In the past few months, the Korean Peninsula has once again become the focus of security challenges in the Asia-Pacific. Accompanied with the unstable political situation after the impeachment of President Park Geun-hye, unanimously passed by the Republic of Korean Constitutional Court on March 10, 2017, Pyongyang decided to conduct a series of military exercises and a sixth nuclear test, making regional stability even worse.
The Republic of Korea and the United States of America started the annual military exercises known as Key Resolve and Foal Eagle in order to deter any North Korean adventurism before the next president was elected in mid-May. Simultaneously with the emerging crisis in the Korean peninsula, a dramatic summit between Beijing and Washington was held in early April. Donald Trump and Xi Jinping exchanged their perspectives on the Korean Peninsula at the Mar-a-Lago estate, though no clear and conclusive approach reached a consensus during this meeting.
Many observers had predicted that an imminent conflict may erupt then simply because both United States and North Korea had shown their forces in such a high profile manner. Nonetheless, some still argued that there was no possibility of any armed conflict since no signal of real war preparation ever appeared. Furthermore, all U.S.-ROK annual joint exercises are conducted with proper scales. No particular alert poise and combat readiness may prove any attempt to solve the North Korean threats with military contingency maneuvers. As the situation around the Korean Peninsula returns to normal now, we should reevaluate the Korean Peninsula crisis in order to identify where the misperceptions are that lead us to an overstatement of the reality in North Korea.
Strategic Dimensions of A Nuclear DPRK
First, how serious is the challenge that can be brought by the North Korean missile and nuclear program? Since 2006, Pyongyang has successfully conducted nuclear tests five times. Unquestionably, the North Korean regime can be defined as nuclear-capable. Nonetheless, we should not automatically assume that Kim Jong-un already owns any reliable nuclear weapon. We should remember that conducting a nuclear test in a well-managed underground facility is one thing; acquiring reliable nuclear weapons with a delivery vehicle through the weaponization process is another issue.
Key questions abound. Does a nuclear test and a missile test necessarily indicate a mature nuclear missile? Did Pyongyang ever prove that it has successfully completed the weaponization process from its primitive nuclear test yet? Can nuclear tests that happened in 2006, 2009, 2013 and twice in 2016 be sufficient to prove that North Korea may already own a mature nuclear weapon and the associated delivery vehicle? Do we need to review the historical records of various nuclear powers who developed their own nuclear arsenals? Is it unrealistic to assume that North Korea is capable of completing the weaponization process based on only a few tests? Even if North Korea has the luck to complete the weaponization process of its nuclear warheads and delivery vehicles within such a short period of time, has Pyongyang established a credible nuclear force yet?
A well-articulated nuclear force is far more complicated than simply establishing a military force with nuclear weapons and delivery tools. The investment of command and control mechanisms that are compatible with the nuclear strategy may consume more of a budget than the nuclear weapon systems themselves. Force protection facilities and special forces for protecting the nuclear arsenal as well as other nuclear-related establishments are vital investments to build a mature nuclear force. We have already seen in the case of Pakistan and India how hard it is for them to retain their credibility of nuclear deterrence after their own nuclear tests. Arguably, we may also speculate that Pyongyang so far is only nuclear-capable, but to have any reliable nuclear arsenal and credible nuclear force, we have still yet to see.
Second, we should ask how North Korean nuclear capacity may convert into any political influence. It is very hard to see if Kim’s regime may use the nuclear weapon as a coercive means to take any offensive actions towards neighboring states. Has Pyongyang ever mentioned that the nuclear weapon will be used other than self-defense? Can North Korea afford a first-strike nuclear strategy? We should reconsider the purpose of Kim’s nuclear policy instead of misconstruing his real intention. Is a nuclear weapon a good choice to enhance the legitimacy of the government, thus assuring the political survivability of the regime? Given the case of the former Soviet Union, the answer is not ideal for Kim Jong-un. Can the nuclear arsenal enhance the political legitimacy of the North Korean government? This answer may also be disappointing. Kim’s nuclear policy has a very slim probability of reshaping the power structure in Northeast Asia and supporting the political survival of Kim’s regime. We should make no mistake in mistaking North Korea’s nuclear weapon for Iran’s anti-ship missile, which can immensely affect maritime transportation at the exit of the Persian Gulf. The nuclear weapons held by the North Korean may not have the same influence as other military assets in Kim’s hands, such as the hundreds of conventional artillery assets proximate to Seoul.
North Korea has carried out massive artillery drills, possibly the largest in the country’s history, to mark the 85th anniversary of the founding of the country’s Army. (KCNA)
The China Factor
Third, the China factor in the Korean Peninsula should be clearly identified. There is much speculation on Beijing’s position towards Pyongyang. Undeniably, China is the only key ally to this isolated state. Nevertheless, the influence of China on North Korea is also limited. China has clearly addressed its position on the North Korean nuclear issue with several statements noted by the Chinese governmental white paper titled China’s Policies on Asia-Pacific Security Cooperation issued on January 11, 2017. It first admitted that “The nuclear issue on the Korean Peninsula is complex and sensitive …” which proves that managing a nuclear Korean Peninsula is a daunting challenge to Beijing, too. Unlike many accusations of China secretly helping Pyongyang develop its nuclear arsenal, this policy statement clearly indicated China’s disagreement with the existence of North Korea’s nuclear capability.
Moreover, China also clearly expressed the willingness to cooperate with the United States on this issue, stating “China has actively pushed for peaceful solutions to hotspot issues such as the nuclear issue on the Korean Peninsula and the Afghanistan issue, and played its due role as a responsible major country” and that, “The two countries have made steady progress in practical cooperation in various fields, and maintained close communication and coordination on major regional and global issues like climate change, the Korean and Iranian nuclear issues, Syria, and Afghanistan.” We, therefore, should remember that the Mar-a-Lago summit is not a starting point for the U.S.-PRC cooperation on the North Korean nuclear issue, but a reaffirmation of positions. More importantly, it makes the following statement:
“China is committed to the denuclearization of the peninsula, its peace and stability, and settlement of the issue through dialogue and consultation. Over the years, China has made tremendous efforts to facilitate the process of denuclearization of the peninsula, safeguard the overall peace and stability there, and realize an early resumption of the Six-Party Talks… the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) conducted two nuclear tests and launched missiles of various types, violating UN Security Council resolutions and running counter to the wishes of the international community. China has made clear its opposition to such actions and supported the relevant Security Council resolutions to prevent the DPRK’s further pursuit of nuclear weapons…other parties concerned should not give up the efforts to resume talks or their responsibilities to safeguard peace and stability on the peninsula.”
We, therefore, may conclude with a clear picture of China’s position on Pyongyang’s nuclear adventurism.
