Vol. 32 No. 24 · 16 December 2010

Still Dithering

Norman Dombey on the future of Britain’s nuclear deterrent

2564 words

On the eve of the Liberal Democrat Party Conference in September the armed forces minister, Nick Harvey, a Lib Dem, told MPs that ‘the government had decided in principle to renew Trident.’ A few days later, Nick Clegg told the conference that he opposed ‘a like-for-like Trident replacement’ and suggested that ‘the money would be better spent on frontline military operations.’ Clegg described Trident as a Cold War weapon, and added: ‘the world has changed.’ Chris Huhne, the energy secretary and, like Clegg, a member of Britain’s new National Security Council, went further in the Sunday Telegraph that same week. ‘I believe you can see alternatives,’ he wrote, ‘such as, for example, putting cruise missiles onto our attack submarines: that is a much cheaper alternative to the development of a whole new generation of Trident missiles.’ Some Conservative MPs were worried by the mixed messages. Julian Lewis, the veteran Cold Warrior who once hired a light aircraft to trail a banner reading ‘Kremlin sends Kongratulations’ over the women’s peace camp at Greenham Common, wrote to the Financial Times: ‘When Conservative MPs met to consider forming the coalition after the general election, the renewal of Trident was listed as a Conservative commitment, which the Liberals accepted … Now we find that the Lib Dems have no intention of keeping their word.’

The coalition agreement does not, in fact, state that Trident should be renewed. ‘We will maintain Britain’s nuclear deterrent,’ it says, ‘and have agreed that the renewal of Trident should be scrutinised to ensure value for money. Liberal Democrats will continue to make the case for alternatives.’ But October’s Comprehensive Spending Review and Strategic Defence Review settled the matter: the government would not make a final decision on Trident renewal in this Parliament. While it was committed in principle to like-for-like renewal, no substantial spending on new submarines or warheads would be made until 2016, after the next election.

Assuming that the UK retains a nuclear weapon capability, what are the submarine-launched alternatives to the US-manufactured and US-maintained Trident missile? (There is no sign that even the RAF is pushing for air-launched systems.) The current Trident system consists of four nuclear-powered submarines, armed with Trident D5 ballistic missiles, based at Faslane on the Gare Loch. The policy of the New Labour government was like-for-like renewal, though it left open whether three or four new submarines would be required. The first of the current generation of submarines to enter service was the Vanguard in December 1994. It was designed to last 25 years; in the 2006 defence White Paper this was extended by five years. Any replacement would be expected to enter service by 2025. If it were decided that three submarines would do, the first replacement would be needed by 2026. Let’s assume it would take ten years to build a submarine and put it through sea trials before it entered service. Then 2016 would indeed be the latest that the first replacement submarine could be ordered. So why did Tony Blair say in his foreword to the 2006 White Paper that ‘the present submarines will start to leave service in the early 2020s and we have to decide now’ – in December 2006 – ‘whether we want to replace them’? The reason seems to be that Gordon Brown was eager to create jobs for BAE shipbuilders in the North-West, while Blair wanted to ensure that the UK would continue in its role as spear-carrier to the US.

The US first agreed to provide the UK with submarine-launched ballistic missiles – the Polaris system – at Nassau in December 1962. They insisted the missiles be assigned to Nato, but conceded that they could be used independently by the UK if ‘supreme national interests are at stake’. In the late 1970s the US agreed to replace the Polaris force with Trident on the same terms. The force would be on alert at all times, would be submarine-launched, so that it could not be disabled by a first strike, and would be able to penetrate any conceivable missile-defence system around Moscow.

The UK believed it needed its own deterrent because it could not depend on the US being willing to sacrifice, say, Chicago for Birmingham. The belief was borne out by Kennedy’s decision during the Cuban Missile Crisis to modify the US/Nato nuclear command and control system: he insisted that should the US attack Cuba and the Soviets retaliate with nuclear strikes on Europe, the US could not retaliate in turn without presidential authorisation. Kennedy wanted to ensure that the damage was limited to Europe and Cuba.

