale that is polit­ic­ally skewed. I’ve spent a lot of time talk­ing to people about that, and I’m ab­so­lutely cer­tain.

GSN: What con­vinced you of that?

Al­ex­an­der: There’s only a lim­ited amount I can say about this. But I’d say a num­ber of things.

Firstly, our war­head pro­gram is highly op­tim­ized around the cur­rent [Tri­dent bal­list­ic mis­sile] sys­tem. And it’s a very, very high-qual­ity op­er­a­tion, but that’s its job. And if you want to change its task­ing — without hav­ing exot­ic costs — then that takes time. Point No. 1.

Point No. 2: Each war­head is fit­ted very pre­cisely to the weapon sys­tem with which it’s de­ployed. And the phys­ic­al con­di­tions in a cruise mis­sile that’s fly­ing low alti­tude, boun­cing around in the sky, is quite dif­fer­ent than the phys­ic­al con­di­tions in a bal­list­ic mis­sile that sits in a sub­mar­ine for a long time and then —

GSN: Blasts off?

Al­ex­an­der: Right, ex­actly. And so, it is ac­tu­ally a com­pletely dif­fer­ent design pro­cess. You can’t just say, ‘Well, let’s just put the same [war­head on it].’

This is not like mak­ing a mod­el out of Play-Doh — you just short of shift it around a bit and it fits in, as you know. And so that takes a long time.

You ba­sic­ally have to start from scratch.

And then, of course, along with most oth­er civ­il­ized coun­tries, we don’t [ex­plos­ively] test our [war­heads]. We’ve signed to the [Com­pre­hens­ive] Test Ban Treaty, so we don’t test new war­heads in the [ground].

So the oth­er ways of be­ing sure that what you’ve got will de­liv­er its in­ten­ded ob­ject­ives take longer. “¦

Look, I was sur­prised. But on the basis of the ques­tions that I’ve asked, I’m sat­is­fied that that time line is cor­rect.

I daresay if you had a few ex­tra tens of bil­lions of pounds to throw around, you could do it more quickly.

But this was not based on find­ing the most costly pos­sible way to do things. It was based on look­ing at with­in the sort of money that we have avail­able for the Suc­cessor pro­gram, or [even] a bit less, what can we do?


GSN: In per­form­ing the re­view, was the as­sump­tion that any nuc­le­ar-armed cruise mis­siles would go on sur­face ships, or how would they be de­ployed?

Al­ex­an­der: Ac­tu­ally the re­view con­sidered a whole range of op­tions with cruise mis­siles.

So they could have in­cluded air-launched, launch from sur­face ships, or launch from sub­mar­ines.

GSN: Was there one mode that was par­tic­u­larly at­tract­ive to you, go­ing in­to this?

Al­ex­an­der: No, not really. I have to say “¦ oth­ers who have been more steeped in this sub­ject be­fore may have had par­tic­u­lar views. I didn’t go in­to it with any pre­con­cep­tions about which or what I would prefer.

Ex­cept for the fol­low­ing: That one of the in­ter­est­ing points around a cruise-mis­sile based sys­tem would be the pos­sib­il­ity that an air­craft would of­fer dual-use plat­forms, that could be equipped with either nuc­le­ar or con­ven­tion­al cruise mis­siles.

And there’s some mer­it for that “¦ from a fin­an­cial point of view, but also in the long run in terms of if you want to take fur­ther steps down the lad­der in fu­ture, cre­at­ing a simple way of do­ing it.

And ac­tu­ally, the ana­lys­is that we did, [some of] which is con­tained in the pub­lished re­port, sug­gests that a cruise mis­sile-based sys­tem would, in the­ory — I think par­tic­u­larly the su­per­son­ic cruise-mis­sile op­tion that we ana­lyzed — would meet the test of de­terrence that we were in­ter­ested in.

The main is­sue with that was the [war­head-de­vel­op­ment] time lines. So what we’re not pre­pared to tol­er­ate was a gap of five years or so when the coun­try would have no de­terrent at all. That doesn’t meet the kind of as­sump­tions that we put around it.

