The UK effectively stopped being a superpower once the US entered WW2. Since then its empire has disappeared and its power and influence on the international stage has steadily reduced. Most US eyes look east, not west, when seeking strategic partnerships.

The UK continues to talk itself up as a major international player, however, and a key signal of this is its independent nuclear deterrent, Trident. As the government undertakes its comprehensive spending review the future of Trident is one of the key issues to resolve. There are three basic options facing the Defence Secretary:

  • Replace Trident on a like-for-like basis, as set out in the Conservative party’s manifesto;
  • Decide to forego the nuclear deterrent and reallocate the funds into a mixture of savings and re-investment in other military capabilities; or
  • Delay the replacement, and accept that a continuous operational nuclear deterrent will no longer be possible.

My own view is that the full replacement of Trident would be an investment in ego far more than it an investment in strategic defence capability. The cost of replacing and operating Trident is colossal. Estimates for the cost of replacement are put at anywhere between £15 billion and £35 billion.

But what is the real need for Trident today? Outside of the cost issue, I think that there are three key challenges to the UK’s ongoing commitment to an independent nuclear deterrent:

  1. It’s not particularly independent. The system is American and many argue that, in effect, the UK needs US approval to launch the system. This means that the only time it could be used is when the US engineers say so, and, if that’s the case, it’s likely that the US will want to be using their arsenal;
  2. The rules of war have changed. Most conflicts require agile responses not heavy-handed cold war sledgehammers. Sure, there are concerns that countries like Iran and North Korea could destabilise their regions by creating and potentially deploying nuclear weapons. But if that happens, wouldn’t we rely on US capability anyway?
  3. The broader international efforts are focused on disarmament. The US and the Russians continue to negotiate reductions in the number of warheads. The UK could potentially contribute to this negotiation by including Trident in the deals done.

So, why write these comments on a business and strategy blog? The reason is that many companies have their own versions of Trident. Their versions may include unnecessarily large head offices, over-inflated bonuses, the ongoing maintenance of loss-making and redundant stores and sales offices, over-specified IT systems, or ineffective corporate support teams.

The common element is that it is often pride and ego that drives the ‘investment’ rather than business need.

What is your equivalent of Trident, and do you have a ‘comprehensive spending review’ set up to review it?

© Stuart Cross 2010. All rights reserved.