Skip to comments.Debating deterrence: Trident - revisiting the UK deterrent debate
Posted on 03/13/2008 4:53:04 AM PDT by Vanders9
Early concept work has begun on the UK's next generation of ballistic missile submarines. However, critics of the government's plan to renew the Trident strategic weapon system contend that the deterrent debate is by no means over. Denise Hammick and Richard Scott report
In an office suite at BAE Systems' Barrow-in Furness shipyard in northwest England, the first steps are being taken towards the design and build of a new generation of ballistic missile submarines. The aim of the concept is to ensure that the UK can continue to deploy a submerged strategic nuclear deterrent capability for at least another 50 years.
Within this satellite of the Future Submarines Integrated Project Team - the executive charged with delivering the Successor programme - representatives from the Ministry of Defence (MoD), BAE Systems, Babcock Marine and Rolls-Royce are engaged in a two-year programme of concept work intended to prepare the ground for a new class of nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) to replace the four current Vanguard-class boats in Royal Navy (RN) service.
The Successor submarine programme will be a massively complex engineering and project-management endeavour and, while still in its embryonic stages, is already recognised as a defence acquisition programme of unique and unrivalled significance.
Concept phase activities have themselves been split into two parts. The first has concentrated on what form the major system functions will take, including propulsion, combat systems, and strategic weapon systems.
Informed by these outputs and their attendant option sets, a second phase of concept work will develop a coherent and costed submarine design that will meet the overall requirement as well as meet affordability criteria (both in terms of unit production cost and whole-life cost). The programme is expected to reach Initial Gate in the second half of 2009.
Other major systems decisions and Main Gate approval should follow on. Current plans are for a seven-year design phase, a seven-year build phase and a period of sea trials before the first boat enters service.
Yet while a parliamentary vote in March 2007 endorsed government plans to renew the Trident deterrent, it is not yet certain that this new generation of SSBN will ever actually put to sea.
A recent report, 'Trident: the deal isn't done', published by the University of Bradford's Disarmament Research Centre, argues that the real decision is still between four and six years away - the timeframe within which approval will be required to commit to manufacture of the new submarines. It also contends that the arguments deployed by the government to justify the investment in a modernised deterrent force must be re-examined, claiming that it "has presented a number of assertions as facts".
In a statement to parliament on 4 December 2006, timed to coincide with the publication of a White Paper on the future of the UK's strategic deterrent, then prime minister Tony Blair asserted that it would be imprudent to abandon the deterrent in an era "of unpredictable but rapid change".
Blair argued that "we cannot be certain in the decades ahead that a major nuclear threat to our strategic interests will not emerge", going on to highlight "a new and potentially hazardous threat" from states such as North Korea and Iran. He also drew a "possible connection between some of those states and international terrorism", concluding that it would be "unwise and dangerous for Britain, alone of any of the nuclear powers, to give up its independent nuclear deterrent".
Jointly written by the Ministry of Defence and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the White Paper, 'The Future of the United Kingdom's Nuclear Deterrent', articulated the government's justification for retaining an independent strategic deterrent. Although accepting that the strategic threat faced during the Cold War has gone, it argued that the "global context does not justify complete UK nuclear disarmament", asserting: "It is not possible accurately to predict the global security environment over the next 20 to 50 years. On our current analysis we cannot rule out the risk either that a major direct threat to the UK's vital interests will re-emerge or that new states will emerge that possess a more limited nuclear capability, but one that could pose a grave threat to our national interests."
Also, while acknowledging that such a capability is not intended to deter terrorist groups - so-called non-state actors - it noted that it "should influence the decision-making of any state that might consider transferring technology to terrorists".
The White Paper went on: "We make no distinction between the means by which a state might choose to deliver a nuclear warhead, whether, for example, by missile or sponsored terrorists. Any state that we can hold responsible for a nuclear attack on our vital interests can expect that this would lead to a proportionate response."
On this basis, it identified "an enduring role for the UK's nuclear forces as an essential part of [the UK's] capability for deterring blackmail and acts of aggression against our vital interests by nuclear-armed opponents", concluding: "We have thus decided to take the steps necessary to sustain a credible deterrent capability in the 2020s and beyond."
