The coalition government released a paper in July 2013 – the Trident Alternatives Review – examining different ways of providing the UK’s independent strategic nuclear deterrent.  I’ve been a bit busy since then, but here are my thoughts on the matter.

What is the UK’s nuclear deterrent?

So what is the independent strategic nuclear deterrent?

  • It is an independent system which we are capable of deploying by ourselves without the permission of another state;
  • As a ‘strategic’ weapons system it is designed to inflict massive indiscriminate damage on a potential opponent, as opposed to ‘tactical’ battlefield weapons for engaging a particular military target;
  • It is a nuclear, as opposed to conventional, weapon system with many complex considerations required in order to develop, operate, maintain, decommission and – hopefully never – deploy;
  • It is there to deter those who might consider launching a nuclear attack against the UK from doing so, as in the event of such an attack the aggressor would be faced with Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD).  Without a deterrent our only option would be to surrender.  As a deterrent it is not there to be used for the purposes of pre-emptive strike or for use against a non-nuclear state;

A continuous at-sea deterrent is currently provided by the 4 Vanguard-class, nuclear-powered, ballistic missile armed submarines (known as SSBNs): HMS Vanguard, HMS Vengeance, HMS Victorious and HMS Vigilant.  They carry the Trident II D5 submarine launched ballistic missile (SLBM) system.  One of these V-boats is always at sea, submerged and undetectable beneath the waves.

We don’t need nukes, do we?

Some would have you believe that the world, at some point since the end of the Cold War, has magically become safe and free from threats.  This is demonstrably untrue:

Russia is recovering economically and is investing in the regeneration of its military.  It is one of the most corrupt and most influential nations on Earth.  President Putin is not exactly a centre-ground politician and in the future there is nothing to suggest Russia doesn’t have the potential to be an active threat to the UK.  In fact in 2010 Russia engaged in a game of cat-and-mouse trying to track one of our SSBNs in the North Atlantic and there are repeated attempts by Russian bombers to enter UK airspace just to test our ability to respond.

China is a growing economic might, with a single-party political system and territorial desires in the East & South China Seas.  It is also engaging with Africa in what appears to be a quiet form of economic imperialism.  China is nuclear armed and has a modernising and growing military capability.  They have engaged in dangerous naval tactics with Japan and other east Pacific nations in territorial disputes, and are known to be engaged in widespread cyber espionage against foreign governments, militaries and companies.

There are a range of other nations that pose an existing or potential threat to a peaceful world such as the nuclear armed North Korea, the nuclear ambitious Iran (whether that is purely for civil electricity generations or not remains to be seen), and the nuclear armed but extremism plagued nations of India and Pakistan.

And let us not forget Israel, which almost certainly has its own nuclear weapons – they just won’t admit it to the outside world.  Surrounded by an Arab world with which Israel doesn’t exactly have the best of relations, and you have another potential nuclear melting pot.

Like I said, some people seem to think we live in a ‘safe’ world.  I do not.

But nukes don’t stop terrorism, cyber attacks or conventional threats!

It is entirely true that our nuclear deterrent does not directly protect us from a range of other threats.  To begin with, a nuclear attack on the UK (or anyone else for that matter) could not only take the form of a missile or air-dropped bomb, it could take the form of a smaller suitcase nuke or radiological ‘dirty’ bomb.  Terrorists the world over would probably like nothing more than to get their hands on a nuclear weapon.  But we are active in preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons, deploying our intelligence and security services to disrupt any such threats before they reach our shores.  Of course, such intelligence-driven measures don’t offer any protection from a conventional nuclear weapon threat.

We likewise counter cyber threats through digital counter-measures headed up by the Government Communications HQ (GCHQ).  The current government has wisely chosen to invest in our capabilities in this arena.  One of the reasons that cyber attacks have risen is that conventional and nuclear threats are simply not a practical option for hostile nations to actively challenge our interests, and so the damaging but digital impact of cyber espionage is preferred.  Should we dispose of these capabilities just because they aren’t capable of stopping a tank on a battlefield?

Our nuclear deterrent has helped to preserve the nuclear peace.  The risks associated with nuclear warfare helped to deter conventional confrontations between the USA/UK/France and the USSR.  But we rightly need strong conventional forces to protect us from conventional threats.  By way of example, the Falklands War was a purely conventional affair.  But this isn’t an argument against having a nuclear deterrent; it is an argument for having strong conventional forces as well.

So, in summary, our nuclear deterrent is part of a range of defence systems that together provide safety not just for the UK, but also our allies around the globe.

But why the UK?

We’re a third rate power aren’t we?  It’s none of our business what the rest of the world gets up to, right?  We should spend the money for the replacement of the current SSBNs on hospitals, shouldn’t we?

