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Trident, nuke energy looking poorly under LibCons

Bet on sub-cruise nukes, power station delays

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Updated Details on the new Conservative/Liberal coalition government are now emerging, as are those of the policy deal struck between the allied parties. On first look, it would appear that the replacement of the UK's Trident nuclear weapons system like-for-like and the planned new generation of nuclear power stations have been thrown into doubt.

[Updated to add: Following release of more detail from the Coalition it appears that the power stations will be subject to a further Commons debate, but if the Coalition stands, so will new nuclear.]

Regarding Trident, the Tories' Liam Fox takes charge at the MoD: but the issue of the deterrent will be decided nationally, so this isn't particularly significant. The Tories are committed to replacing Trident with an equally-capable submarine-launched ICBM system, but they have failed to get agreement on this from the Lib Dems. The coalition agreement specifies that the government remains “committed to the maintenance of Britain’s nuclear deterrent”, but also that the Liberals can "continue to make the case for alternatives" and that the Trident replacement will be formally reviewed.

This sets the stage for another Commons vote on replacing Trident at some point in the next year or two, with the Liberals seeking to have it cancelled in favour of a potentially less expensive option - most probably involving the use of cruise missiles rather than ICBMs, perhaps even air-launched rather than submarine-carried ones.

In theory this vote couldn't be won, as Labour said it would replace Trident in its manifesto. However many Labour MPs are personally opposed to this, and it would seem at least possible that the new party leadership won't consider itself bound by Gordon Brown's manifesto commitment - not enough to three-line-whip its many antinuclear MPs into supporting the Tories, anyway.

There would be strong support from within the armed forces for any move to replace Trident with something cheaper, as the MoD budget going forward is ruinously overbooked and all three services fear cuts to things they want in order to pay for new ballistic-missile subs and ICBMs. The army would much rather have its proposed £14bn supertank force, the Future Rapid Effects Systems. The Navy wants its new carriers and - much more expensive - stealth jumpjets to fly from them. The RAF would rather spend the money on new and enhanced Eurofighters, and would also be extremely keen on the idea of air-launched nukes.

This last is relatively unlikely: deputy PM Nick Clegg has previously suggested that he favours the idea of arming the new Astute class attack submarines - already designed to fire Tomahawk land-attack cruise missiles - with nuclear warheads. This would be an option potent and survivable enough to satisfy many nuclear-deterrent advocates, and Tomahawks could be obtained cheaply (in this context) from the US. The only major bill to be paid would be that for a new British warhead to go on them. There would be savings on the order of billions per year to be had down the road, compared to replacing Trident like-for-like. This is insignificant in the context of the UK's imperilled public finances, but worth having nonetheless.

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