It is obvious that the replacement for the Vanguard class of SSBN submarines and Trident missile is unfinished business for many and it has emerged as a fundamental difference between the parties in the run up to the election.
In a letter to The Times a number of former ‘serious people’ have openly questioned the Liberal Democrat approach to defence and national security.
The letter was written by Peter Clarke, Former Head, Counter Terrorism Command, Metropolitan Police and National Counter Terrorism Coordinator, Sir Richard Dearlove Former Chief, Secret Intelligence Service and Lord Guthrie of Craigiebank, Former Chief of Defence Staff and ex-Colonel Commandant, SAS Regiment.
It included reference to Trident, although it is acknowledged that the Liberal Democrat manifesto retains a commitment to a non Trident nuclear deterrent the letter alludes to the general wishes of a number of Liberal Democrat front benchers to scrap the deterrent altogether.
One might find it somewhat ironic that one of the letter authors was Lord Guthrie, the same Lord Guthrie that was a member of the Institute of Public Policy Research Commission on National Security that authored a report (Shared Responsibilities) that ultimately formed a large part of Liberal Democrat policy.
Specifically on Trident, the report says
The dangers of proliferation are real and, not withstanding the recommendations outlined below, we are clear that it is in the UK’s interest to play a full part in global attempts to get as close as possible to a world without nuclear weapons, including by being prepared, if necessary, to place all or part of our nuclear weapon assets at the disposal of multilateral nuclear disarmament negotiations.
Reacting angrily the Liberal Democrat leader went on television this morning and stated that
“I am not going to take lectures from a bunch of retired establishment figures about the security of this country”
The same retired establishment figures that played (at least with one of the authors) a significant part in creating the Liberal Democrat policy.
Who would be a politician and have to try and square that circle!
So although there are other significant strategic differences between the Liberal Democrats and the other parties the issue of Trident is perhaps the most visible.
Both Labour and Conservatives have committed to a replacement for the Vanguards and Trident whilst the Liberal Democrats have stated they will seek cheaper alternatives.
The US is also looking closely at its nuclear arsenal but we should be careful not to draw inappropriate conclusions about similarities with the UK. The US have a nuclear triad with a range of strategic capabilities and a radically different role in the world. President Obama is pushing the concept of a ‘global zero’ or a world without nuclear weapons
“Together we will strengthen the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty as a basis for cooperation. The basic bargain is sound: Countries with nuclear weapons will move towards disarmament, countries without nuclear weapons will not acquire them, and all countries can access peaceful nuclear energy. To strengthen the treaty, we should embrace several principles. We need more resources and authority to strengthen international inspections. We need real and immediate consequences for countries caught breaking the rules or trying to leave the treaty without cause.”
– President Barack Obama, Prague, Czech Republic, April 5, 2009
This might be just a bit of the ‘hopey changey thing’ or simply a useful negotiating counter to Iran and North Korea but the fact that the US and Russia have just agreed to a reduction in warheads signals some intent. 190 nations are currently meeting/talking/grandstanding at the UN in New York to discuss the Non Proliferation Treaty. The US has announced a new Nuclear Posture Review that will reduce the roles and levels of nuclear weapon and provide assurance that the United States will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapons states that are party to the Nonproliferation Treaty and in compliance with their nuclear nonproliferation obligations
The issue of an Iranian nuclear weapons continues to vex the US, Israel and the wider Middle East.
Nuclear weapons are clearly on the agenda.
There is an argument that says that nuclear weapons, not NATO or the EU that have ensured European and world peace between the main powers since the end of the second world war but that is their role, the very prospect of an interstate nuclear age is so terrifying that it is just better not to get close. Without nuclear weapons there might be a temptation to get start a conflict, with both China and the USA having large nuclear arsenals and a closely integrated trading relationship they are going to have to find others ways to jostle for position.
How would this nuclear free world be policed, inspection only works with cooperation. Could nations simply resurrect their designs or invest in more conventional weapons that would need expensive countermeasures. Maybe chemical or biological weapons would be the new nuclear.
This might have nothing to do with the UK directly but in abstract terms I think the world is a marginally safer place with nuclear weapons than without.
So for the UK the two key questions are, do we, as in the UK, need a nuclear deterrent and if so, how is it best to resource it.
Do We Need a Nuclear Deterrent?
To state the obvious, we are not in the cold war and it is this charge that is often levelled at a Trident replacement, we are more likely to face a nuclear attack tommorrow from a smuggled and deniable dirty bomb than a ballistic missile with an obvious track and origin. The type of organisation that might back such an attack is arguably unlikely to be deterred by Trident because they could just shrug and say ‘it wasn’t us’
Retaliation then becomes a difficult prospect.
The obvious counter to that argument is that whilst this might be true today with the speed of technology proliferation can this be guaranteed for the next 30 years, I think not. One only has to look at the speed at which India, Pakistan, North Korea and Israel have ecquired warhead and delivery technolgy.
