Opinions expressed in these papers are those of the authors and should not be taken as expressing UKNDA policy.
Trident or Nothing!
by Steve Coltman
That seems to be it as far as many are concerned – the only options Britain has regarding a nuclear deterrent is: Trident or Nothing. Really? Is that it? In industry if one wishes to buy a piece of equipment, say £250,000-worth, one would be expected to go through a rigorous justification of the proposed spend. Is it really necessary? What are the alternatives? In what way does this expenditure contribute to achieving departmental and company objectives? It seems to me as though less intellectual effort has gone into justifying the renewal of Trident (£100,000,000,000 or thereabouts) than one would expect for a modest commercial investment. We are witnessing a gradual death of our conventional forces by a thousand cuts. HMS Ocean gone today, Wildcat helicopters (almost brand new) to follow? The Albion class LPDs perhaps, followed by cuts to the Royal Marines (well, no ships for them anyway). The Army is losing one of its three Armoured Infantry brigades (replaced by a much inferior but undoubtedly cheaper ‘Strike’ brigade). And so it goes on and on. £14bn of ‘efficiency savings’ are needed, so it is claimed. Basically – even if we had an honest 2% of GDP spent on defence it would not pay for the renewal of Trident as well as full-spectrum conventional forces. One leading Conservative is on record as saying 3% of GDP is needed but that’s not going to happen. It is claimed the crash of 2008 has caused the UK economy to be 25% smaller than it might otherwise have been so money will be tight for the foreseeable future. Don’t get me wrong – I do believe Britain needs a deterrent. Russia has huge nuclear forces, including tactical ones and may well be tempted to use them in some circumstances. Nuclear weapons are proliferating. It will not be safe to unilaterally disarm any time soon. That does not mean we need to blindly, unthinkingly, sink such a huge amount of money into this particular nuclear option. What do we want from our deterrent? First, it needs to be safe – secure from pre-emptive destruction. Second, it needs to be able to deliver as much as is necessary to inflict unacceptable damage to any potential enemy. Russia is the most sophisticated of any potential enemies so it has to be the yardstick. Our deterrent needs to be able to overcome Russian attempts to destroy it before launching, and be also able to penetrate Russian defences. I doubt if we need to be able to deliver a huge number of warheads and I don’t think being able to flatten Moscow is a necessary requirement – just enough to deter. It is claimed that a mere dozen 1 warheads delivered to the right targets will cause the collapse of the Russian economy. I doubt if many would argue other than a submarine-based deterrent would be best. It’s not the only possible alternative but politically there would be few votes for land-mobile missiles and aircraft-launched missiles would not, on their own, be secure enough. Well, we have a submarine already, it’s called Astute, its nuclear powered, as big as the Resolution class boats that used to carry Polaris and is in steady production. The Americans have the similar Virginia class and they are proposing to stretch these boats with the addition of an extra ‘Virginia Payload Module’. It will add 70 feet to the length and $550m to the cost of each submarine and will give the Virginia’s the ability to fire, vertically, either cruise missiles or medium-range ballistic missiles. We could do the same with the Astute class. We would be contemplating submarines costing more like £2bn each rather than the monstrous £8-10bn each for the proposed Successor/Dreadnaught class. It would be cheaper and easier to obtain a missile to fit the submarines we already have than to build submarines to fit the (very large) Trident D5. No one should doubt we could develop a cruise missile to fit such a submarine. Not just a Tomahawk-sized missile but a big one such as the Russian Kh101/2 with a range of several thousand Km. A ballistic missile would be harder to develop but I defy anyone to stand in front of the Polaris missile on display at Duxford and say, “no – we could not possibly make anything like that”. It is worth noting that the diameter of the Astute hull is 11.3mt. The length of the Trident C4 (Trident 1) missile is 10.2mt. Might it be possible to fit the Trident C4 into a stretched Astute? How much would it cost to buy a bespoke batch of Trident C4 missiles? Has anyone even bothered to ask these questions? My doubts about the current proposals are not just about its cost, but also its possible vulnerability. Even