However, it is necessary to remember another issue: the deployment of the THAAD missile system in the Korean Peninsula in recent months. Although Beijing hasn’t linked this issue with the North Korean nuclear issue yet, Washington should be aware of the sensitivity of this military maneuver. Given that the white paper states “Despite clear opposition from relevant countries including China, the U.S. and the Republic of Korea (ROK) announced the decision to start and accelerate the deployment of the THAAD anti-ballistic missile system in the ROK. Such an act would seriously damage the regional strategic balance and the strategic security interests of China and other countries in the region, and run counter to the efforts for maintaining peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula.China firmly opposes the U.S. and ROK deployment of the THAAD anti-ballistic missile system in the ROK, and strongly urges the U.S. and the ROK to stop this process.” Of course, the newly-elected South Korean President Moon Jae-in may have the possibility to change the decision of deploying the THAAD system. Nonetheless, Washington should consider how these two issues can be well-managed together before any linkage actually emerges in Beijing’s strategic calculus in the future.
China-DPRK Treaty Ties
Last but not least, during past several months, there has been a missing point rarely noted in commentary. The Sino-North Korean Mutual Aid and Cooperation Friendship Treaty signed on July 11, 1961 is still a valid security assurance granted by Beijing so far. Article Two is a provision of mutual military assistance in the event of security threats to either signatory. The phrases of assuring military intervention as “The two parties undertake jointly to adopt all measures to prevent aggression against either party by any state,” and “in the event of one of the parties being subjected to the armed attack by any state or several states together and thus being involved in a state of war, the other party shall immediately render military and other assistance by all means at its disposal,” gave the treaty characteristics of a pact for security alliance.
Also, Article Three notes, “Neither party shall conclude any alliance directed against the other party or take part in any bloc or in any action or measure directed against the other party,” which can possibly exclude the possibility of Beijing granting tacit consent to Washington for any military maneuver involving the decapitation of North Korean leadership or the destruction of its nuclear facilities with military strikes. Although it is very unrealistic to argue that the Article Three of this treaty may effectively restrict any cooperative diplomatic effort between Washington and Beijing towards Pyongyang, it is necessary to understand Beijing’s present position of interpreting the terms noted in this treaty.
The Korean Peninsula crisis will never be the catalyst for improving Sino-US relations, though both parties do share the concern of future development. There are so many issues on the mutual relations agenda between Washington and Beijing. On the other hand, the Korean Peninsula crisis is the best chance for the Japanese Abe’s regime to have an excuse to revise its constitution. For the Japanese concern on the Korean Peninsula is a “just cause” or only a “just because”, the strategy planners in Washington should well assess its significances. With many misconceptions already existing on the Korean Peninsula, the most valuable advice would be “always be aware of those who intend to fish in troubled waters”. Before taking prompt decisions and taking the viewpoints from media commentary, reviewing all the basic documents carefully should also be an essential element for formulating future policies.
Dr. Ching Chang was a line officer in the Republic of China Navy for more than thirty years. As a visiting faculty member of the China Military Studies Masters Program at the National Defense University, ROC, he is recognized as a leading expert on the People’s Liberation Army with unique insights on its military thinkings.
Featured Image: A North Korean soldier watches the South Korean side at the truce village of Panmunjom in the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas in Paju, north of Seoul April 4, 2013. (Reuters/Lee Jung-hoon/Yonhap)
North Korea stunned the world by conducting its first nuclear test in 2006, a mere three years after its withdrawal from the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. Despite the small, one-kiloton yield of the device, the test nevertheless signified the rogue state’s entry into the nuclear arena and further complicated the already strategically challenging position on the Korean Peninsula. A recent report by the U.S.-Korea Institute at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies estimated that Pyongyang currently possesses a growing stockpile of between 10-16 nuclear weapons, though the exact number remains unknown. More alarming are the rapid advancements North Korea has recently made in developing nuclear weapon delivery systems, including the recent missile test-launch on May 14th showing considerable progress toward an intercontinental ballistic missile. Considerable resources have been devoted to this pursuit by the famine-stricken state, and investments are beginning to bear fruit. Despite its emphasis on land-based systems such as the new Hwasong-12, North Korea’s evolving sea-based nuclear delivery potential is beginning to pose a considerable threat, lending additional credibility to the Kim regime’s nuclear deterrent.
Nukes at Sea
Of particular concern, North Korea has been making progress toward attaining a nuclear triad by developing a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) capable of delivering a nuclear warhead. After several failures, the DPRK successfully tested its first SLBM, known as the Pukkuksong-1/KN-11, in late August 2016. With a two-stage solid fuel propellant system, the KN-11 has an estimated range of almost 500 nautical miles, more than enough to threaten major population centers such as Seoul and Tokyo, or military installations like Kadena Airbase in Okinawa, with only limited travel of its launch platform outside of home waters. Notably, it seems the decision was made to opt for a more stable, solid fuel propellant at the expense of range after a series of liquid-fueled missile failures. Not only is a solid fuel propulsion system less volatile, but it enables the missile to be launched on short notice, as it does not require the lengthy and dangerous fueling process required before the launch of a liquid fueled ballistic missile. Currently, the operational status of the KN-11 is unclear, with estimates of service entry varying from late this year to 2020.
In addition to technical advances in SLBM technology, North Korea has made considerable progress in developing a new class of submarine for the Korean People’s Navy (KPN) capable of deploying these weapons. With the first vessel launched in the summer of 2014, the Sinpo-class represents Pyongyang’s first diesel-electric ballistic missile submarine. Similar in size and shape to older Yugoslavian designs like the Heroj-class, the Sinpo-class appears to have incorporated features derived from the Soviet Golf II-class ballistic missile submarine. Indeed, in 1993 North Korean technicians had the opportunity to examine a number of ex-Soviet Pacific Fleet Golf II-class boats before they were scrapped.
When looking at the Sinpo’s ballistic missile launch tubes, the influence of older Soviet designs becomes apparent. In a similar arrangement to the Golf II, a rectangular section of the conning tower houses what appear to be one or two ballistic missile launch tubes. Likewise, given its diesel-electric propulsion system, the Simpo-class shares the Golf-class’ range limitation, estimated to be around 1,500 nautical miles. When paired with the moderate range of the KN-11, the Sinpo-class would require fueling to achieve launch distance of the continental United States. Nevertheless, once made fully operational, these submarines could potentially threaten strategic targets throughout East Asia and could prove difficult to track and eliminate. Moreover, a ballistic missile submarine can launch its SLBMs from a variety of directions, complicating missile defense planning and increasing the vulnerability of potential targets.
Currently, only one Sinpo-class ballistic missile submarine appears to be active, but additional vessels will likely be completed in the near future. The submarine reportedly suffered damage to its conning tower on 28 November 2015, after a KN-11 failed to successfully eject from its launch tube during a test. Nevertheless, on 24 August 2016, a successful test was conducted where a KN-11 was launched from the vessel. Despite this success, the operational status of North Korea’s SLBM capability remains unclear. Ultimately, the Sinpo-class remains the largest submarine built for the KPN and will represent a significant enhancement of North Korea’s nuclear delivery capacity once perfected, though its small size, limited range, and rudimentary design are substantial shortcomings.