More than 20 years after the end of the Cold War it is time to start again. None of the old assumptions applies any longer. Russia may be difficult to deal with but it is not an enemy: we have relatively normal relations with it. The US now has strategic nuclear primacy over Russia: its chances of disabling Russian nuclear forces with a first strike are estimated at more than 90 per cent. There are several reasons for this: Russian nuclear weapon submarines rarely leave port; when they do the US can track them; and Russia has limited early warning radar coverage over the Pacific. The UK – like every other Nato member apart from France – could now rely on the US to deter Russia from using or threatening to use nuclear weapons. After all, unlike France, we rely on the US to manufacture, service and store our missiles, prepare our targeting software and even provide up-to-date weather information for the targets, so why not also rely on the US to deter Russia?

There are no conceivable circumstances in which the UK would face Russia – or, indeed, China – alone. Both Russia and China are large enough countries to envisage fighting and winning a war in which nuclear weapons are used. Britain is not. It does not possess nuclear weapons for use in war: it possesses them solely to deter other countries from using nuclear weapons against it. If the UK continues to be a nuclear power, all that is required is that it continue to own a deliverable nuclear weapon. Fine imaginings about when and in what circumstances it could or should be used are irrelevant. ‘With the number of nuclear-armed states threatening to grow, Britain probably does need to maintain a nuclear deterrent,’ Gideon Rachman wrote in the Financial Times in July:

But the weapons involved are so horrific that any semi-rational adversary is likely to be as deterred by a 1 per cent chance of nuclear annihilation as by a 100 per cent certainty. Britain’s recent government White Paper on nuclear weapons emphasised the need for a ‘credible’ nuclear deterrent, such as Trident, but an all-but incredible one would be just as effective.

The Trident system is far larger than required for a minimal deterrent force. Each D5 missile can accommodate 12 warheads (although in practice two or three are used) and each Vanguard submarine can carry 16 missiles. The UK has 160 operational nuclear warheads. In principle, therefore, the whole nuclear arsenal could fit into one submarine. Richard Garwin, the designer of the first H-bomb, giving evidence to the Commons Select Committee on Defence in 2007, argued that a much smaller class of submarine, carrying missiles with a single warhead, would be more appropriate for the UK’s needs.

There are three possible options for the future of the UK’s deterrent (assuming it’s kept at all). The first is to extend the life of its submarines. This was the option favoured by Garwin and his colleagues. In 1998 the US decided to extend the lives of its Trident submarines from 30 to 44 years, so that they will be retired in 2040. In 2002 it decided to renew the missiles as well, so that they would be due for replacement at the same time as the submarines. In 1998, the oldest Ohio class submarine was 17 years old – about the same age Vanguard is now. If the UK were to extend its submarines’ lives to 44 years, the first of them would retire in 2038, putting the UK in phase with the US. Any decision concerning renewal could thus be delayed for 10 to 15 years, and little additional capital would be required. The Ministry of Defence pointed out that the steam generators of the nuclear propulsion system were only designed for a 25-year life, but Garwin and his colleagues responded that this is a minimum design life – the generators may well operate for much longer – and that in any case they can be replaced (as they routinely are in civil nuclear reactors).

The second option is to use a smaller class of submarine. The hunter-killer Astute submarine, which was about to go into service when it ran aground off the Isle of Skye during sea trials in October, is smaller – half the weight and two-thirds the length – and therefore much cheaper than the Vanguard: it costs about £1 billion per sub rather than £5 billion. In 2004 the Royal Navy bought 64 Tomahawk cruise missiles to be used with conventional warheads on Astute class submarines. Astute subs carrying nuclear-armed Tomahawks would be substantially cheaper than a like-for-like replacement of Trident, even though more submarines would be required. There are drawbacks to nuclear-armed cruise missiles, however. The Economist has pointed out that ‘the Tomahawk only has a range of about 1500 miles, which is inadequate; it flies at only 550 mph and can be easily shot down.’ Lee Willett of the Royal United Services Institute adds that ‘the development of a cruise missile system would also violate the Non-Proliferation Treaty.’

In fact the Tomahawk Block IV missiles, which the UK deploys on Astute submarines, have an even smaller range, of only 1000 miles. Whether that’s enough depends, needless to say, on the targets. It may or may not be possible to reach Moscow using these missiles, but it would certainly be possible to hit St Petersburg – which should be an adequate deterrent as far as Russia is concerned. Though they fly relatively slowly they are not easily shot down because they hug the terrain and are difficult to detect by early warning radar, which is set up primarily to detect incoming ballistic missiles with a very different flight trajectory. And buying cruise missiles to carry nuclear warheads would not violate the NPT any more than the UK’s past purchases of Polaris or Trident missiles did. The US was co-sponsor of the NPT with the USSR, and the State Department made clear to its allies when the draft treaty was presented to them in 1967 that it ‘does not deal with, and therefore does not prohibit, transfer of nuclear delivery vehicles or delivery systems … to any recipient so long as such transfer does not involve bombs or warheads’.

