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…

First posted on Facebook 29th December 2011

Firstly I would like to state that I have no military experience beyond four years at Liverpool University Royal Naval Unit, and I cannot claim to have held any high office in this land or any other.  I am not a military or naval strategist and I do not and have not worked in the defence industry.  So perhaps I am completely unqualified to offer this response.  I have, however, avidly followed the spiral of decline in our Armed Forces over the past decade or so: although I recognise that hardly qualifies me in the affairs of national defence.

I do however hold a first-class degree in Oceans, Climate and Physical Geography from the University of Liverpool and I am currently in the third year of a PhD in Physical Oceanography.  I am also an Associate Fellow of the Royal Meteorological Society and a member of the European Geosciences Union.  I do not claim to speak on behalf of my university, nor the society, nor the union – but I felt sufficiently motivated to bring my education to bear on the recent paper published by the UK National Defence Association entitled “Inconvenient Truths – Threats justify prioritising defence” (specifically section 4.2, paragraph 7).

There were a number of matters dealt with by the paper which I disagreed with (but many more which I find entirely agreeable), but I thought it best to focus on the field that I have experience in – climate change.  I shall deal with each point (in bold and italics) in turn:

“The last and major handicap to long-term economic growth is that the Government is imposing large climate change burdens on industry, especially the vital manufacturing industry to which it looks to spearhead economic growth.”

Climate change is the biggest threat to the human race.  We, as a civilisation are more exposed to changes in our climate than ever before due to a large increase in population and the increasing scarcity of a range of resources.  Our economy has already proven to be susceptible to relatively small fluctuations in the price of food and fuel: whether these fluctuations were as a result of natural factors or instead were man-made by commodity speculation is another topic for discussion.  One fact is for sure though; our economy is inextricably linked to the climate in which we live.

The manufacturing industry no-doubt faces many challenges, however ‘green’ technologies such as wind turbines is a source of growth in the UK economy and represents an area in which engineering skill and manufacturing expertise is required to delivery long-lived and cost/energy efficient machines.  This is surely to be welcomed?

“Equally it is imposing heavy charges on all individual electricity consumers thus significantly curtailing their spending power. These handicaps are greater than on any other nation is imposing. In contrast the main polluters, America, China and India, besides which Britain’s 2% of global carbon emissions is puny, are doing relatively little.”

The UK population forms less than 1% of the world’s population, yet we produce by the authors’ own assertion 2% of global carbon emissions.  That means that we produce twice as much CO2 per head as the global average.  Regardless of our overall contribution to global emissions, we still emit far more per head than most of the rest of the world.  Having built Britain on the back of the rest of the world’s economy over the course of the past 300 years, and having a large historical carbon footprint compared to most developing nations, it seems only fair that we should lead the way in altering our economy to a more sustainable footing.

Surprisingly, it turns out that China is actually one of the world’s leading investor in renewal technologies: it holds the leading role in solar panel manufacturing and is rapidly expanding its renewable power generation.  China’s aim is almost certainly to provide increased energy security for itself, whilst simultaneously dominating the market in the purchase of rare earth metals upon which the likes of photovoltaics are currently reliant.

“All this, based on the belief that the increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will lead to damaging rises in global temperature, is far from clear. An article by Lord Turnbull (a very senior distinguished former civil servant), shows that the basic scientific evidence is far from conclusive. The Government should urgently review these matters before continuing its present policy. It is unwise to have placed such heavy bets on just one interpretation of the evidence. Belief in serious man-made global warming has become, in the words of the most celebrated economic journalist, Sir Samuel Brittan, an unexamined „…collective craze‟. CO2 concentrations have risen steadily since the 1940s but global temperature rises occurred far earlier. The rises in temperature experienced between 1970 and the late 1990s have stopped, with no rise and more probably a fall in the last decade.”

Whilst I’m sure Lord Turnbull is indeed a very senior distinguished former civil servant, he is not a climate scientist.  In fact he is a trustee of the Global Warming Policy Foundation – a nicely named organisation, which is in fact fundamentally opposed to the idea that human activity is having any effect upon global warming and the GWPF is a proponent of the idea that we shouldn’t take any action to mitigate the impact of CO2 emissions.  Its academic advisory council includes several economists (of which Samuel Brittan is one of them) and a couple of scientists – but from what I can tell none of them are climate scientists.  I wouldn’t expect a climate scientist to be an authority on defence matters: nor should you expect a civil servant (or even a theoretical physicist) with links to a highly questionable organisation to be an expert on climate science.

