There have been about 15 posts here relating in some way to the UK’s Trident nuclear deterrent. This is not least because the submarines might, conceivably, have to be rebased in SW England if Scotland were to become independent, the subject of the last Trident post in December 2013. Since then there didn’t seem to be much of interest on Trident until a letter from two Conservative MPs appeared in the Daily Telegraph on 10 February:
SIR - We do not believe that the Royal United Services Institute (Rusi) has, as an organisation, endorsed the idea that continuous at-sea deterrence can safely be abandoned by our Trident nuclear force (report, January 31). The views expressed in the Rusi analyst Hugh Chalmers's convoluted paper are clearly labelled as “entirely the author's own" and should not be ascribed to the institute as a whole.
His conclusion that “even an inactive fleet of submarines can help to deter actors from seriously threatening the UK” is based on a fallacy. Though admitting that such a fleet “would be vulnerable to a no notice [enemy] strike", Mr Chalmers asserts that “such an attack seems highly unlikely without prior indication or provocation”.
If we were known to have a part-time deterrent posture, any rational enemy would have maximum incentive to strike without warning, precisely to prevent the reconstitution of our power to retaliate. History abounds with cases of aggression which took the victim wholly by surprise. It also teaches us that some aggressors may take enormous risks if, but only if, they think they may avoid the consequences.
It is the certainty of retaliation, as much as the magnitude of retaliation, which lies at the heart of deterrence. An uncertain deterrent may ward off some attackers, but it would be an open invitation to others that the risks are now worth taking.
Julian Lewis MP (Con)
Bernard Jenkin MP (Con)
London SW1Chalmers’ paper can be downloaded from RUSI. The point the MPs were making about responsibility for its contents is perhaps slightly more involved than they suggest. On page ii of the paper it is explained that:
This Occasional Paper is part of a series commissioned by the Nuclear Security Project (NSP) of the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), which examines key factors that will shape the UK’s nuclear forces over the course of the next decade.and
The views expressed in this report are entirely the authors’ [sic] own and not those of the NSP or NTI. For more information, see www.nuclearsecurity.orgwhereas on page iv:
The views expressed in this paper are the author’s own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI or any other institutions with which the author is associated.which leaves out the “entirely” and introduces a “not necessarily”. As for NSP and NTI, the www.nuclearsecurity.org link didn’t work for me, but NTI does have a website:
The Nuclear Threat Initiative works to strengthen global security by reducing global threats from nuclear, biological and chemical weaponsas does the NSP:
… an effort to galvanize global action to reduce urgent nuclear dangers and build support for reducing reliance on nuclear weapons, ultimately ending them as a threat to the world.None of which would anyone want to argue against, although, noting the eminence of its four founders, NTI might seem a bit like a CND (“campaigns to scrap nuclear weapons and create genuine security for future generations”) for the Bilderberg/Davos set.
But what of the merits of Chalmers’ paper as disputed in the MPs’ letter? Its main title, A Disturbance in the Force, (as many readers probably know, but I had to turn to Google), is a quotation from the screenplay of Star Wars IV:
Obi-Wan Kenobi: I felt a great disturbance in the Force, as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced.which doesn’t seem particularly apt, given the paper’s subtitle, Debating Continuous At-Sea Deterrence.
