There is a lot wrong with Chris Huhne's pitch for the Liberal Democrat leadership in The Guardian today, but one paragraph in particular is a shocking muddle:
After the disaster of Iraq, there is surely a premium on independence, yet the government has also agreed to replace Trident with one of equivalent power that will make us dependent on the US for another 50 years. At the non-proliferation treaty talks in 2010, we should either decide that the threats are now so different that we should get rid of our nuclear weapons, or that we should have a minimum deterrent.
Well, indeed; we should have a minimum nuclear deterrent. That's the view of HM Government and Opposition, and I agree with it. What possible relevance to that decision would be an assessment that "the threats are now so different"? Trident is a system for 40 years hence. Defence planning must deal with then as well as now. It is absurd to form a policy on the assumption that the threats we face will not change in that time. We have to anticipate remote contingencies, and we can say with reasonable assurance that if we retain a nuclear deterrent then the contingency of effective blackmail will be not be available to an aggressor. That doesn't deal with all threats; it deals with a particular threat that might arise from a range of other parties.
And if you put as great a premium as Huhne does on an independent policy, then the obvious recourse is to retain an independent nuclear deterrent rather than rely solely on the US arsenal. Huhne makes the magnificent elision, which is a plain insult to the readership, of using the word "dependent" without specifying whether he means dependence in operations or in procurement.
We are certainly dependent in procurement: we're buying a US system at a favourable price. The current Trident fleet came in well ahead of budget because we were buying an American technology and benefiting from a sharp fall in the cost of the missiles. (The procurement cost was originally estimated at £15.6 billion at 1995/6 prices; it came in at £12.1 billion at 1995/6 prices.) But procurement dependence isn't the same as operational dependence, any more than if your car is manufactured by Ford you have to apply to head office when you want to drive it. It's also worth noting (a point made by my debating colleague of this week Sir Michael Quinlan) that when the Wilson Government declined to provide troops in the Vietnam War, there was never a suggestion that the US might fail to honour the Polaris sales agreement unless we relented.
The Bomb is ours; we could use it independently. It is therefore - as is the purpose of a nuclear arsenal - an effective deterrent on our own account, and a reinforcement of deterrence on Nato's part. I'm doubtful that the Lib Dem contenders have thought much about this issue beyond their internal party positioning, and I wouldn't trust them anywhere near this country's security policies.