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Trident: Industry, Scotland, and Long-Range Bomber and Land-Based Missile Alternatives

By Alex Calvo


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 Pacific Egret docked in Tokai (Ibaraki Prefecture) in March 2016, waiting to depart to the US with a cargo of Japanese plutonium. Tokyo's large stockpiles are one of the reasons why the country is considered to be a 'latent nuclear power. (Kyodo)
The Pacific Egret docked in Tokai (Ibaraki Prefecture) in March 2016, waiting to depart to the U.S. with a cargo of Japanese plutonium. Tokyo’s large stockpiles are one of the reasons why the country is considered to be a ‘latent nuclear power. (Kyodo)

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.”

Date:- 02 July 2011 WAD-11-0463 Background: Every year in July, RAF Waddington opens it's doors to the general public in staging the Royal Air Force's premier airshow event. In 2011, the undoubted stars of the show are the United States Air Force aerobatic display team 'The Thunderbirds'. Along with the welcome return of crowd favourites- the Vulcan and the Red Arrows, are the Battle of Britain Memorial flight and the classic B-17 bomber 'Sally B' from WW2. Image details: The Vulcan aircraft landing at Waddington. Photo By:- SAC Andy Stevens (RAF) For further information contact: Royal Air Force Waddington Media Communications Officer, RAF Waddington MCO Waddington Lincolnshire LN5 9NB Tel 01522 726804
The long-range nuclear bomber Avro Vulcan was employed in a conventional role in the 1982 Falklands War and later decommissioned. ( RAF photo by SAC Andy Stevens)

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 instability which have pushed Washington to withdraw nuclear Tomahawk cruise missiles from service, which we discuss in this series’ final part.   

150317-N-MF696-071 INDIAN HEAD, Md. (March 17, 2015) Members of the Explosive Ordnance Disposal Technology Division team at Naval Surface Warfare Center, Indian Head prepare a Tomahawk missile for a functional ground test at the Large Motor Test Facility in Indian Head, Md. The event marks the 84th functional ground test the Division has conducted since the program began 25 years ago. (U.S. Navy photo by Monica McCoy/Released)
INDIAN HEAD, Md. (March 17, 2015) Members of the Explosive Ordnance Disposal Technology Division team at Naval Surface Warfare Center, Indian Head prepare a Tomahawk missile for a functional ground test at the Large Motor Test Facility in Indian Head, Md.  (U.S. Navy photo by Monica McCoy/Released)

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!

Alex Calvo, a former guest professor at Nagoya University (Japan), focuses on security and defence policy, international law, and military history, in the Indian-Pacific Ocean Region. He tweets at Alex__Calvo and his papers can be found at https://nagoya-u.academia.edu/AlexCalvo 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.

Featured Image: The Trident nuclear submarine HMS Victorious is pictured near Faslane in Scotland. (UK Ministry of Defence)

Sea Control 123 – Brexit and Book Reviews Introduction

By Matt Merighi

Welcome to the almost inevitable Brexit Podcast, this time with Alex Clarke (@AC_NavalHistory) and Chris Stockdale-Garbutt (@ChrisJStockdale). Between them they cover as much of the post-Brexit maritime and naval issues as they can in a little under an hour. Towards Brexit
the end they also discuss the proposed ‘Book Review’ series, suggestions for which listeners should send to Nextwar@cimsec.org, or just tweet the two above!

Trident: Hybrid Warfare Under a Nuclear umbrella, and UK-US and UK-EU Relations

By Alex Calvo

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.”

U.S. President Bill Clinton, Russian President Boris Yeltsin, and Ukranian President Leonid Kravchuk in the Kremlin on 14 January 1994, when Kiev agreed to give up its nuclear capability. Indian analysts have been having a field day since the outbreak of the Crimean Crisis, using the conflict as a reminder of the vulnerability prompted by lack of a nuclear deterrent. (Diana Walker/Time)

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.”

01 Nov 1950, Wake Island --- 10/15/1950-Wake Island: President Harry Truman decorates General Douglas Mac Arthur with the Medal of Merit. --- Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS
US President Harry Truman decorating General Douglas MacArthur. The Korean War exposed the impact of nuclear weapons on conventional conflicts, ultimately leading to MacArthur’s dismissal. (Bettmann/CORBIS)

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.”

Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. The ruling SNP remains strongly opposed to Trident, and seeks to gain political capital from this policy. (Jeff J. Mitchell/Getty Images)

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.

Faslane, in Scotland, is the home base of the UK’s strategic nuclear submarines.

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)

Trident: An Introduction to the UK National Debate

By Alex Calvo


Ever since its conception, the UK’s sea-based deterrent Trident has prompted a measure of controversy. This includes, among others, the wider question of nuclear armament, the system’s opportunity cost (in this context, the weapons or other security and defence assets the UK stops buying or producing in order to pay for Trident) the indirect impact on the conventional defence budget, and the British “minimal” nuclear posture and doctrine. Trident has also been part of debates such as the UK’s place in the world, her relationship with the EU, and the “special relationship” with the US, while featuring strongly in the 2014 Scottish referendum. While the Conservative victory in the last election featured a “manifesto that included a commitment to build four new ballistic missile submarines … replacing the Vanguard submarines that come out of service from the early 2030s,” as stressed by British Defence Secretary Michael Fallon, the debate is still likely to continue, boosted by both political and technological factors. The purpose of this four-part series is to outline the most important terms of the debate, in a language accessible to non-specialists, providing a short yet comprehensive look at the matter. An effort has been made to sum up the different views on this issue, and to present alternatives.

In the first installment in the series, we review some key concepts in nuclear strategy theory and look at the basic characteristics of the Trident system, which provides sea-based, national, and minimum deterrence. We then examine the costs involved, what is meant by “extending Trident,” and discuss the continued relevance of nuclear deterrence. This first part concludes with a look at the gap between the UK’s nuclear and conventional postures.

Preliminary Considerations

The basis of nuclear deterrence is the belief that a country equipped with nuclear weapons will not be attacked by another nuclear power because this would result in an exchange and the resulting destruction of both countries. As a result, a “balance of terror” is achieved, whereby nobody uses this kind of weapon, which nevertheless, in spite of being “unusable,” plays a key role in the national security of nuclear powers. The concept of nuclear “mutual deterrence” quickly gained currency as soon as the US nuclear monopoly was breached in 1949, with the Soviet Union’s maiden nuclear test, and became one of the defining characteristics of the Cold War. It is also known as MAD (“mutually assured destruction.”)

It is important to stress two aspects of mutual deterrence:

1. A key condition is the invulnerability of both nuclear deterrents. If there is no way country A can destroy the nuclear weapons of country B, and vice versa, then none will have an incentive to use them, since it would inevitably result in the attacker’s destruction. This would happen, no matter who attacked first, the end result being the same. Attacking first only means dying a bit later. Thus, this acts as a stabilizer at times of crisis, since there is no incentive to strike first in order not to lose one’s nuclear deterrent, there is thus no “use them or lose them” factor. This explains why, during the Cold War, the two superpowers agreed to limit work on anti-missile defences, signing the 1972 ABM (Anti-Ballistic Missile) Treaty. While it may seem counterintuitive, by agreeing to have their cities remain vulnerable to a nuclear strike, they considered to be favouring stability. A working missile shield may have tempted its owner into believing that a nuclear war was “winnable,” one of the reasons for continued Russian hostility in this area. This need to guarantee the invulnerability of one’s nuclear forces also explains the drive to develop sea-based deterrents in the form of submarines equipped with nuclear missiles. Since it is very difficult to detect a submarine, it is expected to survive an attack, thus removing any incentive for the enemy to strike first in the hope of destroying one’s nuclear missiles. Again, like in the case of the ballistic missile defence ban, this was considered to contribute to stability, reducing the risk of nuclear war.

2. The possession of nuclear weapons by two powers, under the above circumstances (vulnerability of their population and invulnerability of the weapons themselves) meant, according to the theory, that nuclear war would not take place. Proponents of nuclear deterrence cite the Cold War as evidence for this. However, neither the theory nor actual historical evidence excluded the possibility of conventional or asymmetrical war (in this series, we will understand “asymmetric warfare” in a broad sense of the term, including terrorism, insurgency, non-lethal use of force, and the currently very much en vogue “mixed war” or “hybrid warfare”). Indeed, the Cold War did not feature any nuclear exchange, but many conventional conflicts took place, involving proxies and sometimes one of the superpowers as well, in addition to myriad instances of terrorism and insurgency. Concerning the relationship between nuclear and conventional weapons, some countries have issued a guarantee that the former would not be used against a non-nuclear enemy, but not all have, and even where a formal guarantee exists, some observers doubt a nuclear-weapons state would renounce using them if its very existence or essential national interest was at stake.