The addition of an SLBM, complemented by a workable launch platform, will greatly enhance the survivability of North Korea’s nuclear delivery capacity and improve the credibility of its nuclear deterrent. Currently, North Korea’s land-based nuclear delivery systems rely heavily on fixed infrastructure and operate in the open, which makes them particularly vulnerable to attack. As a result, if Washington were to lose ‘strategic patience’ with the DPRK, Pyongyang would likely see its land-based nuclear forces neutralized in a first strike. Ballistic missile submarines, on the other hand, are more survivable than fixed infrastructure because the vastness and depth of the oceans provide concealment within a wide operational area.
Though the anti-submarine warfare (ASW) capabilities of the combined U.S.-ROK forces are second to none, even a rudimentary submarine such as the Sinpo-class would be difficult to locate and destroy quickly. Consequently, it is plain to see how a ballistic missile submarine would enhance North Korea’s nuclear deterrent. If the DPRK were to ever lose its land-based nuclear delivery systems in a surprise attack, it would still have the ability to retaliate with an SLBM launch against South Korea or Japan. Politically, this would alter the cost-benefit analysis when weighing military action against Pyongyang. Once the nuclear armed Sinpo-class becomes fully operational, it will be even more difficult for the United States to guarantee the complete elimination of all North Korean nuclear delivery systems in a first strike. Under those circumstances, it seems unlikely that South Korea would agree to any preemptive military action against North Korea. Therefore, the scope of action that can realistically be taken against the rogue state is diminished, granting the Kim regime additional political leverage on the international stage. With this in mind, the significance of a fully operational nuclear armed North Korean ballistic missile submarine becomes abundantly clear.
The Range of DPRK Seaborne WMD Threats
Given the range limitations and reliability issues associated with North Korea’s current arsenal of ballistic missiles, the Kim regime may turn to unconventional methods to deliver nuclear weapons to targets well outside the range of its missiles. In the extreme, North Korea could smuggle a nuclear or radiological weapon in a shipping container aboard one of its numerous merchant vessels. A 2005 report by the Congressional Research Service titled, “Terrorist Nuclear Attacks on Seaports: Threat and Response,” highlighted the challenging nature of preventing such an attack. Certainly, North Korea has already demonstrated its willingness and ability to smuggle contraband aboard its merchant vessels undetected.
In 2013, a North Korean-flagged freighter, the Chong Chon Gang, traversed parts of the Pacific undetected after disabling its Automatic Identification System. Eventually, the freighter made it to the Panama Canal where its illicit cargo was discovered after being boarded by Panamanian port authorities. Fortunately, in this case its cargo merely consisted of surface-to-air missile components, disassembled MiG-21s, night-vision goggles, and ammunition. Yet, if the ship was transporting a nuclear or radiological device, the damage that could have been inflicted upon the Panama Canal would have been substantial.
For North Korea, smuggling a nuclear device on a freighter would be a high-risk high-reward strategy. A successful smuggling operation followed by a detonation in close proximity to the intended target could serve as the first strike in the opening of a larger war. On the other hand, if the nuclear cargo was intercepted en route to its destination, North Korea would lose the element of surprise and open itself to a retaliatory attack. Although it is unlikely that North Korea would opt to smuggle a nuclear weapon aboard one of its merchant vessels, the threat should not be discounted entirely.
Recent developments in the sea-based nuclear delivery capacity of the KPN have complicated the strategic situation on the Korean Peninsula even further. By diversifying the means by which it can deliver nuclear weapons, the Kim regime has strengthened the credibility of its nuclear deterrence, forcing the U.S. and its allies to think twice before considering military action. Although the North Korean military would eventually succumb to the overwhelming force of American-ROK full-spectrum dominance in a full-scale war, the possibility of nuclear strikes against South Korea and Japan would likely be considered an unacceptable risk by political leaders, thereby taking the option preemptive military action against North Korea off the table. Meanwhile, the threat of nuclear smuggling looms large, adding an additional layer of complexity to the North Korean nuclear problem.
As the DPRK continues to perfect its missile technology, we may one day see Pyongyang with the ability to deliver a nuclear weapon to the continental United States with an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). At this point, whether or not to pursue a strategy of forcible denuclearization is up for debate, but given this turn of events it seems the window of opportunity to do so is closing rapidly.
Matthew Gamble is based in New Brunswick, Canada. His research interests primarily focus on Eurasian geopolitics, capability analysis, and Canadian defence policy. Find him on twitter @Matth_Gamble.
Featured Image: North Korean underwater test-fire of submarine-based ballistic missile. (KCNA/via Reuters)
The third installment in our four-part series begins with Trident’s impact on British industry and the Scottish factor, very much in evidence in the run up to the 2014 referendum. We then move to examine British nuclear doctrine, asking ourselves whether a minimal posture is tenable, and looking in this connection at potential cyber and undersea unmanned threats to submarines, both of which have attracted public attention over the last few months. While in July this year the UK Parliament voted to renew the Trident fleet with the building of four new submarines, it is still interesting to discuss whether Trident’s cost may have been cut by reducing the number of boats. We then move to consider potential nuclear alternatives to the program, starting with long-range bombers and land-based missiles, leaving submarine and air-launched cruise missiles for the fourth and final installment in our series. Read Part One, Part Two.
Trident and British Industry
Any decisions on defense have an industrial component, leading to an uneasy conundrum. On the one hand, the acquisition of assets should be at least primarily motivated by the needs and priorities laid down in defense planning. On the other, because of the sums involved and the strong link between military and civilian research and development, it is impossible to view defense procurement separately from industrial and scientific policy. Thus, while the decision on the continuity of Trident taken in July this year by the UK Parliament should ideally not rest on the interests of the industrial actors involved, we cannot simply dismiss them when analyzing it. In particular, when pondering both nuclear and non-nuclear alternatives to Trident, it is likely that British authorities examined the resulting net effect on British defense and dual-use industries as a whole and on those companies involved in Trident.
We could say something similar when it comes to jobs, which should not have been the primary consideration, but are likely to have featured in this political decision. Some estimates say up to 15,000 jobs may have been lost had Trident not been renewed, but the net impact both in terms of figures and human capital depends on the alternatives should Trident been discontinued. BASIC notes how Trident’s base “supports some 6,700 jobs, expected to rise to 8,200 by 2022,” adding that “the UK submarine industry accounts for 3% of employment in the UK’s scientific and defense industrial base,” and that a “replacement as currently planned could employ up to 26,000 people at some point in the process.” This could at least partly explain the huge majority of 355 in a 650-strong chamber that voted for the program’s renewal with more than half of opposition Labour MPs voting aye in direct contradiction with their leader’s stance, and this after PM Theresa May had publicly made it clear she was ready to press the nuclear button if necessary. Furthemore, while Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn was later reelected by an increased majority of 62 percent, his shadow defense minister, Clive Lewis, stated that his party would remain committed to an independent, sea-based, British nuclear deterrent.
