How will future generations defend themselves?

David Kingman explores the intergenerational dimensions of defence spending, asking whether we can ever know what future generations would want us to do

The wisdom of hindsight is, as they say, a wonderful thing. It often seems easy when looking back into the past to work out where the people who used to be in charge got things wrong, leaving a mess for those who came after them to sort out.

If only we could learn from the past, how easy it would be for those of us who are here today to know which decisions would be in best interests of our own descendants. Except of course, it doesn’t work like that – the choices we are confronted with usually have multiple consequences, some good and some bad, and whether we ultimately choose the correct trade-offs or not will only be settled by the tide of events.

This is especially true when contemplating our defence policy. The nature of defence is such that governments have to gamble on the kind of threats they think Britain will face in the future. Spend now, and money may be wasted; save, and you could put future generations in jeopardy. This dilemma is especially acute in the case of nuclear weapons.


The UK is currently committed to renewing Trident, its independent nuclear weapons system. The current generation of nuclear-armed submarines will not actually need to be retired until after 2020 at the earliest, yet this is an issue for today’s politicians because it is expected to take decades to perform the necessary research and development to design a successor (designing just the new fleet of submarines is expected to take 17 years). The Ministry of Defence typically signs 25-year contracts with the major defence manufacturers, so the perspectives of future generations really deserve to be given a seat at the table when debating these issues.

The difficulty is that, although the decisions we make about Trident today will have far-reaching implications for people in the future, it is almost impossible to say which option would best meet their needs.

From an intergenerational perspective, the case against Trident is that it is hugely expensive (arguably for little purpose) and also passes an environmental liability on to future generations. There are a wide variety of estimates on the cost of renewing the programme: the government puts the bill at somewhere around the £20 billion mark, while its critics have argued it will be higher (Greenpeace have estimated £34 billion). This is presumably just the cost of designing and manufacturing the new system, which has already been the subject of wrangles between the Treasury and the Ministry of Defence, whilst annual running costs will add substantially to the project. In effect, the long-term costs will be borne by future generations in a similar manner to PFI schemes.

The Ministry of Defence also estimates that it has total nuclear decommissioning liabilities of £9.6 billion, including the nuclear reactors on board each of the four Trident submarines when they reach the end of their working lives, contaminated storage and development facilities, and 200 nuclear warheads from inside the missiles themselves. Nuclear material often remains dangerous for over a thousand years after decommissioning, so it will be a burden for generations far beyond those who may have actually benefited from its use.

Closer at hand, there would be costs involved in scrapping Britain’s nuclear capabilities permanently. In particular, the nuclear industry is estimated to support up to 20,000 jobs, most of which would be lost under such a scenario, while also destroying a knowledge and infrastructure base which has taken decades to build up. And who can predict the cost to Britain left without a nuclear deterrent?

Back to the future

The case in favour of Trident is that we have no way of knowing what the future defence needs of Britain will be. While we haven’t had to use our nuclear capabilities yet, except perhaps as a deterrent, that’s no guarantee that they won’t become more significant in the future. Iran and North Korea are both thought to be developing nuclear weapons at the moment, potentially creating a dangerous new game of nuclear diplomacy for the modern age. On the other hand, it could be argued that our defence priorities ought to be aimed in other directions, away from huge, showpiece weapon projects and towards more mundane concerns like putting extra boots and equipment on the ground for fighting messy insurgency campaigns in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.

Future threats may of course not come from these directions at all – they could emerge from developments are only really in their infancy at the moment, such as large-scale cyber warfare, or the use of unmanned military robots.

Whatever those staring into the crystal ball say, for the moment it seems likely that Trident renewal will go ahead, but whether our descendants will thank us for this is something that will only become apparent once the wisdom of hindsight can be applied.