The comments on the earlier post about the Liberal Democrat election manifesto got me thinking, are there cheaper alternatives than 4 new boats and a refreshed Trident?
We all understand that an air launched Tomahawk is unlikely to survive against a modern, integrated air defence system any air launched system would need another delivery missile. The Storm Shadow would be the obvious choice but it is a tactical system with relatively short legs. This means one would have to get the missile, its delivery aircraft and air base (whether on land or on CVF) within a short distance from the target and would of course signal our intentions because this might take some time.
Not suitable as a system of rapid retaliation against a pre-emptive attack; so whilst it could in theory be cheaper we would be severely limited in deployment options.
It is conceivable that we might find ourselves in a position where we need to attack a nuclear capable nation (or its allies) with a conventional cruise missile, they would be unable to distinguish between a conventional or nuclear warhead and this might lead to a dangerous nuclear escalation.
Again, no suitable weapons exist so an expensive development programme would be needed and deployment options are even more limited than with an air launched systems. The UK does not have vast swathes of wilderness and the planning application for a series of missile silos would run into a wall of red tape!
We could of course put them on Ascension Island or make them a deployable system but usage would be signalled by having to slowly deploy them close to its target.
Surface Vessel Launched
Using a cruise missile of sorts, a new design or adaptation of an existing design but the same survivability, range and deployment issues as with an air launched system would apply. We also have very few surface ships; even fewer would be able to carry such a system.
Submarine Launched Cruise Missile
Perhaps the most realistic alternative, the Astute class would be easily adapted to carry a nuclear Tomahawk cruise missile (even though they are now out of service/production) and the same issues as survivability and closeness to target apply. There would also be a dangerous mixing of weapon types on the same boat.
The obvious partner would be France but this option is fraught with political issues.
Submarine Launched Ballistic Missile
Ticks all the boxes in terms of effect, survivability, separation from cruise missile flight profiles, reaction time and availability, the reason both the UK and France use this system is because it is the most sensible for a densely populated nation.
Accepting that this is the only sensible option we must look at ways to reduce the cost of the system as a whole. The refurbishment of missiles and warheads might actually be a modest cost because we would not actually need that many of them so the main cost lies in the submarines. The US has already embarked on the Trident II D5 Life Extension Programme to take the missile to beyond 2040 at a reported cost of approximately $800million.
Many have wondered if there are options to either extend the life of the existing 4 Vanguards but in order to carry out the work one would need to be out of action, in rotation, for some time so this would reduce the deterrent to 3 boats. 3 boats are not enough to guarantee 100% availability, however much modern engineering advances have produced low maintenance machinery. There is no way anyone is going to go down to 3 boats as a temporary measure because it would mean that 3 boats would be the new norm.
The Vanguards have 16 launch tubes and each D5 can have up to 8 warheads, the government announced in 2006 that the total warhead numbers would be cut to 160 and it might be possible to cut these even further.
The Astute class has 6 foot shallower draught than the Vanguards so inserting a missile silo ‘plug’ amidships might not be as simple as first thought but the Astute would be the obvious starting point for the design. Interestingly, the US Navy have recently ruled out using the Virginia class as a template for any Ohio replacement. That said, an extended ‘hump’ and silo plug might be able to be inserted to accommodate the extra height and one would imagine this would be a modest cost increment if a much reduced silo count was fitted.. Many of the combat systems, with the obvious exception of missile control, would be common to the two types.
Other stated costs have included a couple of billion pounds for infrastructure but what this actually comprises is not certain.
The US Navy is also facing similar issues but their Ohio class submarines will retire in roughly the same period as the Trident D5′s., that is called forward planning.
We face an unfortunate series of timing issues, the Vanguards go out of service between 2022 and 2028, much earlier than the Ohio’s and definitely earlier than the Tridents. It is worth noting that the expected service life for an Ohio class is about 44 years yet the Vanguards only 25, the Ohio class were life extended in the late nineties. The USS Alabama (of Crimson Tide fame) was commissioned in 1985, 8 years before HMS Vanguard and is expected to be withdrawn some considerable time after HMS Vanguard is decommissioned.
We have also made the assumption that from design to operational capability a Vanguard replacement will take 17 years. Because of the much shorter service life of the Vanguards we are having to make a decision much earlier than the US and will have to face some uncertainty about a Trident replacement whilst the replacement submarines are still in service.
So the question remains, accepting that a ballistic missile submarine is the only sensible and militarily/politically effective system if we ant to retain the capability, how can we reduce the costs?
The real sticking point is not the life of Trident, but Vanguard.
If we could extend the life of the Vanguard to a similar point as the Ohio class we could life extend the Trident as the US Navy is doing and take a decision on replacement of the whole lot, in conjunction with the US, much later than we are planning.
The only problem with this is that it would starve BAe of nuclear submarine work as the Astute production run finishes before a Vanguard replacement would start, maybe that is why we are in such a rush to get new ones.
Some questions need answering…
- Why do RN boats have a much shorter service life than USN boats especially given their much shorter at sea periods
- Can The Vanguards be life extended whilst maintaining continuous coverage
- What do we do when the last Tridents go out of US service from 2042 onwards
- Given the Vanguard replacement will be carrying Trident why will it take 17 years to complete a replacement
- Would it be possible to create a follow on Vanguard class, i.e. a repeat order rather than a new design
Or are there any alternatives not covered above?