The Scottish Factor: Trident and the Union
The SNP and, more widely, Scottish Nationalists, have traditionally been hostile to Trident for a number of reasons. Among them we may note the party’s weak commitment to security and defense, little regard for collective security, hostility to the notion of the UK as a major world power, and willingness to outsource key policy areas to the European Union. At the tactical level, as seen in the 2014 referendum campaign, opposing Trident may enable the Nationalist camp to attract voters not strongly for or even opposed to independence but who fiercely reject nuclear weapons. Some of these voters may see a non-nuclear independent Scotland as a lesser evil. Others in this category may have seen a vote for independence or a vote for the SNP in future elections as a tactical move to force an end to the British nuclear deterrent. The July 2016 parliamentary vote on Trident was yet another opportunity for the SNP to underline its opposition to Trident, made even more visible by the vote in favor of a majority of opposition Labour MPs. Its 54 members of parliament voted against, and the party warned it would prompt a further push for independence, although opinion polls suggest a majority of Scots favor retaining the deterrent.
In connection to this matter, in the run-up to the referendum, there was speculation that the UK may relocate Trident to Devonport (Plymouth), with a report by RUSI estimating the additional cost at £3.5bn. The report concluded that “while the technical and financial challenges presented by Scottish independence would influence this discussion, they would not be severe enough to dictate it.”
British Nuclear Doctrine: Is a Minimal Posture Tenable?
If the UK’s move to a minimal deterrence posture had been followed by other nuclear states, or at least by negotiations with that purpose in mind, the country may have gone down in the annals of history as a pioneer in the noble pursuit of nuclear disarmament. Although the concept, also referred to as “deterrence lite,” has been extensively discussed in academic and government fora, such a move does not appear likely right now. Rather the contrary, with just to mention a few examples including worsening relations between Washington and Moscow, Pakistan developing a sea-based deterrent, and Japan increasingly pondering the convenience of at the very least retaining a powerful “latent” capability on the face of a resurgent China.
The UK is experiencing growing tensions with an established nuclear power, Russia, which shows no intention of relying on non-conventional weapons to a lesser extent in the near future. More precisely, Russian sources note how not until current military reforms reach a successful conclusion will the country be able to lessen her dependence on tactical nuclear weapons (seen as essential not only in a Euro-Atlantic context, but also in a Chinese one, although the latter is seldom publicly discussed). Even without taking into account other potential conflict scenarios, this provides a powerful incentive to retain Trident or some other form of nuclear deterrent, since otherwise the UK would not only be open to nuclear blackmail but the decision to forego the country’s nuclear status may be seen as a sign of weakness and lack of resolve.
Cyber and Undersea Unmanned Threats to the UK’s Minimal Posture
As already explained, the decision to build a sea-based deterrent rested on the assumption that it would be very difficult for a hostile power to detect and destroy submarines, thus ensuring a second-strike capability. This also allowed London to move to a minimal posture, with just one such submarine on patrol at any given time. Of course, it was noted that while “No sector of a superpower’s defense system is quite so invulnerable against a preemptive attack as its fleet of highly mobile, deep-diving, long-ranging missile-bearing submarines. These make possible a second-strike capability that acts as a forceful deterrent against aggression,” and, “this situation could become unbalanced through the development of effective techniques of strategic antisubmarine warfare (ASW).” In recent months, a public debate has emerged concerning two possible threats against British strategic nuclear submarines: cyber warfare and the advent of unmanned undersea systems (submarine drones).
In November 2015, Lord Browne of Ladyton, former British Defence Secretary from 2006 to 2008 and now vice-chair of pro-disarmament group Nuclear Threat Initiative, said: “The government … have an obligation to assure parliament that all of the systems of the nuclear deterrent have been assessed end-to-end against cyber attacks to understand possible weak spots and that those weak spots are protected against a high-tier cyber threat. If they are unable to do that then there is no guarantee that we will have a reliable deterrent or the prime minister will be able to use this system when he needs to reach for it.” Browne cited a January 2013 report by the Pentagon’s Defense Science Board to support his views. Just one week earlier, Chancellor George Osborne had announced an additional investment of £ 3.2 billion in cybersecurity over a five-year period, an amount coming “nowhere near the scale of the cyber-threat challenge” according to Browne.
Franklin Miller, a former U.S. defense official involved in nuclear policy between 1981 and 2001, refuted Browne’s arguments, saying that “If our nuclear command and control system depended upon the internet or went through the internet then the report by the defense science board would be quite an important warning. However, for those reasons it is a standalone system. It is air-gapped. It does not go through the internet.” Miller added that the 2013 report cited by Browne had been written in 2013 as a “shot across the bow” to members of the U.S. defense community thinking of having some elements of the next generation command and control system for the U.S. nuclear deterrent connected to the internet. He said “I am very comfortable saying that right now our command and control system is insulated from cyber-attack because it doesn’t go into any place that cyber would intrude.”
Concerning swarms of undersea drones, the concept is gaining traction as a possible threat to strategic submarines, even though the technology is still in its early stages. The U.S. Navy is already moving forward in this arena with plans to deploy unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs) from Virginia-class attack submarines. In December 2015, Paul Ingram, BASIC’s chief executive, warned that progress in underwater drone technology threatened to make Trident submarines vulnerable, in line with other experts who have cautioned about “a revolution in underwater drones, as well as advances in sonar, satellite and other anti-submarine warfare systems” making “even totally silent submarines … likely to become detectable.” Ingram said that “There is a major transition taking place in the underwater battle space and it is far from clear how the new submarine will be able to evade detection from emerging sophisticated anti-submarine warfare capabilities.” Adding that this “raises serious questions about the wisdom of putting all your nuclear weapons on board a submarine,” Ingram called for a public debate on this impending vulnerability.
Despite much interest among major navies, underwater drones are being developed at a much slower pace than their aerial counterparts, an often cited reason being water’s much greater opacity to radio waves. According to Frank Herr, head of the Office of Naval Research’s ocean battlespace sensing department, “Underwater vehicles are much harder to do because of this inability for us to communicate robustly with the vehicles the way you can in the air. That means they are way behind in the development.” Chris Rawley, a surface warfare officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve, believes that “the premise that UUVs will make Tridents more detectable glosses over of the complexities of ASW. The physics of underwater sound propagation don’t change just because we take the man out of the loop. Unmanned systems can potentially put more persistent sensors in the water column, but I’d guess we’re at least two decades out from them making a significant impact on ASW.” Rawley discusses this in more detail in a 2015 interview with CIMSEC.
Could Trident’s Cost be Cut by Reducing the Number of Submarines?