Except we’re one of the richest countries on the planet: riches gained through building a global reaching empire.  And after that empire came to an end we continued to have influence and looked after our business interests.  We have strong economic, political, social and historical ties with European and Commonwealth partners.  We have an obligation as an economic and military might to preserve and enhance the freedoms of people the world over because doing so makes the world a better, safer place to live; and every human being should have the same opportunities as the British to make a good life for themselves.  Such aims can only be achieved if we are prepared to spend the money on both conventional and nuclear defences.

If we were to unilaterally disarm ourselves of our nuclear capabilities, we would quickly lose influence around the world, influence which on balance we generally use for good (although that’s a whole different topic for discussion).  We would eventually lose our position on the UN Security Council and we would be sending out a signal that we are no longer interested in shaping the world through defence diplomacy, and would increasingly be at the mercy of aggressive foreign powers.

This isn’t a nuclear bombs vs. hospitals debate.  Or a nukes vs. foreign aid debate.  The entire programme of sustaining a strategic nuclear deterrent has created and sustained 10 000s of jobs across the supply chains for the submarines, within and beyond the nuclear industry itself, and thus adds to our economic activity.  If you remove the activity you damage the economy.  Furthermore, NHS England alone has a budget of £95.6 billion for the coming year, compared to an estimated £25 billion cost of replacing the Vanguard-class over the next 15 years – that’s just (a rough) 1.7% per year of the NHS’s budget to help to provide security to the world.  Without security from the greatest of threats our truly wonderful NHS and everything else in the country could simply be wiped off the map.  Or rather an aggressive foreign power could threaten our interests, harm our economy and make our existing economic problems look like a minor nuisance.  It might be tempting to wave such comments away as being sensationalist but the reality is that we enjoy our peace and relative prosperity as a nation because of our global standing – lose the global standing and that prosperity will ebb away.

But what about our conventional forces?  We can’t afford both a well equipped navy/army/air force and have a nuclear deterrent!  Except we can, if we choose to.  Our government’s spending priorities can be changed.  We can choose to reform the defence industry so it doesn’t fleece the taxpayer for commercial gain and improve the entire procurement process to ensure projects are delivered on time and to budget.  But that would take political courage and willpower – something which has been sorely lacking in the past.  Don’t think for one minute that HM Treasury would happily let the Trident replacement budget be retained by the MOD if we ended our nuclear weapons programme – because it would disappear into the abyss of wider government expenditure and conventional forces would be unlikely to see an extra penny.

Of course we could leave it to the French and USA to pick up the cost and we could sit under their protective shield.  Except both of these countries are struggling to fund their own military spending, just as we are, and frankly we shouldn’t be depending on the USA for our defence.  For too long Europe has failed to shoulder its fair share of the burden of its own defence.  It would be cowardice to shrug our shoulders and say, “Not our problem,” and it would send a message to the world that we no longer care about our alliances, our global reaching interests and responsibilities, and our standing as a beacon of democratic light in an all-too-shadowy world of unstable oppressive nations.

Remember the Libya crisis?  What was the first thing we wanted to know as a nation?  That’s right, what our Armed Forces were doing to get our people out of there safely.  We want to know that wherever we are in the world, the British government can offer us protection.  And since the 1960s we have been provided with protection from nuclear war.  The presence of nuclear weapons may have produced the Cold War, but it almost certainly stopped a conventional World War 3 from breaking out between the USA and the USSR, into which we would have unavoidably become embroiled.  The nuclear deterrent has deterred the deployment of nuclear weapons by hostile states: it has been supremely successful in carrying out its role.

We would be mad to discard our capability if this ever uncertain world.

Scottish Independence

A rather practical consideration is the basing of our nuclear powered submarines at Her Majesty’s Naval Base Clyde in Scotland.  The Scottish National Party want nuclear weapons removed from Scotland and in the event of independence they want it to happen practically overnight.  However, there is a hugely complex and expensive infrastructure in place which would take many years and untold sums of money to move to a location in England, whether we renewed the nuclear deterrent or not.  But simply put, nuclear weapons are safe because it requires an active effort to detonate a nuclear weapon.  Scotland isn’t at serious risk from a nuclear weapon accident.  A greater risk probably exists from the Hunterston B nuclear power plant, and that is a rather minimal risk itself.

As for independence, the whole issue risks ripping apart the fabric of the relationship between Scotland and the rest of the UK and, as is the case for so many issues, we can only hope the Scottish population vote overwhelmingly no in the 2014 referendum.

Options for a deterrent

The Trident Alternatives Review does a very good job of demonstrating – in a non-biased way – that the only credible and cost-efficient way of maintaining an effective nuclear deterrent is to use the existing style of SLBM-armed, nuclear-powered submarines: SSBNs.  Furthermore, it outlines the options for different postures using SSBNs, and in this author’s opinion the only credible deterrent is the continuous one.

After all, if you were going to nuke someone, would you let them know in advance so they could send their counter-strike submarines to sea?  I thought not… but then you wouldn’t nuke, or threaten to nuke anyone would you?  And neither would the British government.

The same is not necessarily true of some other nations…