The in­ter­est­ing point about that is that it sug­gests that if our pre­de­cessor gov­ern­ment — if the Labor Party back in 2006 — had un­der­taken a re­view with the scope of the one that we’ve done now, then that would have been a real­ist­ic op­tion then. Be­cause if they had made that de­cision in 2006, there would have been no gap; a cruise mis­sile-based sys­tem per­haps would have been a vi­able op­tion; that could have been pub­lic de­bate.

And of course, it is the case, too, that at some point in the next few dec­ades, this coun­try will have Suc­cessor or whatever the next gov­ern­ment de­cides. That will last for a num­ber of dec­ades and then there’ll have to be fur­ther de­cision-mak­ing after that.

So I hope that the evid­ence here will be something which is use­ful at that point, too. Be­cause it still seems to me that, at some point over the course of the cen­tury, mov­ing to some kind of dual-cap­able sys­tem would ac­tu­ally be prefer­able.

Maybe bey­ond my life­time.

GSN: Could the United King­dom field both nuc­le­ar- and con­ven­tion­ally armed bal­list­ic mis­siles, in your view? Or would you have the same qualms as raised in the United States about hav­ing a dual-cap­able Tri­dent, where a fu­ture ad­versary wouldn’t know which vari­ant is be­ing launched, and might re­spond pre­cip­it­ously?

Al­ex­an­der: I guess you could have that risk of mis­take with any sys­tem. But the cruise mis­sile op­tion makes more sense, I think, be­cause I guess those sort of sys­tems are more read­ily used from a con­ven­tion­al point of view. So you’d have an ex­ist­ing sys­tem that it could be in­ter­op­er­able with.


GSN: An­oth­er cri­ti­cism that some people have raised is that the $30 bil­lion es­tim­ated for the like-for-like ap­proach is that those funds could be bet­ter used else­where, even just with­in the se­cur­ity realm. So do you see a po­ten­tial trade-off in which mon­ies in­stead could be spent on — for in­stance — im­prov­ing in­tel­li­gence cap­ab­il­it­ies, spe­cial forces or lo­gist­ics?

Al­ex­an­der: I would say those are all im­port­ant parts of our armed forces. And in the end, all pub­lic ex­pendit­ure choices ul­ti­mately are trade-offs. Be­cause in any cir­cum­stance, even “¦ in good eco­nom­ic times, as it were, there is not a lim­it­less sup­ply of money. So you al­ways have to choose what you do.

I think that my view is that it would not be right for the coun­try — the United King­dom — to cease to be a nuc­le­ar-weapons state. “¦ And there­fore, the ques­tion that we should ask is: How can we achieve that in the most cost-ef­fect­ive way pos­sible?

And then there’s a ques­tion, there’s a choice, about how you use any sav­ings. And, in fact, six bil­lion dol­lars — avail­able prin­cip­ally in the peri­od sort of 2025 to 2035 — could be of con­sid­er­able use in re­spect of in­tel­li­gence gath­er­ing, or oth­er mil­it­ary cap­ab­il­it­ies that are be­ing gen­er­ated at that time.

So I think it’s not right for people to sort of sneer at the num­bers and say well, that’s not worth­while. As min­is­ter re­spons­ible for pub­lic ex­pendit­ure in the United King­dom, I can tell you that every dol­lar is valu­able — or in­deed every pound, as we would say over here.

So look, people can make that ar­gu­ment. Of course they can. And it is a per­fectly le­git­im­ate thing to say, ‘We think this is not worth the money we’re spend­ing on it, and we should do something else.’

The view I’ve come to is it is worth re­think­ing this policy for first prin­ciples, in terms of how we do it. But [on] the ba­sic de­cision about do we wish to be a coun­try as a nuc­le­ar-weapons state or not, I fall down on the side of we should be a nuc­le­ar-weapons state be­cause of the threats of the world around us.

I would like us to move to be­ing a world free of nuc­le­ar weapons. I agree with Pres­id­ent Obama that is a very long jour­ney, in­deed. And while we are still on that jour­ney, the United King­dom needs to re­main a nuc­le­ar state.