In the run-up to the July 2016 parliamentary vote to renew Trident, some voices, including the Liberal Democrats (the Conservatives’ junior coalition partner in the previous administration) and Labour, the main opposition party, suggested or at least speculated on the possibility of reducing the cost of Trident by cutting down the number of boats from the current four. The Liberal Democrats, which open the section in their website on Trident with harsh words, calling it “out-dated and expensive. It is a relic of the Cold War and not up-to-date in 21st century Britain,” while arguing that “It would be extremely expensive and unnecessary to replace all four submarines, so we propose to replace some of the submarines instead. They would not be on constant patrol but could be deployed if the threat from a nuclear-armed country increased.” BASIC included the option of “irregular undisclosed patrolling patterns” in its 2015 “A Memo to the Next Prime Minister: Options Surrounding the Replacement of Trident,” estimating the potential yearly savings at up to 1 billion. Right now, as emphasized by the Royal Navy itself “One of the Navy’s four strategic submarines is always on patrol, ensuring a continuous at sea deterrent, 24/7/365, carrying the nation’s ultimate weapon somewhere in the Seven Seas.” It is very doubtful whether fewer than four submarines could achieve this objective. The need to keep four submarines has been emphasized by many observers, with for example Simon Michell writing for RUSI that “if the United Kingdom is to have a credible and assured nuclear deterrent based on the submarine-launched Trident missile, then four boats are required, not three.” Therefore, it is plausible, should the cost of Trident be considered to be excessive, to move to another kind of deterrent, for example air-based, rather than relying exclusively on a number of boats too small to ensure a consistent deterrent.
Having fewer than four nuclear boats may not only deliver smaller savings than straight arithmetic may suggest given factors such as economies of scale, but would result in gaps in the deterrent with no submarine patrolling at certain given times. This may be seen by a would-be aggressor as providing a window of opportunity. Furthermore, it could be destabilizing in many ways. For example, during a crisis at a time with no boats on patrol, the knowledge that one was soon to sail may be seen by the other side as providing an incentive to strike first. It may also be interpreted as a hostile move, a step in escalation designed to increase pressure. The Trident Alternatives Review, as an exercise in coalition politics, did not rule out this possibility, while failing to discuss in depth the possibility of a sudden unannounced nuclear attack, but nevertheless gave some clues as to why three boats, as opposed to four, would mean accepting a higher degree of risk that such an attack may take place. Where the Review was crystal clear was in explaining that “Over a 20 year period, a 3-boat fleet would risk multiple unplanned breaks in continuous covert patrolling as well as requiring regular planned breaks for maintenance and/or training. Experience to date with the Resolution-class and Vanguard-class SSBNs is that no such breaks have occurred or been required with a 4-boat fleet.” Thus, we can see how lacking the capacity for continuous patrols not only means the deterrent is not always available but also introduces a new factor in an adversary’s calculus during crisis, opening up different venues of speculation concerning the possible motivations for the start and end of deterrence patrols.
Nuclear Alternatives to Trident: Long-Range Bombers
The UK may remain a nuclear power while shifting to other vectors for the country’s warheads. This may result from different motivations, such as cost calculations, a changed perspective on submarine survivability, or the desire for greater strategic autonomy vis a vis the United States, among other few possibilities. Shifting to another delivery method would have a wide range of implications, not only in terms of range, survivability, domestic politics, credibility just to name a few, but for example, inter-service considerations. Trident underscores the Royal Navy’s status as the senior service, which any non-naval alternative would not support in the same way.
Air delivery systems may consist of either missiles launched by aircraft, or gravity bombs dropped by them. An air-dropped alternative to Trident was suggested last year by think-tank Centre Forum. In its report, this organization argues that a minimum nuclear deterrent should be able to destroy “ten or more … major urban areas” of a nuclear adversary (it should be noted that British nuclear doctrine does not provide any explicit assurance to non-nuclear weapons states) and that the UK should therefore be able of delivering 30 warheads.” It goes on to say that “This requires a considerably lower level of capability than” that provided by Trident, meaning that “the UK can achieve deterrence with a considerably less capable nuclear weapons system, saving money and contributing to long-term multilateral nuclear disarmament.” Based on this and other considerations, the report suggests that the UK “move to a free-fall nuclear capability based on Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II / Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) that the UK is currently procuring and the forthcoming U.S. B61 Mod 12 (B61-12) bombs that will arm NATO nuclear Dual-Capable Aircraft (DCA) from 2020.” It estimates the capital cost of “100 anglicised B61-12s” at “approximately £16.7bn,” a figure that would include a number of additions to current planned capabilities, among them enabling the Queen Elizabeth-class carriers to operate catapult-launched, arrested-landing aircraft (with a wider range than the vertical takeoff variant currently planned) and extra naval assets such as five attack submarines and four type 26 frigates. The text presents this alternative as a compromise bringing about costs savings while enhancing conventional capabilities, preserving the submarine industrial base, and “a concrete step down the nuclear ladder and towards future nuclear disarmament as the international situation allows in accordance with the UK’s nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty obligations.”
Given the UK’s global role and the duty to protect British Overseas Territories, any nuclear alternative to Trident should have an equivalent range. This may be a challenge for nuclear bombers, less so for submarine-launched cruise missiles, and would not apply to land-based ICBMs (intercontinental ballistic missiles). The travails of strategic bombers when targets are far from bases were already illustrated in the Falklands War, where the strike against Port Stanley’s airport required the complex coordination of a very large number of aircraft operating from Asuncion Island. The Centre Forum document argues that a combination of existing overseas bases and “Air-to-Air Refueling (AAR) support from RAF Voyager KC2/KC3 tankers covers all of Africa, Europe, the Middle East and South America, along with the Indian subcontinent and most of former Soviet Central Asia.” Leaving aside the fact that this would not cover all existing nuclear weapons states, the sheer complexity of the necessary AAR operations to reach some corners of the world may put a dent on the deterrent’s credibility, tempting a would-be aggressor into thinking it may not ensure a British response. This was noted by a commentator, who wrote “Where the credibility gets shaky is in the delivery. A Voyager tanker can trail 4 fighter jets for 2800 miles in a transfer flight, but an actual strike mission, especially if a return to base is at least envisaged, is a whole different matter. Even bringing all 14 tankers in service (instead of just 8 + 1 transport only and 5 tankers “on demand” at 90 days notice) and fitting them with booms and receptacles so they can juggle fuel between themselves and work cooperatively, it remains dubious that it would be possible to trail a real strike package over the great distances likely to be involved. Particularly because, in order to deliver the strike with gravity-fall bombs with a stand-off reach of 40 kilometers in the very, very best case, you need a large attack squadron, knowing that many aircraft are likely not to make it to the target, even with the F-35’s stealth.”
This text also questions whether it is realistic to expect the UK to sport 72 ready-to-strike nuclear bombers at any one time, as the Centre Forum defends when it states that “Using the 18 airfields shown in Figure 5 today, this would translate into 72 nuclear-armed F-35Cs and their accompanying Airbus Voyager KC2 / KC3 tankers safely airborne before a surprise attack could destroy them on the ground.” Furthermore, it argues that if that number was indeed available it would put such a dent on conventional capabilities as to make the whole exercise self-defeating. These unrealistic assumptions cast a shadow of doubt over the Centre Forum’s proposal, and prompt suspicions that it may have been designed, or at least have been liable to being employed, to underpin a tactical deal between those opposed to British national sovereignty and the country’s independent deterrent on the one hand, and those concerned about continued conventional defense cuts, on the other. By offering the acquisition of additional conventional assets as part of a package deal involving the replacement of Trident by a less able system, the former may have hoped to achieve the necessary political momentum against Trident, assembling a coalition with the latter and perhaps also other actors like the SNP. At a later stage, with Trident out of the way, the door would have been open to further conventional cuts degrading an already less than credible deterrent, thus achieving unilateral nuclear disarmament through the back door.
