The future of Britain's nuclear weapons have been in the news recently. It's an old debate, but now seems like as good time as any to write about it. The informal debate over at Think Defence has certainly been going strong of late (Edit; and I've just noticed that TD has his Trident article up here, which can be found here).
The primary question is whether we still need nuclear weapons (and can we really afford them)? There was a time when I would have absolutely said "yes" and not even considered an alternate view to that. I was adamantly pro-nuclear. Now? Hmm, I'm not so sure. I guess that in a sense I still support nuclear weapons, I'm just not sure the current system is the right one.
At the minute the UK employs a Continuous At Sea Deterrent (CASD) provided by the Royal Navy. This takes the form of four Vanguard-class submarines, each capable of carrying 16 Trident ballistic missiles. Each missile is capable of carrying multiple warheads out to ranges believed to be around 7,000 miles, but with no more than 48 live warheads being carried on any one ship. The vessels currently take turns to rotate through periods of patrol, maintenance and training, but always with one armed vessel patrolling deep beneath the waves of the Atlantic.
The Vanguards, however, are getting old. The Trident missiles themselves are getting old. Even the warheads need a bit of tender loving care. The system needs replacing and at the minute the current government estimates run to around £20 billion to build a new class of submarines, to upgrade the missiles, refurbish the warheads, and build the necessary infrastructure to support the continued operations. Then maybe another £1-1.5 billion on top per year to maintain the system.
One word of caution here though; that's the governments initial estimate. If history has taught us anything it's that the government is - if you'll pardon my French - shite, at estimating the costs of military projects, with large cost over runs not uncommon.
This situation is made worse by the fact that the costs will have to be met out of the Ministry of Defence's (MoD) own budget, as opposed to being centrally funded by the treasury. That is basically guaranteed to put a massive strain on the conventional military forces, not longer after they've suffered severe cuts to all three services.
That brings the question of affordability up on to a par with that of whether we need the weapons in the first place. So do we?
Britain has sought after nuclear weapons since the very first detonation produced by the Manhattan Project. Indeed, UK scientists were involved in that program and as a result it was almost assumed that the United States would share the full details of all of its work with the UK after the end of the Second World War.
Things didn't quite work out like that. It wasn't until the UK was able to demonstrate the ability to independently develop and test weapons that the US came around to the idea of sharing secrets and technology that lead to a much more rapid growth in the UK's nuclear capabilities.
The rational behind possessing these weapons, despite the massive size of the allied US nuclear arsenal, was the guarantee of retaliation against the Soviet Union in the event of a future war. Based on experience gained during the second world war it became clear that the US could not always be relied upon to act in the best interests of the UK, such as diverting resources to stop the V-weapon attacks.
In a nuclear stand off/war it was believed that the US would prioritise defence of its own cities over actions that could potentially save UK cities. Which if we're honest isn't really that unreasonable. But nor was it considered acceptable and as such the UK has retained a nuclear arsenal (albeit a small one) of its own, capable of being independently targeted without authorisation from Washington.
Of course the number of scenarios in which the UK could find itself preparing to use nuclear weapons against modern Russia, independent of the US, are few and far between. Indeed the whole spectre of Russian aggression has largely faded.
While Russia manages to impress many a blogger, journalist and military analyst with its latest designs for military equipment (and some of them are very impressive), it fails to turn that hype into reality. The numbers of new aircraft, ships, tanks etc that actually find their way into frontline service with Russian forces is quite small. Much of their equipment is simply out dated and in a poor state of repair.
On top of this it's estimated for example that the average Russian pilot of a "tactical" aircraft gets just 20 hours of flying time... per year. By comparison, pilots of the RAF have to put in almost that many hours a month just to retain their flying currency.
At this rate it'd be a miracle if Russia could even invade Poland, what with the German, French, Danish, Dutch, Belgian and Italian forces behind them. If some reports are true, the Russian armoured columns would be doing well if they could just find Poland.
The reality is that Russia is not going to be rolling down the great northern plain any time soon and nor does it really have cause to. Western forces are drawing down from their old cold war bases and frankly Russia needs the money to be made from greater economic ties to the West.
The great games of geopolitical strategy are by no means over, but the stakes are a little lower now, the urgency is lacking, and generally things have gotten a lot more peaceful and cordial. Relatively speaking, at least.
The need then to retain something like Trident is a lot more questionable in this modern era. Even if we argue that the future is a murky thing, difficult to predict (which it is), do we really need a safeguard on the level of Trident? Personally I no longer think so.
£20 billion is a lot of money to be sucked out of the budget. I think we have alternative options, that should prove cheaper, and in the long run I think would be more suitable for the UK. The first of these centre's around the Tomahawk Land Attack Missile (TLAM).
TLAM is designed to carry a conventional explosive warhead up to 1000 miles, striking at high value targets. It already comes in a variant with a nuclear warhead, capable of delivering a blast effect of around 200 kilotons, or about 13 times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, during world war two.
A TLAM-N is not without its problems though. The three main identifiable ones would be 1) range, 2) survivability and 3) the possibility of mistaking a conventional TLAM for a TLAM-N.
The first of these is not insignificant. The immense range of Trident means that a Vanguard submarine can hit most targets around the world with very little in the way of prior movement before launch. A submarine carrying a TLAM-N would have to get much closer to the Russian main land in order to get off a shot.
