The U.K. Is Fine With Its Fleet of Nuclear Subs, Thank You Very Much
In a report three years in the making, a panel of former British defense and foreign-affairs leaders said shifting to alternative nuclear platforms isn't worth it. By Elaine M. Grossman
An independent British panel led by former defense and foreign-affairs leaders from each of the nation’s three major political parties agrees in a new report that the United Kingdom should keep its arsenal of nuclear-armed Trident submarines, but consider postponing a 2016 decision on modernization options.
The so-called Trident Commission’s bottom-line recommendation was to stick with what Britain’s got — at least for now — as a matter of existential importance.
“We need to pay close attention to the relevance of possible emerging threats and to our national capacity to meet them in an effective manner,” the commission report states. It argues that the “crucial consideration” in deciding whether to seek alternatives to the U.K. nuclear posture must remain defense of the island nation itself.
“If there is more than a negligible chance that the possession of nuclear weapons might play a decisive future role in the defense of the United Kingdom and its allies, in preventing nuclear blackmail, or in affecting the wider security context within which the U.K. sits, then they should be retained,” the commissioners declared.
The 43-page paper released Tuesday was more than three years in the making, reflecting the consensus of — and some differences between — its eight politically diverse members. Co-chairs are Des Browne, also known as Lord Browne of Ladyton and a former Labor secretary of state for defense; Sir Malcolm Rifkind, a former Conservative defense and foreign secretary; and Sir Menzies Campbell, a former Liberal Democrat leader and shadow foreign secretary.
The panel review was sponsored by the British American Security Information Council, or BASIC, an organization dedicated to nuclear disarmament. The group said it assisted in drafting the document as a means to stimulate public debate but did not endorse Trident Commission findings.
For its part, the commission appeared to find common ground largely in the status quo, in which the nation’s defense ministry is moving to replace today’s four Vanguard-class ballistic-missile submarines — its entire nuclear arsenal — with “like-for-like” Successor-class vessels. The panelists expressed skepticism about cost or security advantages to be gained from shifting to alternative nuclear platforms, such as cruise missiles.
But they also said London could take new actions to discourage global nuclear proliferation and move toward disarmament.
The commission advised that the defense ministry “study the steps down the nuclear ladder more thoroughly,” possibly to include “further reductions in warheads or changes in posture and declaratory policy.”
Britain should consider, the panelists said, relaxing its policy of keeping at least one ballistic-missile submarine on patrol at all times — dubbed a continuous at-sea deterrent, or “CASD.” However, they were divided over whether such a step could be contemplated independently or should instead be pursued “multilaterally with other nuclear weapon states.”
The Conservative Party that leads the U.K. governing coalition today sees the continuous patrols as necessary for effectively preventing or responding to the gravest security threats. But Liberal Democrats, the governing junior partner, have said a less stringent approach could offer security and cost benefits.
Without naming which commissioners took particular views, the report notes that some members “believe that CASD should be maintained for the foreseeable future and that we must wait for improvement in the security environment” before any relaxation in continuous nuclear patrols. Meantime, other commissioners see no “current or near foreseeable strategic military threat to the U.K. and its vital interests” that could not be handled by periodic submarine operations, with an option to ramp up patrols in the event of crisis.
Browne, the former Labor defense secretary among the panel co-chairs, articulated the latter argument in a February phone interview.
“I think there are questions to be raised as to whether, in the modern world, there is a justification for us to have [submarines] able, continuously at sea with nuclear weapons on board, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, in the absence of any threat,” he told Global Security Newswire. “We are in an alliance [with nuclear-armed Washington and Paris] in which at any given time, we have six boats at sea … [and] all on the basis, depending on who you believe, that if we [Britain] stop doing this [CASD], we will lose the ability to do it forever, which I think is unlikely.”
His Tory party co-chair, Rifkind, voiced an opposing view last fall.
“I think we should continue with continuous at-sea deterrence, [or] CASD,” he said in a London interview in late September. “We have as a matter of policy over the last 25 years reduced our nuclear weapons to the absolute minimum required. … If we were moving away from CASD, by definition that means that for significant periods of time, there would be no effective deterrent in the event of a sudden emergency.”
Sir Nick Harvey, a Liberal Democrat in the U.K. Parliament who kicked off a major government study of Trident-modernization alternatives in 2011 when he was minister of state for the armed forces, told GSN last year that Britain’s submarine-based nuclear force could remain a strong deterrent even if kept in port for long stretches. Exercises at sea could be done regularly without warheads on board, he argued.
“I’m not saying we should get rid of our nuclear capability,” he said in a late-September Skype interview from his district office in North Devon. “I’m saying we should sustain the submarine as a platform; the missile as a delivery system; the warhead technology; and, the highly skilled, highly exercised crew. And we should adopt a posture [in] which would be able to put it all together and rearm it at short notice, in case the security assessment should change.”
Among the Trident experts reporting this week, “some commissioners feared the deployment of four new submarines on continuous patrol would be an increase in … capability and could undermine our diplomatic strategy,” according to a separate “guide” that the BASIC organization issued alongside the report. “The new submarines have much-improved reactor designs and greater reliability and longevity of components allowing for longer reduced maintenance periods.”
To provide a potential opening for “cost, technology and diplomatic” advantages, the panelists asked whether a delay might be possible — “without significantly endangering national security” — in the so-called “Main Gate” U.K. government decision in 2016 on whether to proceed with replacing the Vanguard submarines with newly built Successor vessels.
“We recommend the government assess the key influencing factors, and the costs and benefits of related options, and publicly report their technical assessment in advance” of the determination in two years, the report reads.
“The recent decision this year to refuel the existing Vanguards may [extend] their expected life by several years, allowing further delay with minimal risk to patrolling capabilities,” according to the BASIC guide accompanying the main report.
In their document, the Trident commissioners appeared to agree more when it came to other ideas for advancing nonproliferation and disarmament.
The U.K. government, the document says, should explore “further transparency and verification measures, treaty-based commitments to control and reduce stocks of fissile materials and their means of production, and refraining from certain forms of development or modernization.”
Paul Ingram, BASIC’s executive director, said in a phone interview from London late last week that he would urge London to take a bolder leadership role in spurring nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation than the Trident Commission ultimately embraced.
“In the end, it comes down to a calculation which involves the value of nuclear weapons in national security strategy against the contributions of strengthening global nonproliferation norms,” he said. As a member of the permanent five members of the U.N. Security Council, “Britain does have a leadership role which it cannot wash its hands of. And that role is about creating the conditions for global cooperation and international regimes that lock us into a more stable relationship.”
Browne argued in the interview earlier this year that it is “indisputable” that “we are not even at the beginning of dealing with the complexities of the challenges and threats that our use and development of technology is generating.”
In today’s security environment, “we need to think long and hard as to why we would commit future generations to relying upon a strategic defense system that served us well in a bipolar — sort of bicentric — world, as opposed to the kind of multicentric world that we live in, with all the sophistication of these threats” and other global challenges, he said.
Ingram said his organization has not yet spelled out its own recommended alternatives to moving forward with replacing all four of the U.K. Trident submarines and maintaining the 24/7 sea patrols. Rather, the group seeks to spark public interest and debate that could lead to a broader exploration of nuclear-posture alternatives, he said.
“[These] questions are uncomfortable for all of us, no matter where we lie in the debate,” Ingram said. “And they ought to be [uncomfortable], because these are nasty weapons that we don’t want in the hands of everybody — and, if you ask some of us, in the hands of anybody.”