Britain's Trident submarines will last until 2025. Should they be renewed or can we survive without them?by Lewis Page / August 27, 2006 / Leave a comment
Published in August 2006 issue of Prospect Magazine
30th June 2005
Labour returned to power pledging to settle the future of Britain’s nuclear deterrent. Our Trident submarines will last until 2025. Neither of the main parties is likely to opt for disarmament and the electoral oblivion that would follow. Thus the real debate is about what nuclear weapons should follow Trident.
The bombs themselves are no problem. Many countries build them: Britain, the US, France, Russia, China, Israel, India, Pakistan; three proper liberal democracies, and five other regimes ranging from a little bit worrying to quite bad news. By 2025 the club will be bigger, and the new members are likely to be the wrong sort.
Nuclear bombs alone, however, are not a deterrent. We also need a delivery system, such as aeroplanes (or robot planes, misleadingly termed “cruise missiles”). But the trouble with aeroplanes, manned or robotic, is that they are easily shot down. Air defence equipment is freely available. The Iranians have recently acquired some effective Russian anti-aircraft gear. Syria has a solid air defence network. Planes or cruise missiles cannot reliably attack such nations today, and they will be even less able to do so in 2025. Enemy air defence systems can be taken out, but this requires a powerful air force. We don’t have one, and we certainly wouldn’t after a nuclear attack. Planes and cruise missiles, then, aren’t much of a deterrent.
The proper way to deliver nuclear weapons is by a ballistic missile, a rocket. This cannot realistically be shot down, so ballistic nukes offer real deterrence. All the nuclear bomb countries have at least basic rockets, and so do a lot of aspirants: North Korea, Syria and Iran, for instance.
We gave up trying to make rockets some 40 years ago. Since then we’ve imported them from America. This has a disadvantage: we need US support to keep Trident operational. If the Americans ever became really angry with us, they could cut off that support; two or three years on, our missiles would no longer be useable. But there is also an advantage: buying the missiles from America is far cheaper than making them ourselves.
Finally, we need nuclear-powered submarines to fire the rockets from. This is vital. You could put the missiles in land silos or ordinary vessels, but then everyone will know exactly where they are. Big rockets take time to prepare for launch, often longer than the amount of warning we would have of an incoming enemy strike. Thus an enemy will not be deterred from attacking us if all we have are land-based missiles.
Only submarine-based ballistics provide certain ability to retaliate. They are the only true deterrent, and only relevant nuclear arm for us—given that Britain should not plan to use nukes on a country which has not already used them on us.
This leaves us two realistic choices post-2025. The first is to continue as now, accepting American help with rocketry and doing the rest ourselves. It might cost £20bn to sort out the Trident subs until, say, 2040. That’s less than a year’s defence budget, or around 20 per cent of a year’s NHS spending. We get an effective deterrent cheaply, but accept some American influence.
There is a lot of confusion about the question of independence. British Trident subs are operationally independent—we do not have to ask American permission to use the missiles it has sold us. What is not independent is the satellite guidance system, which was designed to take out Soviet missile silos. If the US switched it off, this pinpoint accuracy would be lost. But Trident’s basic guidance system—which is not dependent on the US—is already accurate to within a few hundred yards. Britain has no need to hit silos; we just need to convince enemies that we can destroy them if they attack us.
If we do not want American rockets, we will have to develop our own rocket industry from scratch. That would require a real shift in national priorities. The cost would be £100bn or more, as much as a year of social security expenditure. It would also be a lengthy process: it took the French 26 years. Even if we started tomorrow we probably wouldn’t be in business until 2030, in which case we’d have to extend Trident anyway.
We could afford a fully British Trident replacement with a 5 per cent cut to the benefit and health budgets, but that would be as much of a political death warrant as unilateral disarmament. It would be pointless too. The world would still be an American world, and we’d still need US help for a very long time. An extra France in the picture wouldn’t actually change anything. I’d rather have the child benefit and hospitals and cheap US-built missiles, thanks.
Very best regards
2nd July 2006
You say that we need our own “operationally independent” deterrent as an insurance in a dangerous world. In an earlier Prospect article (“Hands off our subs,” December 2005), you set out a scenario: a nuclear dictator contemplates launching a surprise missile only or primarily against Britain, and our prime minister deters him or retaliates with nuclear weapons. That risk seems to me as implausible as one can get. What provocation would we have to give to drive the dictator to such a course? Would we give such a provocation without consulting our closest allies? Would the Americans not find their own way of stopping the crisis before a nuclear exchange developed that was out of their control?
Whether or not one can devise a plausible scenario for its use, you are almost certainly right that no British government is likely to give up our “deterrent.” Our nuclear status gives us, we believe, a place at the top table. Major political, military and industrial interests are involved. Our submariners would be appalled if their boats were not replaced. Voters like the thing. And who wants to leave the field to the French?
