Trident – An Election Problem
For the past several years there has been an on and off debate about the future of the United Kingdom’s nuclear deterrent, commonly referred to as Trident. It is the subject of discussion as the submarines that carry the Trident missiles are due for replacement Because of the formidable cost of designing and building new submarines and various onshore facilities it is seen by many politicians as low hanging fruit, ripe for the plucking and redistributing to their favourite cause.
Noticeably, none of the opponents see the savings from cancelling the programme in terms of paying down the eye watering national debt that will be causing misery for all our children and grandchildren in the future, but that’s another story.
It is a subject we have discussed at length and I have written about many times.
Plagued by coalition politics and a mile wide yellow streak, the Conservative party dragged its feet in the last Parliament and so made 100% sure it would be a problem for the next but hey are committed to a 4 boat Successor programme. The Liberal Democrats at heart want to disarm so we can all get round a campfire and sing Kumbaya but they haven’t got the political sack to just come out and say so and thus, keep pushing at the ‘lower cost’ door, despite their own Alternatives Study concluding it was nonsense. The Labour Party also have a significant body of MP’s and candidates that want to get rid, especially in the new cohort this time around but officially, want a replacement. At least the Scottish National Party (SNP) have the balls to come out say they would cancel it, lock stock and barrel.
No sane person wants to have nuclear weapons, they are an abomination, but want is not the issue.
So what are the issues?
Who Are We Kidding
We are not a leading world nation, a member of the G8, UN Security Council and NATO.
Oh, hang on, yes we are.
This means we have obligations, expectations and duties.
It also means we are a target and if we actually want to ensure that Blighty never again is invaded, attacked or blackmailed by another nuclear power then the ultimate means of doing so is with the worlds ultimate weapon, nuclear weapons.
We can discuss the means of delivery but to me at least, giving away such a significant defence advantage seems rather foolish and naive given the length of time they will be in service and the uncertain times we live in.
We Can Downgrade the Posture
We are doing that to some extent anyway, Successor will carry fewer Trident missiles and each will carry fewer warheads from a smaller pool of warheads. The problem with going to non permanently deployed deterrent cuts to the heart of deterrence theory, that deterrent has to be credible.
It has to be on a hair trigger, always lurking, always unseen, always available.
Put yourself in the shoes of a ne’er do well looking through the letter box of a house you intend to break into.
In one house you see this
The house owner has guns, but they look like they are locked in a cabinet so if I am really interested in breaking in I think the risk might be worth it, I could get to the cabinet before the owner and put them beyond use.
My risk calculation has uncertainty, it tempts me into making a calculated risk.
This is the same as deploying a part time deterrent, one or two submarines that are deployed to a known schedule or in times of heightened tensions (despite that act actually escalating tensions)
Now consider what my risk calculation is when I pop next door, look through the letterbox and see this…
This is what continuous at sea deterrent is, a double barrel shotgun looking right back at you.
Ask yourself what the risk calculation is now.
To mangle my metaphors, do you feel lucky?
There are Cheaper Alternatives
I am ALWAYS interested in looking at cheaper ways of doing things and I don’t buy for one minute the position that says we must have the best or nothing at all.
There are cheaper ways of delivering nuclear weapons.
We could put a Trident warhead on the back of a truck, we could buy a free-fall nuclear bomb or we could buy a nuclear tipped Tomahawk.
Unfortunately, all these suffer from a distinct lack of credibility (see points about credibility above) and either don’t exist or would need to be developed. The funny thing about this whole debate is the missiles already exist, all we are doing is buying a replacement vehicle to launch them from.
No cruise missile exists that is 100% survivable against modern integrated air defence systems and which has the range to enable launch from safe patrol areas against all target possibilities.
But what about Tomahawk I hear you say, yes, a nuclear armed Tomahawk existed, once, but not any more.
In 2010 the US announced the phasing out of the nuclear TLAM that would be completed in the following couple of years
We reached a point of mutual confidence that the [Tomahawk] was a redundant system not necessary for effective, extended deterrence
Principal Deputy Defense Undersecretary James Miller
Perhaps the most sobering aspect of using the TLAM-N is the simple fact that during Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003 some ten (1.5%) of conventional missiles were lost, crashing into Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey.
Consider that for a moment and compare it against the success rate of Trident, it doesn’t miss.
Read more about the TLAM-N if you really need convincing it is not a good idea, click here.
We might shave a small amount by going for a 3 boat solution but that increases the risk of non availability because of mishaps, bumps, slips, trips and falls.
A 3 boat solution would be cheaper by a bit, no doubt, but it would carry a greater risk and therefore lower credibility.
The cheaper way of doing things is an illusion, of course it possible, there is always a cheaper way of doing something. But in seeking to reduce costs by a relatively small amount we would actually increase costs in other areas or massively reduce effectiveness and credibility, or both at the same time as they are joined at the hip.
The actual cost estimates of a like for like replacement vary, it will be expensive but compared to what, the annual public sector budget is about £750 Billion, the £3 Billion commonly tossed about (even assuming that is what it is) is about 0.4% of the annual spend.
Interest payments on UK public sector debt is twenty times that amount and it is slightly less than spent on ‘Broadcasting’ in a year.
In short, despite the fact that it is a lot of money, for what it delivers, it is the bargain of the century and efforts to reduce the cost slightly are simply not worth it.
We Can Invest the Savings in Conventional Capabilities and Deterrence
There is an argument that says Successor will distort the defence budget for several years and so there exists an opportunity to spend it on something else instead. Conventional deterrence is seen as having greater utility against the kind f threats we face. Of course we could buy some decent shiny new baubbles with £3b a year for the next several decades but in reality, would it tip the balance decisively in our favour in any future scenario, I doubt it, would those extra conventional capabilities offer the same kind of political clout that Trident does, I doubt it?
Would an extra carrier, brigade and squadron count for much when an aggressor has nuclear weapons, not in a gazillion years.
And in any case, would that money stay within defence?
Can I sell you a bridge
The Morning After
This is one area of the debate that many seem to ignore.
Supposing the UK retires the Vanguard and Trident system next week, the week after there would pretty much be zero impact.
Defence would still be both under funded and wasteful, ISIS would still be exactly the same threat to the UK as they were yesterday (practically zero) and Freddo’s would still cost an extortionate amount of money.
But the months and years after the UK would pay a hefty political price, the world would certainly not suddenly follow the UK’s leadership on disarmament and one day, it would be us looking at someone else’s double barrel shotgun and ruing the day the steaming fetid pile of dogshit that comprises many of our political class traded the one system that guarantees our security to get a few extra votes and 5 years in power.
Continuous At Sea Deterrence with 4 submarines and Trident provides the ultimate protection in an uncertain world.
It does not help the Falklands or counter the threat of suicide bombers on the Tube but it is not meant to, other capabilities do that, we don’t counter the threat of tanks with submarines do we?
Cruise missiles might reduce cost but because they would have to be designed, tested and manufactured would not provide the cost savings people think. They would also be less effective, less credible and add a whole load of other problems of their own.
A reduced posture and lower availability from either a non continuous at sea model or reduction in boats from 4 to 3 would reduce costs but add risk and reduce credibility.
The whole point of this capability is to establish and maintain credibility.
The C word is not something we should trade away so easily.
So, 4 boats CASD with a smaller number of Trident missiles and warheads seems to me to be the one thing we shouldn’t compromise on, even if it means a reduced conventional capability.
At least that’s my thinking.
Do we really want to live in a world where the French have a weapon we don’t.
I mean, really.