The UK deterrent is currently vested in a force of four 16,000-ton-displacement Vanguard-class SSBNs, each armed with up to 16 Trident D5 missiles and up to 48 warheads. The RN has one boat on patrol at any given time to maintain a continuous at-sea deterrence (CASD) posture (a 300th deterrent patrol was completed during 2007). The Trident D5 is a three-stage solid-fuel ballistic missile with a range of more than 4,000 n miles. The nuclear warheads themselves are designed and manufactured in the UK at the Atomic Weapons Establishment in Aldermaston, Berkshire.
The government's avowed position is that moves to renew the deterrent are being driven by the out-of-service date for the Vanguard-class boats, which were originally built for a design life of 25 years. Having performed studies under the umbrella of the Vanguard Life Optimisation Programme (VLOP), the MoD has concluded that the service life can "at most" be safely extended for around five years, prolonging the life of the class into the 2020s.
Past experience with UK submarine programmes suggest that even the five-year life-extension programme deemed acceptable by the VLOP studies will involve some risk. The lives of the previous Resolution-class SSBNs ranged between 25 and 28 years, but there was a significant loss of availability and increase in support costs towards the end of their lives.
After examining a number of alternative replacement options - including nuclear-tipped cruise missiles fired from non-penetrating strike aircraft, a land-based (silo launch) system and a surface ship-launched Trident option - the White Paper concluded that a submarine-based system continues to offer "the most practical and effective means of meeting our future nuclear deterrence requirements".
On that basis, the government signalled its intention to build a new class of SSBN to replace the Vanguard class. Moreover, on the grounds that it will take about 17 years between the commencement of detailed concept work and the start of a first operational patrol, it argued that a decision to press ahead was imperative.
First-of-class HMS Vanguard is due to decommission in 2022. However, a first new submarine needs to be operational by the time HMS Victorious, the second Vanguard-class submarine, retires in 2024. At that point the RN will no longer be able to maintain a CASD posture unless a replacement boat is in service. While the current CASD cycle is predicated on a four-boat deterrent force, the White Paper suggested that it may be possible in the future to maintain this posture with just three submarines. Forthcoming studies will determine a final decision on a three- or four-boat force.
The second strand of the deterrent renewal programme, developed under the Trident Life Optimisation Programme, foresees the UK becoming part of the US Trident D5 Life Extension (LE) programme, which is designed to prolong the life of the Trident strategic weapon system to 2042 to match the projected lifespan of the US Navy's 14 Ohio-class SSBNs.
"Unless we participate in that life extension," warned the White Paper, "it will not be possible to retain our existing Trident D5 missiles in service much beyond 2020, except at much greater cost and technical risk." UK participation is expected to cost GBP250 million.
The decision to advance the Trident renewal programme was welcomed by the submarine industrial base, the future of which effectively depends on the go-ahead for a new class of SSBN.
BAE Systems told Jane's the vote on the UK's future nuclear deterrent "provides clarity to the UK defence industry", which will "enable the submarine industrial base [in the UK], working in partnership with the MoD, to invest in the people, skills and facilities needed to deliver a successful and transformed industrial sector, which can meet the nation's requirement for this key strategic defence capability".
Dr Lee Willett, Head of the Maritime Studies Programme at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), asserts that the UK's decision to retain its strategic deterrent goes hand-in-hand with its desire to retain its influence on the world stage. "Rightly or wrongly, the UK regards itself as a global power and wishes to retain that position," he said, "and as long as it wishes to maintain that position it will retain the nuclear deterrent."
As regards the timing of the replacement deterrent decision, Willett argues that it could not have been delayed any longer. "Back in 2003 the government gave notice that a decision would be taken in the next parliament," he pointed out. "From that moment on the clock was ticking.
"My feeling is that the decision had been delayed as long as possible for both political and affordability reasons. In the end, the continued negative public debate on the deterrent issue, coupled with the imperative for the industrial base to begin work, drove the timing," Willett said. "The 17-year timeline to deliver the successor submarine is not a figment of industry's imagination. Indeed, the expert advice suggests that 17 years is going to be quite tight."
However, the University of Bradford's Dr Nick Ritchie, author of 'Trident: The Deal Isn't Done', contends that the 2007 parliamentary vote to endorse the replacement of Trident was only a first step - not the final word.
He argues that parliament "will have a major opportunity to revisit the decision when the government plans to let the contracts for building new submarines in around five years - the so-called Main Gate decision". This is expected between 2012-14.