Other disadvantages of a naval aircraft-based deterrent are, in the words of an undisclosed naval analyst, that “a ship is ALWAYS more vulnerable than a submarine” and a “plane can also be downed,” plus the fact that adding a further role to a carrier means an additional concentration of risk and incentives for the enemy to try to sink her. Operations by HMS Hermes and HMS Invincible off the Falklands, at a time when anti-access weapons were much more primitive (Argentine forces improvised a shore-launched Exocet missile, hitting HMS Glamorgan, but it was not available until very late in the war), illustrate the complications of sailing near a hostile shore, which would have been even greater had the British deterrent been based on those same two light carriers. At the end of the day, considering all these aspects, it is difficult not to see that moving from submarines to carrier-based planes would mean a significant downsizing of the British deterrent, with the corresponding negative impact on national security. In the words of another author, “A nuclear deterrent based on the B61-12 would be much less capable than Trident, this is definite. The key issue is not the power of the warhead, but the certainty that an enemy anywhere in the world can be reliably hit. Any possible existential enemy of the UK must be keenly aware that there is a credible deterrent which is unquestionably able to strike back and make him pay a price which cannot be possibly accepted.”
As noted later when discussing air-launched cruise missiles but equally applicable here, “The UK would be faced with the choice of having to keep nuclear-armed aircraft permanently in the air (where they would still be visible) or risk having the air base – and its neighbouring community – as the target for a nuclear strike by a potential adversary.”
Things may be different if a long-range bomber powered by Reaction Engines’ SABRE (Synthetic Air-Breathing Rocket Engine) is developed in the future, since such aircraft would be able to strike at any target without aerial refueling. It must be noted, though, that any such dual-capable (nuclear and conventional) bomber may prompt the same concerns over strategic instabilitywhich have pushed Washington to withdraw nuclear Tomahawk cruise missiles from service, which we discuss in this series’ final part.
Nuclear Alternatives to Trident: Land-Based Missiles
The deployment of land-based missiles involves at least two problems. First, they are considered to be the most vulnerable asset in the nuclear triad, given their fixed location. To overcome this vulnerability, an alternative may be to deploy missiles on either trucks or trains, ideally camouflaged as ordinary vehicles, but since this alternative has not featured in the debate on the replacement of Trident (in contrast with Russian work in this area) we shall not examine it in detail here.
Second, the construction of the necessary infrastructure may pose legal (land planning) and political complications. As noted in the 2015 RUSI conference on missile defense, it is precisely these legal and political difficulties involved in deploying certain land-based assets that make a naval missile shield the most realistic alternative for British plans on national BMD (ballistic missile defense). Additionally, as discussed when dealing with cruise missiles, developing a new vector would involve significant time and treasure.
In our next and final installment in this series, we will look at other possible alternatives to trident, including both air and submarine-launched cruise missiles. This will include an examination of their technical aspects, as well as wider economic and policy issues. In the case of submarine-launched nuclear missiles, this includes the risk of confusion with their conventional brethen. Last, we will examine a very different scenario, namely the UK as a Japanese-syle ‘latent’ nuclear power. Stay tuned!
Introduction. We begin the second installment in our four-part series with an examination of the relationship between nuclear weapons and a country’s hard and soft power, and then move to discuss “Hybrid warfare” under a nuclear umbrella. We next deal with the system’s opportunity cost and whether it may constitute an obstacle for conventional rearmament, and ponder its connection with the “special relationship” between London and Washington. In our final section, we examine Trident in light of the UK’s place within the European Union. Read Part One here.
The Bomb and a Country’s Image and Power, Hard and Soft
Concerning the second question posed earlier, whether a country needs to be a nuclear weapons state in order to be a top diplomatic power, right from the early days of the nuclear era possession of the bomb has been widely recognized as a major status symbol, marking a country as a big power and supporting its diplomatic stance. What matters most is to discuss whether we are just talking about national pride and image, or whether a country’s nuclear status is a significant contributor to its national power, that is the ability to constrain other countries’ options and shape their behavior in the pursuit of its own national interest. If the former is true, then it is to be expected that some people may come to see a nuclear deterrent as non-essential, given financial realities and more pressing needs, both within and without the realm of defense. Thus we may hear voices demanding that Trident be scrapped and its cost be allocated either to conventional defense or to non-defense spending or tax cuts. If, on the other hand, the latter is more accurate, then any discussion of the UK’s nuclear deterrent cannot be undertaken in isolation.
While no formal connection exists between UNSC membership and nuclear weapons, it is often considered to be no accident that all five permanent members are recognized nuclear powers. Despite the continued criticism of nuclear weapons, possessing them does indeed place a country in the top diplomatic league, and therefore if the UK renounced her own national deterrent, this may be seen as an anomaly, and evidence of decline into the minor league of diplomacy. At a time of renewed strife with the country facing possible aggression on at least three fronts (Russia, Gibraltar-Falklands, and Jihadism), the consequences may go beyond what may seem clear at first sight. It could be argued, on the other hand, that renouncing nuclear weapons may give a boost to the UK’s worldwide image, turning the country into a champion of disarmament and thereby bringing about a wave of goodwill resulting in additional soft power. Although it may sound logical, and may actually be in line with some of the motivations for the current policy of a minimal nuclear posture, history seems to indicate that such well meaning intentions would have the opposite result.
Furthermore, the UK’s policy of minimal deterrence has not been followed by other nuclear powers. Here we should stress that, although Western governments and observers have generally refrained from even mentioning it, Indian experts have had a field day stressing how the Ukraine accepted the removal of the nuclear weapons located on her territory and the country’s accession to the NPT as a non-nuclear weapons state, only to later see part of her territory grabbed and her very existence as an independent state questioned by those who chose to retain both nuclear assets and NPT weapons state status. This includes not only traditional nuclear hawks, but even observers who had always opposed nuclear weapons. For example, in April 2014 Swaminathan S Anklesaria Aiyar wrote “All my life I have opposed nuclear bombs. I have argued that such bombs are basically unusable; that, instead of ensuring security, they risk escalation of small conflicts into disasters; and that they lead to undesirable macho foreign policies. Most Indians exulted after India’s nuclear tests of 1998, claiming India was now a great power on par with the U.S. I cautioned that India was merely on par with Pakistan and North Korea. However, after seeing Ukraine bullied by Russia, I have to revise my views. Nukes are not useless, and may be essential deterrents” adding “Lesson for non-nuclear states: don’t depend for security on the big powers who will dump you when convenient. Disarmament is for wimps. Go get your own nukes if you can. More nuclearization will deter some invasions, but also increases chances of a nuclear clash or accident. It is not a panacea. But it is now inevitable.”