It would be an extraordinary gamble to throw away a capability that has taken so much effort to achieve and others are racing at full speed ahead to get. The Non Proliferation Treaty has proven to be spectacularly ineffective at stopping these nations and the technology is clearly transferable. So whilst it is highly unlikely that we will face a nuclear threat or attack from the current nuclear states can we predict with any certainty that either these threats will remain low or new ones will not emerge?
We might also be tempted to look at the issue through the prism of a Western democratic liberal prism, the world unfortunately is not altogether a rational place that shares our values. Whilst this does not mean those with differing values are hell bent on our nuclear destruction it illustrates that we should be careful about seeing things from one angle only.
The argument about the nuclear terrorist attack also assumes that this is the only possible future, yes Trident may be a relatively poor deterrent against a nuclear capable AQ but do we seriously think that is the only threat we face for the next 40 or 50 years?
It is this inability to see into the future, basic uncertainty about the threats to the UK that should be driving our thinking.
Some of the smartest thinking on the strategic future of the United Kingdom can be found at the Jedibeeftrix blog and they make the point that we should seek to retain Great Power status because it is in our national interest to do so. It is as much a political as it is a military capability.
If We Do, How Can It Be Resourced?
Generally speaking we must assume that the evolution of a nuclear deterrent has followed the basic rules of matching effectiveness to as low a cost as this will allow. The UK has looked at the issue in three or four separate studies and each one has found that a submarine launched ballistic missile is the most effective and cost effective means of achieving the aim. It is fair to say that these studies were carried out in different times and when we faced the certainties of the Cold War so I would still support a serious review nevertheless.
I think the Liberal Democrat position of seeking ‘cheaper and better’ is simply fantasy land politics without any basis and in truth, a fig leaf to hide their real intentions behind. That said, at least they have a straightforward position and have encouraged open debate rather than the ‘we know best’ attitude of the others.
The UK doesn’t have vast expanses of wilderness in which to base land based missiles, fixed silos would be subject to a planning enquiry that would make the Heathrow runway expansion seem like a local dispute over a house extension and even if constructed would no doubt attract hordes of yoghurt knitting protesters. Neither do we have enough space for a mobile land based system, unless of course we put them on Ascension or the Falklands!
The RAF simply does not have the ability to deliver a weapon with any certainty or speed so the most obvious alternative contender would be a nuclear armed submarine launched cruise missile, perhaps a remake of the Tomahawk or a longer range development of Storm Shadow/Scalp.
There are some advantages to this approach, the deterrent could be distributed throughout the submarine fleet and this might keep adversaries second guessing but if the principal aim is to reduce costs than I think it won’t be achieved by this and if it did, the capability reduction would not be worth the modest cost savings on offer. Don’t forget, not only would we need a new missile we would also need a new warhead and that is where the real costs lie.
The most modern and sadly, proliferating, integrated air defence systems can deal with subsonic cruise missiles so we might need multiple weapons to achieve the same effect. It is said that the Iraqis even managed to shot a few down in 1991. Of course no defence systems is 100% leak proof and this doubt might still provide some degree of deterrent but the system must also be effective if ultimately called upon.
Advocates of the Tomahawk or similar weapon point out that its 1,800mile range still puts the vast majority of targets in range but this argument fails to understand basic flight planning restrictions, missiles do not fly in straight lines, and the need to perform terrain following or evasive manoeuvre. Geography also plays a big part in effective range because of complex overflight arrangements with potential allies or launch area restrictions caused by complex terrain, the Gulf for example. It is also worth pointing out that cruise missiles have a small, but significant in a nuclear context, failure rate. As the missile transits other nations on the way to it’s target would it be acceptable for it to fall out of the sky?
These factors point to a costly new development, a development that would only be of use to the UK.
Putting nuclear armed cruise missiles on a boat reduces its overall warload making each one just that little bit less effective unless one accepts the compromise of a slow to react capability that would require the boat to return to home waters for a weapon change.
Trident is a clearly delineated and ultra reliable weapon system that has unrivaled and unquestioned capability. It will not remain 100% effective forever as anti missile systems evolve but this also assumes that Trident technology remains static, which it hasn’t and will not.
Through life costs would also rise significantly because the complex and zero tolerance of launch error training that is currently confined to a clearly defined class of boats and their crews would have to be distributed across the entire SSN fleet. It is a different job and we cannot afford to compromise training in either area.
A nation might take a chance that they can defend against a nuclear cruise missile, they will have no such illusions about a ballistic trajectory warhead screaming in at ultra high speeds with only minutes notice.
In short, Trident has credibility.
This means Trident and its replacement and the Vanguard and its replacement, 4 of them.
I think that it is a reasonable desire to seek to minimise costs but there are limits and in this I think the only area for cost reduction is a reduction in missiles and warheads but the delivery system should still be a submarine launched ballistic missile.
Perhaps a compromise that achieves both a modest cost reduction and shows some political leadership would be a reduction in missile tubes. We should also ensure that some of the missiles only carry a single warhead.
An extended sail on a follow on Astute design might be the answer, but talk of submarine launched cruise missiles should be put to one side.
For some additional commentary on Trident