But that does not absolve us from thinking about—and publicly discussing—the various options. Let’s start by deconstructing the phrase “British independent nuclear deterrent.” We depend on the Americans to sell us the missiles, to keep them serviced, to provide satellite guidance and to allow our submariners to practise on American firing ranges. One day the US congress may decide to withdraw these facilities. It would certainly do so the moment we fired off a missile without American permission.
So we are the only nuclear weapon state which is incapable of delivering its warheads to their destinations without foreign approval. (By contrast, the French nuclear force really is both French and independent.) And the real problem with this is the mentality of dependence it seems to create. Our military and politicians have always felt it prudent to go along with US foreign policy for fear, among other things, that the Americans would become less helpful about nuclear weapons. That fear is considerably exaggerated. The Americans have always found the French irritating, but that didn’t prevent them co-operating with the French on nuclear military matters over many years. We prefer the poodle role, most recently on Iraq. That may be convenient for the Americans, but I do not think it is compatible with the British national interest.
These geopolitical considerations should figure much more than they have done in the Trident debate. Downing Street and the ministry of defence evidently think a debate would be inconvenient, for they have done their best to stifle it. They won’t release information about the value of our existing deterrent, the various options for replacing it or the implications of not replacing it. They won’t come clean about their technical talks with the Americans. They have graciously told parliament that it will eventually be allowed a debate. The rest of us, apparently, are to keep our mouths shut.
The government argues that our deterrent is only a small one. They are coy about the figures,but the thing probably cost about £12.5bn at 1996 prices to acquire; and might costup to twice that to renew. This is not very much, you may say, for a force which may perhaps be useful in some vague future emergency, but meanwhile keeps us right up there with the heavy hitters.
But the options go wider than that. If all those foreigners can develop missiles—the Indians and the North Koreans, to say nothing of the French, Russians and Chinese—we can too. Unlike you, I believe that there are good arguments in favour of cruise rather than ballistic missiles. They are, above all, very flexible. You can use them with conventional warheads, as we have done against Iraq. You can fire them from aeroplanes, ships and land, as well as from submarines. They may or may not cost more money than continuing to depend on the Americans, with the political costs that carries.
There is something to be said for all the options. But there is nothing at all to be said for stifling debate, or delaying it until it can no longer have any influence. These are matters that should be thrashed out in public now.
Of course, some hopefuls believe that if we gave up our “deterrent,” others would follow, and we would begin to live in a safer world. That is a sad illusion. Countries that want nuclear weapons will do what they think they have to do, regardless of our moral example. At the most they would no longer be able to accuse us of hypocrisy when we lecture them about building their own bombs.
5th July 2006
We agree about the importance of a public debate. Similarly, you are quite right to scorn the notion that our disarming would start a trend. And yes, the US would surely pull Trident’s support if we ever used it in a fashion they did not approve of.
But that isn’t the issue. The only time we should ever think of using it is in response to an attack on us, and in that case the issue of getting some future missiles from the US to replace the ones we have fired would not be at the top of our list. Nor would we be very worried about US approval of what we have done. So we have a de facto independent deterrent for at least one use.
As to whether there is a real threat of nuclear attack, I am not as sanguine as you. You point out that such an attacker would still have the US to deal with after reducing us to ashes. But all he would need do is retain some nukes, and the Americans would be hamstrung. Who would avenge the British if doing so meant joining us on the pyre?
And our head is above the parapet here. We are not Holland, or even France. Even without Iraq, Britain would be a target of choice. We helped to create the state of Israel and stood by it for decades. We are one of three liberal democracies with the ability to deploy troops around the world, and probably the one most willing to do so—certainly the most successful when we do. If a hostile leader dislikes either Israel or the value system of the democratic west, he may well consider the elimination of Britain alone to be worthwhile—especially if it could be done without nuclear retaliation. If Britain gave up its weapons entirely, this would be easy. If Britain gave up ballistic missiles and relied on cruise, it would be more difficult but still manageable.
As for who the attackers might be, one doesn’t have to look far. The Pakistani military is struggling to keep control; the Chinese surely need deterring as much as the USSR ever did. The Iranians are probably less of a worry than the Pakistanis, but when they eventually get nukes, they will be controlled by the revolutionary guards, not the government.
Less capable British nukes may be fine for diplomatic purposes, but they aren’t good enough for actual deterrence. A permanent UN security council seat is nice. More freedom from US influence would be nice too. Neither count for much compared to staying alive. It’s a dangerous world, and it may be even more so in 2025. Things may not go well in Russia; Iranian reformists may stay on the back foot; North Korea may demand more Danegeld than the Japanese and Americans are willing to pay.
Like you, I am a fan of cruise missiles. But they are just as American as Trident, and aren’t dependable enough for deterrent use anyway. We need ballistics and we are unlikely to find the money to make our own; that means Trident. It isn’t perfect, but it’s the best choice.