if we could be confident that the submarine at sea was safe from destruction we cannot be confident about the rest. One or two at least are going to be tied up alongside the dockside at any given time and who could contemplate the possibility of £8-10bn of submarine being destroyed by a couple of cruise missiles costing what – a million each? Not a good exchange. It’s simply too much money tied up in one vessel. And it’s not as if we have an advanced integrated air defence system in place to protect our submarines when in harbour. There is safety in numbers and half a dozen stretched Astutes at £2bn each, plus some of the existing Astutes retrospectively stretched would give us anything up to a dozen nuclear-weapons capable nuclear-powered subs for less than the cost of two Dreadnaughts. 2 Anyone seriously interested in this subject has no excuse for not having read the Trident Alternatives Review published by the government in 2013. There is much in this document to be taken with a pinch of salt (to put it politely) and there are alternatives it ignored but it does set out five different ‘postures’ we could adopt and this is worth examining: ➢ Continuous Deterrence ➢ Focussed Deterrence ➢ Sustained Deterrence ➢ Responsive Deterrence ➢ Preserved Deterrence The assumption in the government’s document is that the submarines would be dedicated nuclear weapons platforms rather than dual-purpose vessels. In my opinion it would be better to have dual-purpose submarines capable of doing either or both roles. Continuous is what we have at present – we can nuke anyone, any time. I am not sure we really need to. Focussed is more like it – there are only a few potential threats and focussing on them makes more sense. We don’t need to be able to nuke Saudia Arabia and Brazil at the same time. Sustained Deterrence is probably good enough. We could simply have a deterrent at sea, not necessarily in constant range of a potential enemy and the submarines not necessarily dedicated to nuclear deterrence duties. To have them at sea and safe from pre-emptive destruction would be good enough most of the time and would permit an ‘upgrade’ to Focussed Deterrence if need be. Responsive Deterrence is (in my opinion) taking a chance as it involves having ‘gaps’ where there are no nuclear weapons at sea at all. Maybe one day this might be good enough but not now. Preserved Deterrence is not worth considering as it involves keeping all nuclear weapons on land and the submarines only sent to sea on training missions. A Preserved deterrent would only be sent to sea in a crisis (thereby escalating said crisis). Such a ‘deterrent’ is no deterrent at all as it can easily be destroyed in a first strike. It is a waste of money. 3 So, it is obvious what we should do: abandon the Successor/Dreadnaught monsters and continue series production of the Astutes, incorporating a ‘Virginia Payload Module’ type extension in all the new ones and perhaps retrospectively in the existing ones. A fleet of a dozen or more Astutes would keep the Barrow shipyard in steady business for the foreseeable future and would enable us to keep more than one nuclear-weapons-equipped vessel at sea at any given time. We need to find a missile for these boats – maybe Trident 1(the C4), maybe a ballistic missile of our own design, maybe cruise missiles. The latter at least we can certainly develop. And if we don’t? If we carry on like this then, to quote a former Defence Minister, the 2020s will be a car-crash for the armed forces. Spending on the Successor submarines will coincide with new armoured vehicles for the Army, F-35s for the RAF and frigates for the Navy. There are siren calls for ‘pooling and sharing’ of defence resources with our European neighbours and ‘Role Specialisation’. These are touted as cost-saving measures but they will rapidly lead to European countries (including us) rapidly losing the ability to act autonomously. We will find we need one country to supply this capability and another to supply another and we will be unable to act without the active help of others – effectively we would need their permission to act. This could be a stepwise and insidious process which might escape the overview of MPs until it is too late. If the process of pooling and sharing and role specialisation goes far enough only Brussels will be able to coordinate anything serious. There are plenty of politicians (and maybe civil servants) who would very much like this to happen. We cannot go on like this. It would take a psychologist to really work out the paranoia with which some people are clinging on to Trident but people really must let go and start thinking rationally about Britain’s defence future.