Indeed, Margaret Beckett, UK foreign secretary at the time the motion was presented to parliament, observed: "Today's decision does not mean that we are committing ourselves irreversibly to maintaining a nuclear deterrent for the next 50 years... . That would be absurd, unnecessary and indeed incompatible with the nuclear proliferation treaty."
Several decisions still remain to be made before Main Gate: on the number of boats; on whether to refurbish or replace the current warhead; on a successor to the current Trident D5 missile; on whether a new supply of tritium gas is needed; on a possible new submarine reactor core production facility; on a new facility to manufacture highly enriched uranium components for Trident warheads; and whether or not to build a new dock facility.
Ritchie maintains that a precedent has now been set to ask parliament for authorisation at each stage of the programme. He further argues that substantive debate and a critical examination of the justifications put forward in the White Paper are necessary on the basis that the government has constructed a particular argument to justify its case - and has presented a number of assertions as facts.
"It focuses in particular on potential future strategic nuclear threats and the 'logic' of nuclear deterrence while saying little about the US-UK nuclear relationship, Labour Party politics, industrial pressures and ideas of international status," Ritchie told Jane's. "The government is convinced that Trident is a strategic military and political asset and has shaped the debate to reflect that conclusion." However, a serious debate of all issues is hampered, Ritchie asserts, by the mindset of the UK defence establishment. A "powerful part of UK defence identity is being seen as a US ally and being seen as a force for good," he said. "Part of that is being able to intervene in conflicts ... it's seen as the right thing to do in the liberal order. To be able to do that you need projection capability and having a nuclear arsenal is a small part of that. You can't get away [from the fact] that Britain's possession of nuclear weapons is tied up in that."
As part of this liberal interventionist discipline, he argues, the UK "remains wedded to a CASD posture to provide a permanently survivable nuclear force, despite the fact that the prospect of a disarming surprise nuclear strike on the UK is so low as to be zero."
The MoD disagrees. "Our preference is for an invulnerable and undetectable system based on a CASD posture that also allows us to maintain the deterrent capability at a minimum level of scale and readiness," it said.
The 1998 Strategic Deterrence Review in fact investigated taking the submarines off CASD, removing warheads from their missiles and storing them separately ashore. However, the MoD concluded that: "Neither step would be compatible with maintaining a credible minimum deterrent with a submarine-based nuclear system. That remains the case today."
It further argues that ending routine deterrent patrols would mean that new risks of crisis escalation would be run should it be necessary for an SSBN to sail in times of rising tension.
"The removal of warheads from missiles would also add a new vulnerability to the UK's deterrent posture, which is of particular concern given the reduction to a single nuclear weapon system," it said. The MoD further maintains that it is striving "for the emergence at the earliest opportunity of a security environment in which there is no longer any requirement for any nation to retain nuclear weapons.
"However, it is precisely because such a security environment does not yet exist that the UK has decided to maintain its deterrent capability," it adds, citing risk from the continuing proliferation of nuclear weapons and "the certainty that a number of other countries will retain substantial nuclear arsenals, [which] means that our minimum nuclear deterrent capability is likely to remain a necessary element of our security".
Nuclear v conventional
"We can only deter such threats in future through the continued possession of nuclear weapons. Conventional capabilities cannot have the same deterrent effect," the MoD asserts.
This position presents a troubling contradiction, said Ritchie, since at the core of its argument the UK says that nuclear weapons are an essential capability in an increasingly uncertain world. "The government should rethink its understanding of 'minimum deterrence' and examine further steps towards reducing the salience of nuclear weapons in British defence and foreign policy," he stated.
"Declarations of retaining only a 'minimum' deterrent, or not targeting nuclear weapons at any particular state and of only using them in extreme situations on national survival, are overshadowed by this logic.
"What prevents any other state appropriating the government's 'strategic' logic that stresses how important nuclear weapons are to British security, particularly if these states face more serious strategic threats than the UK? The answer is very little," said Ritchie. The government does not deny the contradiction, but says it is legally entitled to have nuclear weapons under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
"This is supported by a powerful sense of 'nuclear exceptionalism' - the idea that the UK is a major power, that it has an important and stabilising role to play in international affairs, that major powers are nuclear powers and therefore the UK must retain its nuclear capability indefinitely," Ritchie said.