7th July 2006
Defence policy is often compared to insurance: we pay the premium to guard against the risk. But none of us, not even America, has the money to insure against every imaginable threat. Life remains dangerous whatever we do. So the trick is to identify the most likely risks and to pay a reasonable premium to protect ourselves against them. My view remains that our need for a nuclear deterrent is unproven, and that a deterrent dependent on the US is an undesirable constraint on our freedom of action.
I find your renewed list of threats wildly improbable. You say that the Chinese need deterring as much as the USSR ever did. Let’s start by looking at what deterrence meant in practice. For decades, we and the Soviets were equally afraid of one another, and so were equally deterred. The generals on both sides planned for the conduct of nuclear war. That was their professional duty. But there is no evidence that either side contemplated launching a bolt from the blue at the other. The real risk was that we might stumble into a strategic exchange by mistake. Luckily that did not happen. The best thing about mutual deterrence during the cold war was that it held the ring while the Soviet Union quietly shattered.
You argue that we are potentially a nuclear target because, unlike Holland, we are willing to use force around the world. That is not in itself a virtue. Sometimes force may be necessary, as in Kosovo or the Falklands. But if the policies behind our use of force are misconceived, our security will be undermined and our interests damaged. Bad policy is made worse by exaggerating threats. Eden did it to justify Suez. Blair did it to justify Iraq. Both accused those who disagreed with them of appeasement, even though the threats from Nasser and Saddam were never remotely commensurate with the existential threat we faced from Hitler. Reversing the usual order of historical events, the farce of Suez was repeated by the tragedy of Iraq.
British policy in the middle east has certainly angered the Arabs over the years, partly because of our insistence on bombing them from time to time. It has angered other Muslims too, including our fellow citizens. Jews with long memories, meanwhile, may be surprised by your claim that Britain helped to create Israel and then stood by it for decades.
But in what plausible circumstances would China, Iran or Pakistan want to single out little Britain for nuclear destruction all on its own? Because they didn’t like our way of life? Because our policies were so provocative that we drove them to a fury? Is making ourselves a target worldwide really a sensible object of British government policy?
Good policy is—except in extremity—as useful a tool as sophisticated weapons for influencing the world. It worked in the last stages of the cold war. It might work in the middle east if given a chance. It is the only sensible way of responding to secular historical change, such as the rise of China. Meanwhile, the misguided policies behind our adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan have left our government floundering, and have done nothing to advance national security.
To go back to the point I made in the beginning, the sad truth is that our failure to get our way throughout the world, however powerful our weapons, is in the very nature of things. Foreigners are an intractable lot. The middle east is not on the way to becoming a haven of democracy following the Iraq invasion. America, by far the greatest and most sophisticated military power the world has ever seen, up to its eyebrows in nuclear weapons, can’t deal with a bunch of Iraqi insurgents armed only with Kalashnikovs, rocket-propelled grenades and roadside bombs.
We have to live with reality. We can influence it somewhat, for good or bad, through policy or the judicious use of force. But we can very rarely transform it. Sensible policymakers adapt accordingly.
10th July 2006
Defence is indeed like insurance. Sensible people insure against the most terrible events, not the most likely. Wise families have policies covering the death of a breadwinner or a catastrophic fire, though neither is to be expected. Cover against nuclear attack is necessary too. I don’t understand your objection to cold war deterrence—you say that it held the ring while the Soviet Union shattered. In other words, it worked tolerably well. Why not try the same plan with China?
As for using force around the world, of course we could adopt a fully European stance and opt out, spending money on luxuries instead. When genocide erupted somewhere we would remain safe from risk, but there wouldn’t be any scope for British policy, good or bad. We’d be more an American client than we are now—or, even more humiliating, a French client. Hiding behind others when trouble threatens is scarcely virtuous. Perhaps a willingness to use force is, actually, a virtue—even if mistakes are sometimes made.
I agree with you that good policy is always the first choice. Thus, Britain must only use nuclear violence as a certain response to that of others. And if we are to keep the financial cost of that potential violence bearable, that means Trident.
Very best regards
10th July 2006
Death is an actuarial certainty. Houses catch fire all the time. But read the small print of your insurance policy. It doesn’t insure you against being hit by a meteor, nor against acts of God and the queen’s enemies, nor against a whole raft of lesser risks. Ditto defence policy.
During the cold war we contributed a very small percentage of the total destructive power which the west could hurl against the Soviet Union. It seemed to me that our contribution could easily have been dispensed with. The same is true for China. My question stands: why do we need an “independent” submarine deterrent against a far distant power which has no plausible reason to fire nuclear rockets just against us? One has to put these threats in context before one can decide how to respond.
I am not suggesting spending defence money on luxuries: I’m suggesting spending it on a more useful defence posture. There is no reason why, if we did so, we should become a French client. Of course we may need to use force from time to time: on that we do agree. As for our ability and willingness to prevent genocide, remember Rwanda. That was a crisis in which we—and the Americans—failed to deploy the kind of flexible military force we already have available, and on which we rightly pride ourselves. Nothing nuclear there.
All the best