GSN: Do you ever ima­gine a fu­ture step down on that lad­der where the U.K. ef­fect­ively de­nuc­lear­izes and comes un­der the U.S. um­brella of ex­ten­ded nuc­le­ar de­terrence?

Al­ex­an­der: I haven’t got any pro­pos­als for steps down the lad­der bey­ond the ones that I’m pro­pos­ing off the back of the re­view.

I think that the move from a con­tinu­ous pos­ture to a lower pos­ture is ac­tu­ally rather a big and im­port­ant de­cision. It’s one that I sus­pect would be one of the biggest steps to­wards re­du­cing the level of threat that nuc­le­ar weapons pose in the world that the U.K. has ever made.

But I don’t have a whole menu of what the fur­ther steps are bey­ond that.

GSN: Are you op­posed to the idea of the United King­dom re­ly­ing more on the United States for its ex­ten­ded de­terrence?

Al­ex­an­der: Well, for the reas­ons I gave earli­er, I think that I would like the U.K. in its own right to con­tin­ue to be a nuc­le­ar-weapons state. But it’s also true — and a very im­port­ant fact — that we co­oper­ate closely with the United States and our NATO al­lies. And we work to­geth­er to pro­tect one an­oth­er.

And that’s a set of facts I don’t want to change, and I don’t think need to be changed by if the U.K. im­ple­ments the con­clu­sions of this re­view.

GSN: One of the op­tions for back­ing off of the con­tinu­ous at-sea de­terrence policy of 24/7 sea patrols is to, at times, send sub­mar­ines out to sea without nuc­le­ar war­heads. Is that a way of im­ple­ment­ing this step-down that you sub­scribe to, per­son­ally?

Al­ex­an­der: Well, so that’s, in a sense, the de­scrip­tion of the low­est of the pos­tures that was con­sidered un­der the re­view. The re­view called it “˜pre­served de­terrence.’ It was ba­sic­ally you main­tain the cap­ab­il­ity — so you have the sub­mar­ines, and you have the weapons, and you have the trained crew, [and] they main­tain their skills through[out]. But you don’t de­ploy the weapons.

Now, I think that is a per­fectly reas­on­able ap­proach. Wheth­er we’d be able im­me­di­ately to take the step right the way down to that pos­ture, or wheth­er we would start with a situ­ation where we had reg­u­lar or even ir­reg­u­lar patrols with weapons on board — there’s a whole range of op­tions there.

I think that what’s im­port­ant is that our party has em­braced the view that our coun­try should move away from con­tinu­ous de­terrence to a lower pos­ture. And we will need to work out the right, pre­cise doc­trine around that.

But “¦ in the right cir­cum­stances, with the right threat en­vir­on­ment, I don’t ob­ject to that as a way of go­ing about our busi­ness, no.

GSN: What would be the pur­pose, then, of send­ing out the sub­mar­ines without nuc­le­ar weapons on board?

Al­ex­an­der: The main reas­on is that “¦ you still have to work hard to main­tain the skills and train­ing of the crews in­volved.

You can’t do that from land. You have to send people out on patrol. That was the ar­gu­ment in the policy pa­per.

As I say, there are oth­er op­tions. You can send the sub­mar­ines out with weapons on board. You could do that fre­quently; you could do that in­fre­quently. So there’s a whole range of steps that are avail­able, once you’ve de­cided to get rid of con­tinu­ous de­terrence.

And I think that the judg­ment about which of those steps you’d sit on is one that you would ac­tu­ally take in light of both the threat en­vir­on­ment that you saw, and also the ad­vice from the mil­it­ary about what’s the best way to main­tain the cap­ab­il­it­ies that you need.

GSN: So the primary reas­on to do that would be to main­tain the crew skills, but you could do that with the nuc­le­ar war­heads on­board. So is it that re­mov­ing the war­heads is mainly to sig­nal the world that you’re tak­ing gradu­al steps in re­du­cing the role that nuc­le­ar weapons play?

Al­ex­an­der: Yes, that’s right. Yes, ex­actly. You need to have patrols in or­der to make sure your crews keep their skills.

Not hav­ing nuc­le­ar weapons on board would be part of a sig­nal that “¦ we are try­ing to re­duce the level of threat that our weapons pose.

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