Page last updated at 17:00 GMT, Wednesday, 21 April 2010 18:00 UK

Election: Clegg right to scrap Trident II, says Owen

Meirion Jones
BBC Newsnight

On the eve of the Leaders' Debate on foreign policy, Lord Owen has backed Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg's call to scrap Trident II, while the former Chief of Defence Staff Lord Guthrie has called for a rethink.

Newsnight's Mark Urban on post-Trident options and where the parties stand

Lord Owen has told Newsnight that a perfectly adequate nuclear deterrent could be produced for a tenth - or even a twentieth - of the price of the planned Trident II nuclear submarines:

"It's quite ludicrous overkill for a country that's facing a huge structural fiscal deficit and has got to cut public expenditure".

Labour and the Conservatives both want to renew the UK nuclear weapons system when Trident expires in the 2020s.

But the Lib Dems "rule out like-for-like" replacement, instead saying they will seek "alternatives" and support efforts at multilateral nuclear disarmament.

Debating point

During the first of the leaders' debates Nick Clegg repeatedly asked how Gordon Brown or David Cameron "could justify or afford £100bn over 25 years on a nuclear missile system, which was designed specifically to flatten St Petersburg or Moscow", and said "the world has moved on and I think you two need to move with it".

"For UK eyes only" - 1963 government document on the cost of deterrent

Mr Brown and Mr Cameron are expected to attack Nick Clegg on the issue during tomorrow's televised debate.

But Lord Owen - Labour's foreign secretary in the 1970s before going on to lead the SDP - says that Britain should never have bought Trident in the first place.

While he was in office he privately advocated a system based on cruise missiles for a fraction of the cost. Nowadays, he says, it would be even cheaper.

New Astute class submarines which are starting to go into Royal Navy service are already fitted with cruise missiles. In times of emergency, he says, their conventional warheads could be switched for nuclear ones.

In today's Times newspaper the former Chief of the Defence Staff, Lord Guthrie, adds his voice to calls from other former military leaders for a review.

"Do we really need the kind of effective weapon we had in the Cold War?" he asks. "There is quite an argument to say we do not."

Lord Owen says this is a commonly held view inside the armed forces:

"Many senior people in the Ministry of Defence want to keep a minimum deterrent with Astute submarines with cruise missiles".

There would be no more Trident submarines on deep ocean patrols, but in times of tension the navy could "put a nuclear warhead on those cruise missiles and deploy them as a nuclear deterrent".

Declassified documents

The 2007 decision to renew Trident was taken with little public scrutiny, just as happened with its initial introduction in 1982 and with Polaris in the early 1960s.

But Newsnight has also obtained formerly top secret documents which show that there were doubts from the outset over whether Britain should take the expensive path of building ballistic missile submarines.

The papers dating from 1963 show that while the deal to buy Polaris from the United States was being finalised, the RAF held talks with Boeing about instead opting for cheaper, land-based Minuteman missiles instead.

The papers were unearthed at the National Archives by nuclear history researcher, Brian Burnell, who designed bomb casings for Britain's first atom bombs in the 1950s.

They show that the RAF's scientific adviser wrote that Polaris would cost £420m over 10 years, but that Minutemen could "pose the same deterrent threat" for just £58m - a fraction of the cost.

When the decision to replace Polaris came before Lord Owen in the 1970s he argued that it was not necessary for Britain to destroy Moscow or St Petersburg if dozens of cruise missiles could devastate other Russian cities instead.

Recently released papers show that by 1977 Britain's chiefs of defence staff already believed they could not hit Moscow because of its missile defences.

They were already working on the same basis that Lord Owen thought would provide an adequate deterrent but, says Lord Owen, they told neither him nor the Prime Minister.

The cheaper cruise missile option was ruled out and when Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979 she was told that Trident was the only option.

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