In order to hit Moscow a submarine carrying TLAM-N would have to slip into either the Black Sea or Baltic sea, which is understandably quite a risky proposal, sailing into the enemies back yard and into relatively confined waters. Hitting a target like St. Petersburg though is a little less problematic being within range of the North Sea, although the Danish, Swedish and Estonians might be a bit miffed at having nuclear tipped cruise missiles soaring over their heads.
Again though, we have to come back to the underlying theory of the nuclear weapon. It's designed as a deterrent, to guarantee that any aggressive action could be countered. And in all likely hood it's conceivable that a submarine carrying a TLAM-N would be able to get close enough to get off a shot.
If it does, would the shot survive though? I hear a lot about how vulnerable TLAM's are, given their low cruising speed (around 550mph) compared to a ballistic missile. But I'm not sure if I really buy that argument. TLAM's have been fired in the hundreds now and recorded cases of shoot downs are quite low.
Yes the TLAM is slow and takes a while to reach the target. But at the same time it's quite small, reasonably quiet, and flies at very low level. The Soviets were so concerned about US ground launched TLAM-N's deployed in Europe during the late 80's that they practically rushed to sign a treaty banning them and gave up significant chunks of their missile inventory to secure this deal.
It's not like every single one of the TLAM have to make it through. Just one shot creates a bloody great bang and one great bang is enough to kill a significant number of people.
The third issue, that of mistaken identity, is a red herring to me. The US has nuclear bombs in the very literal sense, such as the B61 and B83 free fall bombs, as well as Air Launched Cruise Missiles (ALCM). They even have specialist vehicles to carry these on, such as the B-1 Lancer, B-2 Spirit and B-52 Stratofortress bombers.
The B-2 in particular was designed from the ground up to penetrate Soviet air defences undetected and deliver nuclear bombs onto targets deep in enemy territory. Yet when the B-2 takes to the skies on a fairly routine basis it doesn't seem to trigger world war three.
The US has pounded various nations with bombs from all three of the above mentioned platforms, fired ALCM's at them, Tomahawks, and dropped tons of bombs from other aircraft such as the F-15, F-18, F-111, A-4 Skyhawk, A-6 Intruder and other aircraft that are also capable of deploying nuclear weapons.
Simply put, unless you're dropping bombs directly on a nuclear capable nation then the risk of someone getting the wrong end of the stick is limited. Even the Russians tempt fate themselves, sending large "Badger" bombers to probe western air defences, despite the Badger being rated to carry nuclear weapons. I can't remember us or the Americans getting all excited and launching a massive pre-emptive strike in response, can you?
Providing we don't go randomly shooting off TLAM's in the general direction of the Russians or Chinese (or the French for that matter) we shouldn't have too many issues.
So what are the advantages of TLAM-N?
Well for start it should be a lot cheaper. Not free, but cheaper. You need warheads, of which the US has some pre-built but currently in storage, or you can cough up the cash to put modified UK warheads into current TLAM.
As for the launch platform, the obvious candidate is the new Astute submarine. Capable of carrying close to 40 weapons in a mix of torpedoes and TLAM, Astute could take over the nuclear role with minimal re-design work needed. Additional vessels could be added on to the end of the current production run to raise the size of the fleet and this would permit you to put some boats to sea on other, more general duties, while still preserving a small number to operate the new deterrent.
Or you could go a step further in reducing the cost and capability of the deterrent, along with a little increase in risk. This would mean learning to love the bomb once more. And by that I mean the free fall variety.
In other words, what is the feasibility of going back to airborne weapons like the American B61 and B83? The B61 in particular is intriguing as it is being redesigned to fit the bomb bay of the new F-35 Lightning.
Such a deterrent would work in the same manner that Frances air launched deterrent does (another possibility there for you in the ASMP missile) in that it would be designed first and fore most as a warning shot against an aggressor force, with the credible potential of an attack being launched against land targets.
A fully tanked Typhoon fighter could make the dash to Russia for a strike. Whether it made it back is another matter entirely. Likely following this path would mean doing a bit of work to build a longer ranged air launched weapon. Something like Storm Shadow, but redesigned to reverse the current trade off of range for speed.
Of course the next logical step from there is towards a life without any bomb. Well, almost.
The warheads could be kept in storage, like a pile of cash stuffed under a mattress for a rainy day. Some could be converted to peaceful means maybe. In theory you'd still possess a deterrent effect. It might not be immediate, but the potential would still exist to enact the ultimate retaliation at some unspecified point in the future. If world events changed, so could the countries stance, bringing the warheads out of retirement in response to an increasingly escalating geopolitical situation.
And if I'm honest, over the course of writing this article I think I've just convinced myself that the UK probably could disarm, going with that final option laid on the table of putting some of the warheads into storage while finding other uses for the rest of it.
The world is a different place now than it was 20 years ago, or 30 years ago. Yes, Trident is a very powerful defensive tool. Yes, it represents the ultimate guarantee against an attack on sovereign soil. But such an attack is extremely unlikely. To the point of being vanishingly unlikely.
The prospect of finding another £20 billion out of the defence budget, plus another £1 billion a year to sustain the whole thing is not unlikely. It's a solid reality. And I think maybe the time has come to let go of the bomb. It's served us well so far, but the time has probably come to allow Trident to quietly retire as the Vanguards naturally wind down from service.
But what do you think?
Next up on my list is to look at the concept of a "regional bomber" that seems to be all the rage at the minute. Then I had something else on my list that I was quite eager about, but I'll be buggered if I can remember what it was now.