October 2012 test off the coast of Florida, the first in three years by a British strategic nuclear submarine.

Right from the beginning it was clear that nuclear weapons would have a major impact on warfighting, and the British nuclear program and the later US Manhattan Project were fueled by fears that Nazi Germany may be more advanced in this field. Nuclear weapons were controversial even before they were first used, with some of the nuclear scientists involved making a last-minute attempt to employ a device for a “demonstration” in the hope Imperial Japan would surrender without the need for the mass destruction of civilian lives. Later years saw campaigns against nuclear weapons, often wider and including a blanket opposition to civil nuclear power, while some countries made desperate efforts to secure their own deterrent, and others signing the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) as non-nuclear weapons states in exchange for some sort of guarantee by an accepted nuclear power that the latter would use, if necessary, its own nuclear weapons to defend them. This practice, known as “extended deterrence,” should not be forgotten, since it is doubtful that without it so many countries would have accepted the NPT. This division of countries into two leagues, only one of which was allowed to own nuclear weapons according to international law, was bitterly denounced by India, which branded it as “Nuclear Apartheid.” Other established nuclear powers kept insisting that “non-proliferation,” the policy of restricting the spread of nuclear weapons to other countries, was conducive to stability. One may note a certain contradiction between the concepts of deterrence and non-proliferation, whose relationship is complex. In recent years New Delhi has signed a number of agreements with the US and other countries, the International Atomic Energy Agency, and the Nuclear Suppliers Group, so that we can now say India is a “de facto” recognized nuclear weapons state outside the NPT.

Trident: The Basics

In a few words, Trident is a sea-based national minimum nuclear deterrent.

Sea-based because it consists of four Vanguard-class submarines equipped with nuclear missiles. As explained above, submarines are considered to be very difficult to detect and destroy, making them the ideal platform for deterrence, since an aggressor managing to destroy UK population centers could expect swift retaliation in kind. To achieve this, it is necessary to always have at least one submarine on patrol (known as CASD, “Continuous At Sea Deterrence”), with four widely considered to be the minimum number of boats needed to achieve this. Otherwise, an aggressor aware of a window of vulnerability, with no submarines on patrol, may choose to strike at that particular time. This minimum number means that it is not really possible to cut the cost of the program by reducing the number of units deployed, since below this minimum the key objective of one submarine in patrol at all times would no longer be achievable. It should also be stressed that there is no absolute guarantee that a submarine is invulnerable, since technological developments may enable an enemy to track and destroy or otherwise neutralize them. In part three of our series we will discuss cyberwarfare and submarine drones, whose potential impact on Trident has been discussed over the last few months. It is also necessary to take into account that, while four is widely considered to suffice for the purposes of nuclear deterrence, this number comes from statistical studies and past experience, but does not amount to any iron-clad guarantee in the face of possible trouble from, among others, damage, malfunction, or cyber attacks.

Infographic with details of Trident submarines and their missiles.

National, since it is owned and operated by Her Majesty’s Government, being under national command. It must be noted though, as discussed later, that the technology employed is not exclusively British, being dependent to a considerable extent on the United States. The missiles are American, the submarines and warheads British. Second, British nuclear doctrine does not exclude the possibility of employing Trident to protect NATO Allies. The UK’s 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review states that “The UK has long been clear that we would only consider using our nuclear weapons in extreme circumstances of self-defence, including the defence of our NATO Allies, and we remain deliberately ambiguous about precisely when, how and at what scale we would contemplate their use.”

Minimum, for a number of reasons. First, because it only features submarines, one of the legs of a possible “Nuclear Triad,” the others being land-based missiles and aircraft-dropped bombs. Second, because the number of submarines is the smallest compatible with a continued patrol capability. Third, because these submarines only carry a fraction of the missiles and warheads they are capable of delivering (8 and 40 respectively, instead of 16 and 192 originally envisaged). Fourth, because British nuclear doctrine, while not going as far as ruling out, for example, a first nuclear strike, or an attack against a non-nuclear country, seeks to considerably restrict the scenarios in which atomic weapons may be employed. This is clear for example in the section on “Five Enduring Principles” in the 2006 white paper titled The Future of the United Kingdom’s Nuclear Deterrent. The 2006 white paper states that “the UK will retain only the minimum amount of destructive power required to achieve our deterrence objectives.”