In the Ukraine herself some voices have regretted the 1994 Budapest Memorandums on Security Assurances “’We gave up nuclear weapons because of this agreement,’ Pavlo Rizanenko, a member of the Ukrainian parliament, told USA Today. ‘Now there’s a strong sentiment in Ukraine that we made a big mistake.’ Nuclear weapons may make the world nervous, but foreign troops rarely pay unannounced visits to nuclear states.”
“Hybrid Warfare” under a Nuclear Umbrella: Conventional and Non-Conventional Defense
With regard to the third issue, the relationship between nuclear and non-nuclear defense, this is sometimes discussed purely in terms of opportunity costs. To be precise, whether by retaining Trident the UK may be forced to implement defense spending cuts endangering conventional capabilities. It is of course true that any weapons system must be examined in terms of opportunity costs, and that we must be aware of what we may be losing or failing to acquire by preserving existing assets or purchasing new ones. This is even more the case following the 2010 announcement by the chancellor that the cost of the nuclear deterrent would be funded through the defense budget, as opposed to separately by the Treasury. George Osborne said “I have made it very clear that Trident renewal costs must be taken as part of the defence budget.”
Where we have to be careful is in drawing too strict a line between conventional and non-conventional weapons. This is sometimes done by observers who stress threats to the UK from non-state actors and non-nuclear weapons states, saying that the former cannot be deterred (because they do not control a territory and population which can be threatened with destruction if they attack the UK with nuclear weapons) and the latter cannot be dealt with using nuclear weapons because the UK deterrent is aimed at fellow nuclear weapons states. The first argument has merit and cannot be dismissed out of hand, yet is not sufficient in and by itself to defend an end to the nuclear deterrent on at least two counts: first, that while non-state threats are indeed important, state to state conflict remains a very real possibility, as clear from recent developments in Eastern Europe, the South Atlantic, and the Strait of Gibraltar. Second, that a non-state actor may be supported by a state, in which case the latter may be deterred, or may gradually evolve into a de facto state which, although not internationally recognized, may also have actual control over a population or territory and thus be equally liable to classical deterrence. Concerning the second argument, although it is true that British nuclear doctrine is mainly targeted at other nuclear weapons states, it is nowhere stated that it is thus restricted. As noted when examining a possible role for nuclear weapons in the defense of the Falklands, “while the British nuclear deterrent was not originally designed to deal with conventional aggression, and the UK doctrine mainly refers to dealing with nuclear threats or attacks, its documents do not rule out a first strike and more to the point do not provide any explicit assurance to non-nuclear weapons states.”
We then have the not often openly discussed issue of the relationship between nuclear forces and conventional and asymmetric combat. More precisely, whether nuclear weapons are necessary to wage conventional or asymmetric war, and in the British context, whether losing Trident would put a dent on the country’s other military capabilities. Here we have to be careful not to follow the simplistic logic that presents conventional and non-conventional capabilities as separate. Both from a practical historical perspective, and from a more theoretical and doctrinal one, they are clearly not. A country is often able to wage conventional or sub-conventional war precisely because it has the nuclear forces necessary to constrain the reaction by other actors. The Korean War is a classical example, the 1949 Soviet maiden nuclear test paving the way to a conventional war of aggression to unify the Peninsula. More recently, Russian sources stress not only the “hybrid” nature of armed conflict but the inclusion of the nuclear component in that “hybrid warfare.”
While many Western observers describe “hybrid warfare” or “hybrid war” as basically comprising a mixture of traditional armed force with special operations, information management and clandestine operations, the U.S. Army 2012 Unified Land Operations manual describing it as “The diverse and dynamic combination of regular forces, irregular forces, terrorists forces, and/or criminal elements unified to achieve mutually benefiting effects.” Russian observers emphasize that for it to be effective it must operate under a nuclear umbrella. The resulting deterrence enables Russia to engage in lower forms of conflict, while never losing sight of this connection. Thus, for an actor to be able to wage conventional and sub-conventional war, in particular where other nuclear powers may be directly or indirectly involved, it may be necessary to retain its nuclear deterrent. This means that the UK needs to preserve either Trident or a nuclear alternative to this system not only to directly deal with nuclear threats or the possibility of nuclear threats, but also to retain her freedom of maneuver when it comes to waging other kinds of war. Otherwise, the resulting loss would not only impact the nuclear domain, but the whole spectrum of military operations and diplomacy. Argentina’s recent dalliances with two nuclear-weapons states are a reminder that a national nuclear deterrent may be necessary to constrain the intervention of nuclear powers in a conventional or sub-conventional conflict with a non-nuclear weapons state.
Trident’s Opportunity Cost: A Bar to Conventional Rearmament?
An argument against Trident by some observers otherwise committed to national defense is that its high cost may have a disproportionate impact on conventional capabilities, thus indirectly damaging British national security and the country’s power and influence in the international stage. Official estimates put the cost of replacing the current submarines at between £15 and £20 billion, while some voices against extension argue that the real cost is higher, with Greenpeace for example putting it at more than £34 billion.
While Greenpeace’s figures may be suspect given its anti-Trident posture, work by such organizations may be useful in having a more realistic perspective of the likely costs involved, even more so in view of past cost overruns in the defense industry. Furthermore, it must be admitted that some of the official estimates do not include the whole spectrum of associated costs linked to the program. When Greenpeace’s report was published, a MOD (Ministry of Defence) spokesman said that “The 2006 white paper set out the costs [of Trident] at £15-20bn, not the £30-33bn that Greenpeace suggest. As stated in the 2006 white paper, the costs are at 2006 prices and VAT is not included. It is impossible to try and predict exchange rates and material costs over the course of replacing Trident.”
We have already made it clear that the opportunity cost of any weapons system is a major factor to be considered, and thus this argument cannot be easily dismissed. However, given the also explained link between nuclear and non-nuclear defense, should Trident come to be seen as too expensive, the best solution would be to replace it with another nuclear delivery system, rather than renouncing an independent national deterrent.
Last year was witness to an intense public debate on British defense spending, given the danger of falling below the NATO guideline of two percent. The debate went on into the run up to the general election, which saw the Conservatives gain an absolute majority and thus dispense with the need to share power with the Liberal Democrats. The new administration formally announced that London would keep spending two percent of British GDP on defense, although doubts remain as to whether some creative accounting may be employed to secure this goal. To some extent, the debate overlapped with that on Trident. However, as noted by some commentators, Trident is currently funded separately from the defense budget and “any savings which could be made by cancelling or changing the programme would not be realised until the next Parliament and beyond, up until the 2040s, which is when the vast majority of spending on the renewal programme will occur.” Both points should be taken into account when defending the view that Trident may be scrapped in order to fund conventional rearmament, since it is perfectly possible, from a political perspective, that no such impact would come to be realized. Furthermore, from a tactical perspective, voices soft on defense may conclude a tactical alliance with proponents of higher conventional defense spending with a view towards downgrading or terminating the national deterrent, only to turn against the latter once that objective had been secured. The end result would be a UK deprived of nuclear forces and with conventional capabilities even smaller than at present.
