24 October 2012

Update on the Royal Navy’s Trident

In 2006 the Labour government announced that the UK would construct new nuclear submarines to carry the Trident missile system. Since then two issues have emerged which have been the subject of posts here: a review of alternatives to Trident, which was a Lib Dem element within the 2010 coalition agreement, and the implications of Scotland becoming independent, the Royal Navy's Trident submarines currently being based there.

Posts here on the first of these appeared in June (concentrating on the ‘Moscow criterion’) and in September just after the cabinet reshuffle. Nick Harvey, who had led the review, ceased to be a minister and his role was transferred to another Lib Dem, Danny Alexander. Harvey later addressed a fringe meeting at the Lib Dem annual conference, his remarks appearing at length in the Guardian on 27 September:
… to convince ourselves that the only point of having any deterrent at all is the capability of flattening Moscow is the wrong and distorting lens through which to view the debate."  
Instead of replacing Trident with a like-for-like 24-hour nuclear armed submarine presence at sea after the current system is due to be taken out of service in 2028, cheaper alternatives are being considered. These range from stepping down the patrols, to designing missiles to be launched from aircraft, surface navy ships or land, to a delayed launch system.  
The delayed-launch model would involve developing a nuclear warhead for a cruise missile that could be launched from existing Astute submarines, Harvey said, "but having perfected that technology simply put it away in a cupboard and keep it as a contingency in case there ever were to be a deterioration in the global security picture that might need the UK government to take it out of the cupboard".  
In this situation, the UK would store the warheads in a secure military location, from where they could be removed, put on the tip of a missile and put to sea within weeks or months.  
… Harvey told a fringe debate at the Liberal Democrat conference in Brighton that the idea of moving "down the nuclear ladder" had support across all three armed services: the army, the Royal Navy and the RAF. He said one reason for growing support for the review's alternatives was a "perfect storm" of defence capital costs around 2020, including building the new joint strike fighter aircraft and Type 26 frigates, a new generation of unmanned aircraft, and amphibious craft for the navy.
At the PMQs on 17 October, the first after the party conferences, Harvey was able to return to this theme, but only after an earlier question by a Conservative MP who is well-known as a supporter of the UK nuclear deterrent:
Mr Speaker: Question 4 is a closed question.  
Nuclear Deterrent  
Q4. [122163] Dr Julian Lewis (New Forest East) (Con): Whether he remains committed to the continuation of the UK’s Trident nuclear deterrent after the Vanguard submarines are withdrawn from service.  
The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend will be delighted to know that the answer is yes, we are committed to retaining an independent nuclear deterrent based on the Trident missile system. That is why we have continued with the programme to replace the Vanguard class submarines, including placing initial design contracts with BAE Systems.  
Dr Lewis: That is indeed an excellent answer. Given that a part-time nuclear deterrent would be dangerously destabilising, will the Prime Minister confirm that the British Trident successor submarines must and will operate on the basis of continuous at-sea deterrence [CASD]?  
The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise this issue. One of the key elements of the credibility of our deterrent has been that it is continuously at sea, and the Royal Navy takes immense pride in having been able to deliver that without a break over so many years. I have met some of the crews and visited some of the submarines. What they do is incredibly impressive and I pay tribute to them for the service that they provide. Yes, being continuously at sea is a key part of our deterrent.
Sir Nick Harvey (North Devon) (LD): Returning to the Trident issue, has the Prime Minister looked at the severe cost pressures facing defence at the very moment the Trident replacement has to be paid for? Joint strike fighter airplanes, Type 26 frigates, unmanned aircraft and Army vehicles all need paying for at much the same time. This has to come out of the defence budget, and austerity will be with us for some time yet, so will he keep an open mind about how exactly to replace our nuclear deterrent?  
The Prime Minister: All the things that my hon. Friend lists are programmes that are fully funded and will be properly invested in, because, as he well knows—because he played a major role in it—the Government have sorted out the defence budget. Having carefully considered the issue of the nuclear deterrent, I do not believe that we would save money by adopting an alternative nuclear deterrent posture. Also, if we are to have a nuclear deterrent, it makes sense to ensure we have something that is credible and believable, otherwise there is no point in having one at all.
A post here in February considered the practicalities of removing Trident from Scotland after independence and another in March attempted to put some bounds on the cost. In June Harvey and another defence minister, Peter Luff, gave oral evidence to the Scottish Affairs Committee on the subject. Currently only an uncorrected transcript is available with the caveat that “Any public use of, or reference to, the contents should make clear that neither witnesses nor Members have had the opportunity to correct the record. The transcript is not yet an approved formal record of these proceedings.” Subject to that, the evidence at Questions 315 to 351 is worth reading in full, but particularly noteworthy are:
Q326 Mr Reid: Have you done any planning as to how long it would take to replicate the facilities at Faslane and Coulport elsewhere in the UK?  
Nick Harvey: While it would be possible to do so, it would be fraught with difficulty. It would be a very challenging project, which would take a very long time to complete and would cost a gargantuan sum of money. When the facilities there were upgraded for Astute and the previous upgrade of the nuclear deterrent, the cost of that upgrade in today’s prices was about £3.5 billion. That was upgrading an extant facility. If we were to replicate it somewhere else, that figure would be dwarfed by whatever that would cost. … The costs would be absolutely immense. I would have thought that relocation would be just about the least favoured option that it would be possible to conjecture.  
Q343 David Mowat: I was just reflecting on this approximately £5 billion figure for moving Trident. Effectively that is one of the costs of separation. …  
Nick Harvey: The only figure that I have used was that a previous upgrade in today’s money cost £3.5 billion and I felt that that would be dwarfed by the cost of re-establishing-  
Q349 Chair: … if the Scottish Government did win, we had separation, they wanted Trident out and they were willing to be reasonable, they would have to be satisfied that you had no alternative but to keep them there for 20 years. It is not an unreasonable point to pursue with you.  
Nick Harvey: I am not saying that anything cannot be done.  
Q350 Chair: Good. That is the first time the MOD has ever said that.  
Nick Harvey: I am saying it would be difficult and not straightforward.  
Q351 Chair: Ah yes-that is the traditional MOD caveat. You forgot to mention expensive.  
Peter Luff: And lengthy.  
Nick Harvey: I took all of that as read.
The SNP at its party conference this month decided that their policy should be that an independent Scotland should become a member of NATO but that the SNP leadership should first seek an agreement that Scotland could be nuclear-weapon free. Their leader, the Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond, said in an interview on BBC1's The Andrew Marr show on 21 October:
Nobody seriously believes that Scotland as a country of 5.25 million people would want to be in possession of nuclear weapons. That would be a bad thing for Scotland; I think it would be a bad thing for nuclear proliferation across the world. So our opposition to stationing or hosting nuclear weapons in Scotland is unconditional. What we do say, however, because we have substantial indications that our friends and allies want cooperation, we'd be happy to be a member of NATO on a non-nuclear basis. 
When he was asked by Marr how the UK could deal with this, Salmond said it would be "far better" if it was "curtains for Trident", but that Trident removal would have to be "as soon as can be safely arranged." He ruled out a Cyprus sovereign base arrangement. The RN could "either relocate Trident to another facility in the rest of the UK or alternatively they could use the nuclear facilities in America, or in France for that matter. Trident is effectively an American weapon.” 