The MoD maintains the role of the nuclear weapons is "political" and "not designed for military use during conflicts but instead to deter and prevent nuclear blackmail and acts of aggression against our vital interests that cannot be countered by other means".
Ritchie contends that this is another assertion, not fact, and asks how UK nuclear weapons would be employed in addressing future strategic security threats. "It is not clear what British nuclear weapons are for, why Britain, specifically, needs them and how their long-term retention can be reconciled with the [NPT]," he said. The MoD retorts that the NPT "does not require us to disarm unilaterally, set a date for completion of multilateral disarmament or prohibit the maintenance of existing systems".
The UK did pledge in the White Paper to reduce its weapon stockpile from around 200 warheads to fewer than 160, which it has now done. Ritchie acknowledges this to be a positive step, but said a reduction of around 40 warheads "over the lifetime of Trident's successor does not constitute progress towards nuclear disarmament".
It should continue on its positive trajectory, he said, commissioning detailed analysis on a wide number of subjects, including how the UK could move to a non-deployed 'responsive' nuclear force and how a 'minimum' nuclear force might be redeployed if a major strategic nuclear threat emerged, or further research into de-alerting the nuclear arsenal by de-mating some or all warheads from their missiles and storing them elsewhere.
So there are many factors that could influence a change of mindset in the period running up to the main gate decision in 2012-14, argues Ritchie.
The period between now and then represents "a critical opportunity to examine in detail the rationales presented by the government and its supporters for retaining nuclear weapons, the issues excluded by the government that are central to the debate and alternative steps the government can take to reduce the salience of nuclear weapons and work towards nuclear disarmament that builds on steps it has already taken", Ritchie maintains. The 2006 decision was not an irrevocable one, he said, and "it is parliament's role to pressure the government to have a rethink".
FUTURE UK DETERRENT PLANS
The UK government outlined its plans in a December 2006 White Paper to maintain and renew its strategic nuclear deterrent capability by building a new class of SSBNs and buying into the US Trident D5 missile Life-Extension Programme.
The House of Commons voted on the issue on 14 March 2007. The Labour government carried the vote by a majority of 248, although it was forced to rely on the support of opposition Conservative MPs to carry the measure after 88 rebel Labour MPs voted against the government.
Then prime minister Tony Blair sought to placate a wider rebellion within his own party by holding out the prospect that MPs would have a further opportunity to vote on the issue ahead of a definitive manufacture commitment.
Secretary of State for Defence Des Browne said that "further decisions will be required on the precise design of the submarines and whether to renew or replace the [16 Trident D5 missiles and up to 48] warheads. It is for future parliaments to find the most appropriate form of scrutiny for these later decisions". The vote allowed the MoD to formally sanction concept design activities for a Successor submarine to replace the four Vanguard-class SSBNs.
The Trident D5 Life-Extension Programme involves the manufacture of a number of new missiles and the modernisation of the existing missile inventory. Work is principally focused on replacing system components to minimise the risk of obsolescence, specifically the electronics in the flight-control system. Current plans call for life-extended missiles to enter service aboard the existing Vanguard-boats towards the end of the next decade.
The White Paper notes that the new SSBNs "would be unlikely to start going out of service until the 2050s, which will go beyond the planned life of the Trident D5 missile, even when its life is extended out to the early 2040s". On that basis, the UK says it has sought, and received, assurances from the US government that it should be able to participate in a successor programme and that this new strategic weapon system should maintain compatibility with the launch system fitted to the UK's new SSBNs. The UK's Trident D5 missile inventory stands at 50, these being maintained as part of a single pooled stockpile with the USN. The White Paper stated that "no further procurement of Trident D5 missiles" is forecast through the planned in-service life.
Recapitalising the deterrent will cost an estimated GBP15 billion to GBP20 billion (USD30 billion to USD40 billion) overall, according to the MoD. This figure is based on GBP2 billion to GBP3 billion for infrastructure over the life of the programme and GBP11 billion to GBP14 billion for four new submarines (there would be savings from a three-boat solution but these would not be in proportion to the reduction in the number of submarines). It also includes a provision of GBP2 billion to GBP3 billion for the refurbishment or replacement of the current nuclear warhead, a decision on which will not be taken until the next parliament.
© 2008 Jane's Information Group