Trident and the “Special Relationship”
British nuclear policy has an influence on relations with Washington at different levels. First of all, the UK’s nuclear deterrent is a major contributor to the country’s power and thus its worth as an ally for Washington. Second, the existence of the deterrent may complicate calculations for any would-be aggressor in the Euro-Atlantic Area, and while this is a complex issue defying simplistic analysis, it may result in a greater combined deterrence capability since that aggressor would need to ponder not just the American but also the British (and French) reaction. However, while recent U.S. defense policy seems to be putting more reliance on key regional allies, this basically refers to the conventional arena, with voices in favor of letting additional allies develop an independent deterrent being in the minority. Among the exceptions we can cite a National Interest article arguing that “America’s policy of opposing the proliferation of nuclear weapons needs to be more nuanced. What works for the United States in the Middle East may not in Asia. We do not want Iran or Saudi Arabia to get the bomb, but why not Australia, Japan, and South Korea? We are opposed to nuclear weapons because they are the great military equalizer, because some countries may let them slip into the hands of terrorists, and because we have significant advantage in precision conventional weapons. But our opposition to nuclear weapons in Asia means we are committed to a costly and risky conventional arms race with China over our ability to protect allies and partners lying nearer to China than to us and spread over a vast maritime theater.”
Trident relies to a considerable extent on U.S. technology, the UK nuclear weapons program being heavily dependent on America ever since Washington resumed nuclear cooperation in 1958. As noted by think-tank BASIC, “The United Kingdom’s Trident missiles are purchased directly from the United States under the terms of the 1963 UK-U.S. Polaris Sales Agreement, amended in 1980 and 1982 to govern cooperation over the Trident I (C4) and Trident II (D5) generations of submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), respectively. Cooperation between the two states’ nuclear weapons complexes operate under the 1958 Mutual Defense Agreement, renewed every decade and up again for renewal next year (2014). The UK does not actually own any individual missiles, but purchased the rights to 58 missiles from a common pool held at the US Strategic Weapons facility at the Kings Bay Submarine Base, Georgia.” Thus, the U.S. defense industry has a clear stake in the program’s continuity, and this may bring a degree of pressure from Washington, irrespective of the two previous factors discussed earlier.
In more than one way, Trident reflects the complex nature of the British nuclear deterrent and of nuclear cross-Atlantic relations. As already mentioned, after spearheading Allied work in this area, the UK left matters in American hands, only to find access restricted after the war and having to engage in a major effort to ensure a place at the nuclear table. Being under national command, yet reliant on American technology, Trident reflects some of the ambiguities and contradictions in the UK’s post-war status and foreign policy: a major power yet one closely associated and dependent on one of its allied superpowers. Like its predecessor, Polaris, Trident is based on “American missiles, British submarines and warheads.”The missiles are the same employed by the U.S. Navy. One of the traditional arguments against Trident is that it is not fully “independent,” with, for example, the missiles being serviced in the United States.
Keeping Tident in place, if accompanied by a retention of non-nuclear capabilities, may facilitate preserving British influence in Washington. Scrapping it, in particular if accompanied by a further deterioration in conventional capabilities, is likely to have the opposite effect. Replacing it with a system less reliant on US technology, or even purely British, would likely prompt both industrial and financial concerns on the other side of the Atlantic, and political ones as well. It is beyond the scope of our series to examine them in depth, but they should be noted.
In addition, we should also remember that working with the United States also poses some technical challenges given the different development and procurement plans on the two sides of the Atlantic. For example, as noted by the Guardian, “The U.S. has decided to extend the life of its existing D5 missiles to 2042, a decade before the new British submarines would retire. The UK would therefore have to put new U.S. missiles in then-old submarines.” On the other hand, in addition to the political considerations already mentioned, working with U.S. technology means the UK does not have to face the full cost of developing and servicing a whole delivery system on her own.
Trident, the UK, and the European Union
The debate over Trident is also linked to another perennial discussion in British politics, namely that concerning the country’s relation with and place in Europe. This debate is becoming more and more intense as we approach the 23 June referendum, and one of its aspects is security and defense. Some years ago a certain consensus emerged, centered on the notion of a EU restricted to little more than a free-trade area, but this has now been effectively dismissed in the minds of many, thus simplifying the terms of the debate while at the same time making it even more intense. For a significant number of Britons, the UK faces a choice between recovering her full independence or becoming a European province ruled by Brussels, with national defense gradually giving way to supranational arrangements.
The relationship between European policy and nuclear policy is complex and defies simplistic linkages. However, those favoring the gradual dilution of British sovereignty into a European federal state logically tend to lean against the renewal of Trident, since the whole concept of an independent nuclear deterrent is based on the assumption that there is indeed a national sovereignty to protect and project. It is no coincidence to see some of the most ardently pro-EU voices in British political life engaged in an equally intense, parallel, campaign against Trident. For those, on the other hand, favoring British sovereignty and the preservation of traditional British liberties under a constitutional monarch, nuclear weapons policy remains an important aspect of the defense policy debate, although this does not mean that they necessarily support Trident or a nuclear alternative.
Some European observers have noted how Trident’s continuity is not only good for British national security but for that of other European nations. A German security and defense blogger has argued that “For legal, political and financial reasons, there will never be any kind of multinational European sea-based nuclear force. However, European countries still need a nuclear umbrella for their security. If you do not believe that, please consult our Baltic and Polish friends,” adding that despite U.S. commitment to nuclear modernization “it is yet unclear, if the US Navy’s future sea-based deterrent will be large enough to span up a worldwide nuclear deterrent as we have it today” meaning that “Europe and the UK cannot afford to rely on that America provides nuclear free-rides forever.” While conceding that London may not retaliate against aggressors employing nuclear weapons on another European country, the text emphasizes how the possibility that she might make their “life much harder, if they at least have to take the risk of retaliation into account.”
It should also be noted how, although the European Union’s narrative is to a great extent reliant on the notion that it has brought peace to the old continent, making war unthinkable, this pretense does not stand to any serious scrutiny. British citizens remain under threat at the hands of a fellow EU member state which does not recognize their right to self-determination, while enjoying the continued support of British taxpayers. This is only one of many contradictions that cast a doubt on the proposition that the UK may renounce her own defense policy, to be taken over by the EU. In connection to this, it should also be remembered that the UK retains the responsibility to defend different British Overseas Territories, including the Falklands and South Georgia, also under threat. Since not only do these territories not belong to the EU, but in the 1982 Falklands War it was clear that the degree of support to be expected from fellow member states was rather limited, any move toward deeper European integration may well be incompatible with their continued security.
Alex Calvo, a guest professor at Nagoya University, Japan, focuses on security and defense policy, international law, and military history in the Indian-Pacific Ocean Region. He tweets at Alex__Calvo and his papers can be found here.Previous work on British nuclear policy includes A. Calvo and O. Olsen, “Defending the Falklands: A role for nuclear weapons?” Strife Blog, 29 July 2014, available here.
Featured Image: HMS Vengeance returning to HMNB Clyde, after completing Operational Sea Training. The trials were conducted in Scottish exercise areas. (Tam McDonald/MOD)