Trident can thus be seen as a compromise solution between, on the one hand, the perceived need for a nuclear deterrent, and on the other the wish to minimize its scope. This does not mean that it results from a simplistic calculation, since many other factors may have influenced the choice including inter-service considerations and relations with the US, just to mention two, and to be discussed later.

How Much Does Trident Cost?

Given that a key aspect of the debate is financial, it is necessary to bear in mind how much money we are talking about, both concerning the existing Trident system, and the possible replacement of its submarines. In 2012 the Secretary of State for Defence replied to two parliamentary questions covering these issues, saying that “As stated in the White Paper, The Future of the United Kingdom’s Nuclear Deterrent (Cm 6994) published in December 2006, we expect that once the new successor nuclear deterrent submarine comes into service, the in-service costs of the UK’s nuclear deterrent, which will include Atomic Weapons Establishment’s costs, will be similar to today (around 5% to 6% of the defence budget)” and, concerning the estimate for “the cost of design and build for a replacement continuous at-sea nuclear deterrent system” that “current forecast costs, including planned Submarine Enterprise Performance Programme efficiency measures, indicate that we remain within the 2006 White Paper estimates of £11 billion to £14 billion (at 2006-07 prices) for the Successor platform costs (assuming a four boat fleet).”

With regard to the cost of the new submarines, the then coalition government officially confirmed in 2011 the 2006 estimate by the previous Labour administration. In present-day pounds, it would be “£20 billion to £25 billion at out-turn” according to then Secretary of State for Defence Liam Fox, who added “Between now and main gate [in 2016] we expect to spend about 15% of the total value of the programme. That is entirely consistent with defence procurement guidance. The cost of long lead items is expected to amount to about £500 million.” As is generally the case with defence procurement, it may be difficult to provide accurate cost estimates given possible overruns, unexpected contingencies, and evolving technological and doctrinal changes. The long life span makes any calculation even more difficult, with London-based think-tank RUSI noting that “estimating total costs for a programme which will last beyond 2050 is a highly speculative exercise.” What seems clear is that the sums involved are substantive, yet within the means of the UK. Thus, although cost may be used by detractors of the program or of nuclear deterrence in general, what matters the most from a defence policy perspective is first whether a more economic alternative may be found to provide the UK with an equivalent nuclear deterrent, and second the opportunity cost of Trident for conventional defence. Both will be covered later in our four-part series.

We should also note that in assessing the cost of alternatives to Trident, the schedule to replace the existing submarines must be taken into account. This means that some alternatives that may seem cheaper are no longer so when the time to develop them is taken into account. The Trident Alternatives Review admits that “The costs of delivering an alternative system could theoretically have been cheaper than procuring a like-for-like renewal of Trident” but adds “were it not for timing and the fact that the UK deterrent infrastructure is finely tuned to support a submarine-based Trident system. In particular, the time it would take to develop a new warhead (itself a costly and high risk exercise) is judged to be longer than the current Vanguard-class submarines can safely be operated.” Also relevant is the fact that, as noted by think-tank BASIC, “Replacement of the submarines is already underway in several respects,”

What do we mean by “extending” Trident?

We should briefly note that the decision to be taken by the current parliament does not, strictly speaking, directly involve the Trident missiles or their warheads but the Vanguard class submarines carrying them. As noted by an observer, “The same Trident 2 D5 missiles currently in service will continue to be used at least out to 2042, so it is most definitely not a matter of replacing Trident. The warheads are also good out to 2032 at least, as they are subject to a life extension programme which brings them to MK4A standard” but “The four Vanguard submarines, on the other hand, can no longer be life extended safely and effectively. Their useful life has already been stretched and the first of the class is now due to soldier on until 2028, but it is assessed that extending further is not desirable.”

Nuclear Deterrence: Still Needed?

The first question to answer when considering the future of Trident is whether the concept of nuclear deterrence is still current or has become obsolete. A second question is whether a country needs to be a nuclear weapons state in order to be a top diplomatic power. Third, we have the relationship between nuclear and non-nuclear defence, and more precisely whether nuclear weapons are necessary to wage conventional or asymmetric war.

As discussed later, an affirmative answer to these questions does not automatically mean we should support Trident, since other nuclear alternatives exist, but should we answer them in the negative then it would be logical to defend Trident’s end.

