With news filtering out that the Treasury wants any Trident replacement to be funded from the MoD’s core budget instead of a special reserve, I thought having another look at a cheaper way of doing this is timely.
This news is a rumour, it may or may not happen and even if it does, who knows what will be included in any ruling from the Treasury or not.
The final impact is therefore unknown.
In the previous post on building a cheaper deterrent I think we came to the conclusion that a land or air based solution was impractical and a sea launched nuclear cruise missile solution would have too many compromises to make it worth the expense. If you are going to stay in the nuclear club you should make sure that however you do it, your solution retains credibility.
So getting back to the issue;
How could we shave costs off or is there room for something innovative to really slash the bill?
Option 1 – Reduce Capability
The most obvious way of cutting costs is to reduce capability; 3 boats instead of 4, fewer missiles and fewer warheads.
These will reduce costs but still leave us with a credible deterrent.
Advances in nuclear engineering have reduced the need for maintenance and reactor refuelling, automation means crew size can be reduced and fewer missiles and warheads means less maintenance and storage costs.
3 boats instead of 4, based on Vanguard technology, would leave the objective of a 100% at sea objective under some risk. 3 boats instead of 4 using Astute technology is less of a risk but still pushes us towards the probability of at some point in the future having a gap in cover.
We might weigh that risk and decide to accept it, balancing it against a reduced cost.
Option 2 – Push the Decision Out to the Future
Although not actually saving any money, it would probably cost more in the long term, it may be possible to life extend the Vanguard class. This of course means that at any one time we will be operating with 3 boats not 4 as one goes into Barrow for the work so same comments as above about risk. There is also the political risk, if we can manage with three Vanguards in any upgrade programme, why upgrade the final boat?
I haven’t got a clue if this is feasible from an engineering perspective but it is worth a very serious look because it gets us through a financially difficult period and allows any subsequent decision to made without the financial aspect having an undue influence.
There is some confusion and indecision around the missile compartment dimensions for the US Trident replacement and given the timing issues between the UK and US programmes, there is a danger we may be left with a submarine design and/or actual submarines in the water that have Trident sized missile compartments when the US Trident replacement programme is larger. This situation would be a massive cost sink as our almost new Vanguard replacements would have to go into the boatyard for extensive refurbishment, given that it is looking likely that a 3 boat solution is chosen over 4, we would have to maintain an at sea presence with 2 boats i.e. not possible. Pushing the decision out to the future allows ‘Common Missile Compartment’ issue to be unhurriedly resolved.
By squeezing a little more life from the Vanguard class we might be able to get to the point where a replacement programme could coincide with either the French or US SSBN replacement which brings us on to Option 3.
Option 3 – Buy Off the Shelf or Collaborate
Buying a submarine off the shelf from France or the US is an option worth considering. The US option comes attached with an unfortunate timing problem, their Ohio class SSBN are not due for replacement for some time after the Vanguards go out of service (see Option 2)
We would still have the same degree of sovereign control but costs would be driven down for both nations by sharing R&D and production across a larger number of boats.
If we partnered with the French we would have to replace all the Trident infrastructure with something to support the French missile and warhead, unless we tried to mate the Trident with a French SSBN.
This would open all sorts of other political possibilities, a shared EU deterrent perhaps?
The downside to this would be the destruction of sovereign nuclear submarine building in the UK.
Option 4 – SSGN
This is an interesting option because it goes back to first principles and is effects driven, not platform driven, as options 1 to 3 are.
In comments in the previous post, Jackstaff, Dominic and Jed discussed the idea of using the deterrent to add flexibility to other forces.
One of the arguments in favour of a dedicated class of boats that don’t mix missions with others is the weapon release procedures are obviously stringent and need a dedicated training stream. Another is that in order to avoid detection they have to patrol in remote parts of the deep ocean, well clear of an land based anti submarine weapons, if we were to share conventional missiles with nuclear then to use the former the boat would need to come closer inshore, this of course depends on the range of the conventional weapons and distance to target.
The proposal was to cease production of Astute at 4 or 5 boats and create a Batch 2 design that had a vertical launch section plugged in amidships, 6 or 8 boats.
These could be fitted with the US ‘flex tubes’ and Trident rotated with conventional weapons, a single boat taking on the role of at sea deterrent on a rotational basis. Drawing from a larger pool of common vessels means availability management becomes easier, you don’t need that extra fourth dedicated boat. In times of heightened tension the weapon load could be flexed up or if things were really getting hairy, all our missiles could be dispersed across the entire SSGN fleet, diversity in location increases resilience and this resilience means the likelihood of a successful strike against our deterrent decreases dramatically. This may even reduce tension.
The idea certainly satisfies my obsession with ‘ruthless commonality’ to relentlessly drive costs down.
The US Navy has had some considerable success in modifying older SSBN’s by fitting multi tube Tomahawk launch cells, special forces accommodation and swimmer delivery vehicles. As part of a conventional deterrent it certainly has impact.
The difference between us the the USN is that we would be starting from scratch, we don’t have any surplus SSBN’s. The Astute, however, is a modular design and the experience gained from the tortuous design and build programme means that design and build expertise will never be higher than it is now.
Can we innovate to reduce cost and increase flexibility, yes, I think we can.
I might even venture into New Wars territory and say that a suitably equipped SSGN might replace some of the missions planned for CVF.
Instead of going for a tube based design I would look at the US Virgina Class Batch 3/Block II design, it proposes to use large modular bays instead of hull piercing tubes. These bays can be fitted with missile launch tubes for Trident, Tomahawk or, in the future, other missile designs. Other bays on the drawing board include special forces accommodation, dispersed sensor arrays, submarine launched UAV’s and UUV’s. The possibilities are many. Much like my suggestion on an Offshore Platform Supply Vessel derived lower tier warship, having lots of space provides lots of interesting possibilities. We might not use the space immediately but if there is one thing we all know, capabilities will fit available space, we will always find a use for them.
This modular approach also means that we can put off fretting about whether the US Trident missile replacement will be 2.21m in diameter (as now) or 3.04m as potentially it might be. We can design the Trident payload module at the last minute and if things change in the future it is simply a case of swapping out one module for another. The US water piercing missile launcher (WPML) also provides an interesting glimpse into the possibilities for future weapons.
The ability to launch a huge number of Tomahawks or anti ship missiles has considerable deterrent value in its own right. Carrying up to 60 special forces personnel with their equipment, mini subs, a range of UUV’s and even a tube launched UAV would be enormously valuable and an effective counter to increasing anti access capabilities.
RUSI published an interesting paper on the subject, have a read here
This raises an interesting point about the use of nuclear weapons, do we, as now, treat them as something completely distinct, not to be mixed with anything else?
We certainly bought them into play in the liberation of Kuwait, Saddam was told in no uncertain terms that should he deploy chemical or biological weapons there would be a nuclear response, aimed directly at him.
When on Trident duty the SSGN could have a specific crew and still patrol in the same manner as Vanguard but with most of the tubes empty, we could keep other nations guessing as to what the exact missile/warhead loadout is.
There is a certain purity in the Vanguard/Trident model, it only does one thing, a very important thing, for this it needs to be a specialist with specialist crew.
Perhaps though, facing financial difficulty and the very scary costs being mooted for a Vanguard replacement, we might compromise on our thinking and consider this as a sensible and pragmatic alternative that delivers a relevant deterrent for the UK