A more serious objection is that the Obama administration announced in April that it intends to retire its sea-based nuclear Tomahawk missiles. US policy is to ensure that there is a clear distinction between conventional missiles and nuclear-armed missiles. Unless this policy is reversed it is unlikely that the US would be willing to sell Tomahawks to the UK for use with nuclear weapons. However, the UK has just signed two treaties on defence co-operation with France, which is currently developing a submarine-launched version of what we call Storm Shadow, the air-launched cruise missile used by the RAF (the French call it Scalp). The Declaration on Defence and Security Co-operation signed by David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy at their summit on 2 November specifically anticipates Anglo-French collaboration on ‘an assessment of enhancements to the Scalp/Storm Shadow cruise missiles’ and joint development ‘of the equipment and technologies for the next generation of nuclear submarines’. France is now a full member of Nato (also, one of the Nato supreme allied commanders is French; the post has previously gone only to Americans), so the US would be unlikely to object. Britain should be able to negotiate a deal with France whereby the missiles would be manufactured in the UK.

The third option is to develop a new generation of smaller ballistic missiles, each carrying a single warhead. The Astute is too small to host the Trident D5. A ballistic missile about half its diameter that could carry a single warhead a distance of 3000 miles would fit the bill. However, the UK learned when it developed the Chevaline system in the 1970s that building what amounted to a new missile system from scratch is very expensive, so this option is unlikely to be pursued.

To weigh these options means addressing the fundamental question: what is Trident – or an alternative nuclear weapon system – for? According to Garwin, whatever its function may be, it ‘is evidently very different from what it was during the Cold War, aside from the simplistic statement that it is to prevent the destruction of the country and to guarantee security’. A ‘decision to extend the life of its existing submarines,’ Garwin added, would open ‘a variety of options for the UK’. That doesn’t answer the question, but it’s a strong argument in favour of extending the life of the UK’s submarines while taking a serious look at the cruise missile option.

Another way of lengthening the submarines’ life would be to abandon the doctrine of continuous at-sea deterrence in favour of deploying the Trident fleet or its successor only at times of political stress. Indeed, does a nuclear deterrent need to be deployed at all? The Aldermaston scientist Garry George has argued that a stockpile deployable in days, weeks or even months would be just as effective. Sharing patrols with France would be another way of extending the submarines’ life.

Neither North Korea nor Iran provides a reason for the UK to have a nuclear deterrent. The US, together with China, Japan and South Korea, will cope with North Korea; Iran will be managed by its neighbours, along with the US, Russia and Israel. Iran and North Korea are ‘known unknowns’; the UK is unwilling to retire its nuclear weapon stockpile because of ‘unknown unknowns’. If it is to keep its nuclear weapons as an insurance policy against unknown threats in the future, then co-operation with France seems to be the least worst option.

As things stand, both parties in the coalition are able to tell their followers that they have stuck to their policies. Liam Fox, the secretary of defence, can tell Conservatives that government policy continues to be like-for-like renewal of Trident. Design work on the new, updated Vanguard submarines will be completed this Parliament. At the same time, Clegg, Huhne and Harvey will say that no decision to renew Trident on a like-for-like basis has been taken on their watch. Liberal Democrats can therefore point to their success in modifying Conservative policy.

There were cries of catastrophe when Harold Wilson, during the sterling crisis of 1967, decided to withdraw Britain’s forces east of Suez; they eventually pulled out in 1972. It is hard now to recall what exactly British forces were doing in Aden, Borneo and Singapore when the original reason for their presence had disappeared. Economic circumstances, too, will determine whether the UK remains a nuclear power. David Cameron realises that: it is why he is making nice to France, to share some costs. More than 20 years after the end of the Cold War, we are still dithering over our nuclear weapons. Perhaps we are waiting until Scotland secedes and insists that the Vanguard fleet, with its accompanying lethal paraphernalia, be moved out of Faslane.

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