As someone with a background in climate science, from all the evidence I’ve seen, the vast majority of climate scientists agree that enhanced global warming due to human activity is occurring.  However, any climate scientist worth his salt will acknowledge that there is uncertainty in what our future climate will be, and that there are some things we do not yet understand: but the underlying science is sound and almost unanimously agreed upon by those in the field.  Contrary to the last line of the above quote, the consensus of scientific opinion is that climate change is continuing unabated, albeit with varying rates of change in different parts of the world.

“Our very expensive Climate Change Act ignores the fact that other EU nations are mainly doing far less and the big overseas nations almost nothing at all. We are thus imposing a major handicap on British competitiveness for negligible global benefit even if it turns out that CO2 is the principal agent of climate change. The Government can have manufacturing growth or its present climate control policies – but it cannot have both. It should think again.”

Many EU nations are doing far more than we are: heading further and faster down the road to sustainable energy production than we are: as of 2008 only Luxembourg and Malta had a lower rate of renewable energy production than the UK.  Even if you don’t accept the CO2 argument for climate change – against the vast bulk of scientific evidence and educated opinion – switching to renewable power generation increases our energy security, provides a source of manufacturing and servicing jobs for wind turbines and other technologies.  Currently, the surge in demand for oil products from China and other developing nations is pushing up the price of fuel in the UK.  If we decrease our reliance on oil products then our economy will be less dependent on highly volatile regions of the world (e.g. the Arabian Gulf) and therefore will provide a more stable and competitive environment in which to do business.

When it comes to the defence industry here in the UK, the revelations since the coalition came to power about the sheer scale of waste and incompetence both within the MOD and defence companies is far more concerning than any impacts from the Climate Change Act.  Billions of pounds have simply been wasted through contract renegotiations (e.g. the carriers), changes to system requirements (any number of procurements) and failure to deliver projects to time and budget (Nimrod springs to mind as the most recent catastrophic example).  Industry and the MOD need a more efficient and healthy relationship as a priority to stimulate industrial growth (such as a sufficient drumbeat of orders for ships to keep the shipyards active on an ongoing basis).  There are many issues which affect particularly the defence manufacturing industry, but the Climate Change Act is the least of their worries.

Ironically, climate change is actually an argument in favour of properly funding the armed forces and having a manufacturing base to properly underpin that commitment:

  • Increasing pressures on key resources (water, oil, food, etc.) is likely to increase friction between nations with competing interests – which would require more intervention by the UN and an increased chance of our armed forces being called upon to enforce Security Council Resolutions, or indeed simply defend our own territories (e.g. The Falklands and the recent discovery of oil fields);
  • Whilst climate change cannot be directly linked as the cause of any specific event, the general consensus is that climate change will lead to an increase in severe weather events and related natural disasters.  The response to such events is often best handled through the military as they are often the only body with sufficient skills, strategic lift and mobility to provide effective relief efforts (e.g. hurricane season in the Caribbean to which we already provide relief efforts through the Royal Navy);
  • Medium to long-term shifts in overall climate could very well lead to serious humanitarian and political situations whereby millions of people are internally or externally displaced (e.g. sea level rise in low-lying Bangladesh is a prime example).  The political and economic ramifications of such changes are immense and make our manufacturing woes pale into insignificance.  Whilst I’m not necessarily suggesting that Somalia’s current famine is the result of human induced climate change, it is a prime example of how adverse climate combined with the collapse of governance can severely impact on the global economy through the rise of piracy which costs the global economy an estimated $7 to $12 billion a year.  A strong international response with the necessary military and naval resources at its disposal to respond to piracy, for instance, would be of great benefit to the British and wider global economy.

My greatest issue with the paper is that it raises matters which are at best tangential to the core issue of the proper funding of the Armed Forces for the task we expect them to do.  To the most critical of readers, the paper is pushing at least one other agenda – i.e. climate change denial – which actually does a disservice to the cause of ensuring our nation is properly equipped for the dangerous modern world we live in.  It risks placing the UKNDAs campaign (or at least members who are party to it) into the political wilderness and overshadowing the many other good solid arguments in favour of the UK Armed Forces.

By failing to recognise an entire spectrum of threats to our economic and physical security, the authors have missed a key argument for why HMG should reprioritise funding a properly equipped and capable UK Armed Forces.

With hope and regards

Matthew Donnelly