Nuclear-themed pin-up. Ever since its invention, the bomb has had a contradictory place in popular culture, as a harbinger of both Armageddon and supreme power.

With regard to the first question, as long as other powers sport their own nuclear forces, and even more so if tensions or significant conflicts persist with some such powers, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that it is indeed necessary for the UK to retain her own nuclear deterrent. Terminating it would mean that the country may become the victim of nuclear blackmail. It is true that the UK may seek to rely on extended deterrence (also known as the “nuclear umbrella”) by the United States, but this would mean outsourcing national security, with the corresponding loss of power and influence on the one hand, and the risk that American authorities may not be ready (or may be perceived by a potential aggressor as not being ready) to risk American lives to preserve British ones. Some observers in Japan, which relies on US extended deterrence, have often posed the question whether America would be willing to “trade LA for Tokyo,” and as noted by a Congressional Research Service paper “Since the threat of nuclear attack developed during the Cold War, Japan has been included under the U.S. ‘nuclear umbrella,’ although some ambiguity exists about whether the United States is committed to respond with nuclear weapons in the event of a nuclear attack on Japan.” A similar question could be asked with regard to London, Manchester, or Birmingham.

Furthermore, it should be noted from a financial and industrial perspective that relying on extended deterrence may also directly or indirectly lead to the UK shouldering part of the cost of providing that protection, without the industrial benefits from having a national system. This may be another consideration against the nuclear umbrella as opposed to an independent deterrent.

It must be noted, though, that some observers doubt the value of a nuclear deterrent, and furthermore point at recent history as evidence that money should best be spent elsewhere. For example, writing for RUSI, Hugh Beach argues that “It cannot be shown that by virtue of its UK nuclear arsenal, Britain has been able to take any action vis-à-vis another country that it could not otherwise have undertaken, nor prevented action by any other country that it could not otherwise have prevented. British nuclear weapons did not deter Argentina from attempting to annex the Falkland Islands in 1982,” a line of thought that he extends to other nuclear powers.

The Gap between the UK’s Nuclear and Conventional Posture

In connection with the above, we should mention that, as noted by RUSI’s Malcolm Chalmers, British conventional and nuclear defence policy may be seen as out of step. The former is based on the assumption that no state conflict involving the homeland is foreseeable, whereas the latter is posited on the opposite assumption. Chalmers wrote “Discussion of options for conventional capability in the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) is based on the assumption that the UK homeland does not face a significant threat of attack by other states. Nor, it is assumed, could one emerge without an extended period of strategic warning. While the UK plans to maintain and improve capabilities for a range of national tasks, including strategic intelligence, counter-terrorism, counter-cyber, and defence of dependent territories, these tasks do not include defence of the UK against military attack by other states. The main focus of conventional force planning, accordingly, is now on the appropriate size and shape of the UK’s contribution to collective capabilities for intervention and stabilisation in other parts of the world. By contrast, the commitment to maintain a nuclear-armed missile submarine on patrol at all times (i.e., CASD) has remained largely unchanged since the 1960s, when a surprise attack on Western Europe by the Soviet Union was a central driver for UK force planning.” Although this different posture is clearly in place and can be observed in the respective doctrinal documents, we should be careful before reaching any rushed conclusions. We should also be careful before imagining that the solution to the Trident debate is to put nuclear policy in line with conventional doctrine and forego or downgrade the British deterrent. Possibly because it is conventional doctrine that needs an in-depth review in a more realistic direction. Second, because there may not be, as discussed later, a gulf between conventional and non-conventional defence, but rather a continuous spectrum. In other words, any cuts in nuclear capabilities or credibility may have a negative impact on conventional deterrence and the ability to wage conventional, unconventional, and hybrid war.

In our second part, we shall first examine the impact of nuclear weapons on a country’s hard and soft power, and then proceed to discuss “Hybrid warfare” under a nuclear umbrella. While this term has become a buzzword, it is often examined without taking into account its non-conventional dimension, thus failing to capture its complexity. We shall also cover Trident’s opportunity cost and, as some opponents argue, whether it may constitute an obstacle for British conventional rearmament. This second installment concludes with a look at the connection between Trident and, on the one hand, the “special relationship” between London and Washington, and, on the other, the UK’s place within the European Union, the subject of a referendum on 23 June.

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.