The last comment was disingenuous: the Trident missile system is American but the submarines and warheads are made in the UK – or in England as Salmond would see it. The diplomatic and logistical problems of relocating RN Trident to another country are obvious but, of course, would not be Salmond’s problem, nor would establishing another facility in England or Wales. He will have his hands full enough however in attempting to negotiate with NATO on the terms proposed while at the same time many in his party are unhappy with joining the Alliance at all. Two MSPs announced their resignation over the issue on 23 October.

So where does this leave the RN and the UK deterrent? The PM seems to have pre-empted the Lib Dem review of alternatives by endorsing Trident and CASD. But, if in 2014 Scottish independence proceeds on the basis of current SNP policies, would the remaining UK embark on the “difficult and not straightforward, … expensive and lengthy” undertaking of rebasing Trident? Ian Jack in an article in the Guardian in September, The SNP says it would kick Trident out of Scotland. But at what cost?, drew attention to the prosperity of the part of Scotland adjacent to the Trident base – indicated by the presence of one of that nation’s five branches of Waitrose:
So in the process of Scottish independence, as yet hypothetical, my guess is that Trident will become a bargaining chip to be deployed by Edinburgh's negotiating team in exchange for a big London favour. (Bigger oil rights? A smaller share of the national debt?) Its bases will survive where they are on leasehold into the mid-2020s, when the submarines are due to be replaced, at a currently estimated cost of £25bn. But, sadly for the shipworkers of Barrow, there will be no replacements. A truncated UK will then have lost the taste and the budget for "punching above its weight", and Trident submarines will be seen as what they are: a strange consequence of British military ambition in the last century, as beautiful and terrible in their way as the Dreadnought, though unlike the Dreadnought (one hopes) never used. And so they will quietly pass away, leaving Helensburgh's Waitrose among their monuments.
Recent opinion polls indicate 30 to 40% of the Scottish electorate in favour of independence, 50 to 60% against.

Meanwhile the US Navy has problems of its own, made clear at the recent annual conference of the Naval Submarine League. The USN will need new submarines for its ballistic missiles to be in service from about 2030 to 2080. At some point in those years a new missile to replace Trident will be required, and there is scope for cooperation with the US Air Force, but:
The other crucial partner on ballistic missiles is the United Kingdom, whose only remaining nuclear weapons are on its Vanguard submarines. Ironically, the [US] Navy has a better record of collaboration with the Brits than with America's Air Force. The Royal Navy has relied on U.S.-designed missiles since the Polaris Sales Agreement was signed in 1963. Even after the Americans delayed the SSBN(X) program by two years, they stuck to the original schedule to develop the missile compartment so it would be ready in time for the British could use the design in their own new missile submarine, which must enter service two years before the American sub.

The Scottish Affairs Committee has now published a report, The Referendum on Separation for Scotland: Terminating Trident—Days or Decades?. The Chair of the Committee, Ian Davidson, MP said:
A separate Scotland would be presented with a choice over Trident: it could honour the longstanding commitment of the SNP that there should be no nuclear weapons in Scotland and insist on the ‘speediest safe transition’ of Trident from Scotland. In reality, Trident can be deactivated within a matter of days, and the warheads removed within twenty four months. In the process, the UK would lose the ability to operate its nuclear deterrent and effectively be forced into unilateral disarmament, for an indeterminate period.  
Alternatively, a separate Scotland could allow Trident to remain on the Clyde long enough for the UK to identify and develop a new base elsewhere. This option would mean armed nuclear submarines operating out of Scotland for twenty years or longer. Developing a new base, particularly replicating the facilities at Coulport, could only be done at great expense, and the UK Government has made it clear that any such costs would be included in the Separation negotiations.

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