The opening sentence is:
The traditional theory of deterrence suggests that the most effective way of dissuading an enemy from hostile action is with the certainty that such action would be promptly followed by devastating retribution.Surely the word “nuclear” is required before “deterrence” if the appropriate retribution is “devastating”? Then follows:
For the past forty-five years, the UK has provided this certainty by maintaining a nuclear-armed submarine on patrol at all times, ready to fire if required. However, it is also accepted that in practice such certainty is not always achievable.What is the meaning of “such certainty is not always achievable” in this sentence, given the “has provided this certainty” in the previous one? Does it mean “has not always been achieved”, or “is not always being achieved”, or “need not be achieved in future”. The sentence is endnoted to page 24 of Michael Quinlan’s Thinking About Nuclear Weapons: Principles, Problems, Prospects, published in 2009. (Quinlan was the top civil servant in the UK Ministry of Defence and is the dedicatee of the second edition of Peter Hennessy’s The Secret State.) This seems to be the passage on page 24/25 which is relevant:
In ideal circumstances deterrence is most securely provided by certainty both that grave misbehaviour will be promptly detected and that condign retribution or rectification will follow. Amid the world's complexities, however, that partnership of assurances is not always achievable. Where that is so there is no option - for all parties - but to deal in probabilities and possibilities. That need not destroy deterrence. During the East/West confrontation leading figures as diverse as President Charles de Gaulle and Dr. Henry Kissinger at one time or another, in their own styles, reminded their hearers that it was at best unprovable that the United States would risk embarking, for European causes, on sequences of action that might imperil its own cities ('sacrificing Chicago for Hamburg'). But the contrary was also unprovable for Soviet leaders. Even a modest chance of a huge penalty can have great deterrent force. In different jargon, the 'expected value, of a disbenefit - the magnitude of the penalty factored with the perceived probability of its being levied - can outweigh even a high valuation of hoped-for benefit.One is left feeling that Quinlan was dealing with certainty in terms of whether there would be the political will to make use of nuclear weapons, but was not addressing uncertainty in their availability. Nor was he addressing the impact on political will of there being any uncertainty relating to availability. The paper continues:
The fleet of Vanguard-class submarines that currently operates this tag-team patrol, known as continuous at-sea deterrence (CASD), will eventually retire to be replaced by a successor. While current UK policy states that a replacement fleet will take up this baton and maintain CASD for the foreseeable future, this will not be without cost. The UK government has stated that maintaining CASD will require a fleet of at least four submarines, one of which will patrol while the remaining three undertake training, undergo maintenance, or sit in reserve (see Figure 1)At this point there is a danger of being too picky, for example about the expression “tag-team patrol”. But if a paper has endnotes at all, wouldn’t it be appropriate to support categorical assertions such as “UK policy states …” and “The UK government has stated …”? The interested reader may wish to know the sources. And Figure 1 has to be remarked on:
“Periods are illustrative only; a period may be longer or shorter than others” - Well, yes. A recent patrol by HMS Vigilant lasted three months, according to the Royal Navy’s website. This was after a five year (60 month) programme of overhaul. Figure 1 is hardly “indicative” or “illustrative” of timescales but could be misleading.
The paper then takes up the 2013 Trident Alternatives Review (TAR) and the subsequent Liberal Democrat policy proposal (covered in a post here, CASD, or not CASD, last October) and explores the relationship between non-continuous patrolling postures and having fewer than four submarines. Some interesting facts are offered. For example on page 4:
The next generation of nuclear submarine will be armed with up to forty warheads on eight missiles. [Endnote 13] On average, therefore, less than half of the missile’s capacity will be used, which increases the range of the missiles up to approximately 11,000 km. This makes far-flung deployments unnecessary by giving the UK’s missiles – in effect – a global range. [Endnote 14]Endnote 13, (Initial Gate Parliamentary Report, page 4) certainly supports the first sentence. But an 11,000 km range for a partially-loaded Trident D5 missile is not exactly the implication of Endnote 14, the TAR, which, when examining generic delivery vehicles, said:
2.17 Ballistic Missiles (BM): Ballistic missiles perform a guided rocket boost into space before releasing their payload onto a ballistic trajectory early on in flight (i.e. letting the payload “fall‟ through space). This “throwing‟ of the payload onto a high arc gives ballistic missiles long range (circa 10000km). The re-entry vehicles (the payload) then fall through the atmosphere at high speed, requiring advanced defences to neutralise them. Given current UK-US arrangements for the Trident D5 ballistic missile and our knowledge of and experience with this system, it was decided only to model the D5 in this review.Again, in a paragraph on page 7 of the paper:
Every generation of submarine so far has required a long period of overhaul to conduct repairs and to refuel the nuclear reactors that power them (known as Long Overhaul Period (Refuel), or LOP(R)). During these periods, major refurbishment work is conducted on the propulsion reactors, drive systems, weapons systems and other elements of submarine infrastructure. While the current Vanguard-class submarines require a three-year LOP(R), [Endnote 26] successor submarines will be equipped with a new reactor (the PWR-3) that will fuel each submarine for the entirety of its lifetime, removing the most significant element of current LOP(R) procedures. [Endnote 27]Endnote 26 is a Babcock International Group PLC media release concerning the current refit of HMS Vengeance in Devonport Royal Dockyard (Plymouth, SW England) which is expected to take three-and-a-half years. Endnote 27 is “Ibid”, but, perhaps not surprisingly, Babcock made no mention of PWR3. However, the Endnote 13 reference (Initial Gate Parliamentary Report) does state on page 5:
PWR3 provides superior performance over PWR2. In availability terms the simplicity of PWR3 and the application of modern design practices and newly matured technology will significantly reduce periods in upkeep and maintenance.but nothing about “entirety of its lifetime”. On page 13, the reader is told that:
… submarines can be held at varying levels of readiness. As a crisis loomed, submarine reactors could be activated within a day or two, crews could be mustered, and provisions loaded without actually launching the submarine. For instance, even if submarines were not deployed, a ‘sustained’ posture would maintain one submarine ‘on deterrent duty’ and ready to deploy swiftly, perhaps by keeping its reactor online or by a host of other measures.The practicability of submarine reactors being “activated within a day or two” or kept “online” seems to be key to the feasibility of non-CASD postures. Chalmers, according to his LinkedIn profile, has a degree in astrophysics, so presumably his opinion is informed, but again an endnote source supporting it would be useful. In such non-CASD circumstances (page 14):
Rather than being faced with a single ‘terrible choice’, as a crisis emerged or receded the government would be faced with an array of choices with inactivity at one extreme and the rushed deployment of armed submarines at the other. Choosing which (if any) steps to take may not be easy; calibrating the readiness of nuclear forces in such a way would be entirely unfamiliar to those accustomed to the simplicity of CASD. [Endnote 45]
(Endnote 45: In contrast, the UK often has to consider the international implications of overt changes in readiness of its conventional forces. “accustomed to simplicity”)which seems to echo a comment on the first page:
… the civil servants and armed forces that develop and implement the UK’s nuclear-weapons policy have spent their entire careers working within the constructs of CASD. For them, a step away from CASD would be a step (both bureaucratically and philosophically) into the unknown.Perhaps an explanation for this conservatism can be found later on page 14 when the possibility of A Bolt from the Blue is discussed:
By monitoring the submarines and training activities at the UK’s naval base in Faslane, one can imagine an unknown adversary covertly developing an impression of how quickly the UK could deploy its submarines in the event of an imminent attack. Such an adversary might feel tempted to exploit this window of vulnerability by striking the UK’s forces out of the blue.
If the UK were unaware of this threat, it would have little chance to prepare a response. Deploying an inactive submarine would not be instantaneous … Without any prior preparation aside from training, current deployment procedures would require a submarine to be activated, loaded with supplies, checked over, carefully armed with up to forty warheads, and then piloted to a safe patrolling zone. In all, these activities take up to two weeks to complete. [Endnote 47]Endnote 47, unfortunately, is not a source reference for this process but a comment from the author: “To keep health and safety risks as low as reasonably practicable (the ALARP principle) warheads are currently transported and fitted to missiles one at a time.” Even in such extreme circumstances? But later on page 15 we are told:
… a pre-emptive strike against inactive nuclear forces (through conventional or nuclear means) would be an extremely drastic move. A serious threat to the UK would not come out of the blue in this way.and
In the unlikely event that this threat emerged without any warning, an aggressor would have to be extremely bold to ignore the probability that such pre-emptive aggression would be met with stern punishment from sources other than the UK, which is likely to remain a member of NATO.But doesn’t the UK provide part of NATO’s nuclear deterrent, and wasn’t Polaris (and subsequently Trident) made available to the UK under the Nassau agreement of December 1962 on the basis of its being committed to NATO but with independence of operation if supreme national interests were at stake? I suspect that by this time many readers of this post will have lost interest or alternatively will have decided to read Chalmers’ paper for themselves. But in short, the paper goes on to examine the implications of a non-CASD deterrent and how it might be perceived by an adversary. However, on page 18 there is an interesting concession, extracted here but worth reading in full:
… the immutability of CASD disengages nuclear forces from the day-to-day management of international relations. While crises may erupt and recede, the UK’s nuclear forces continue their patrols unchanged and would only play a part in crisis management in the most extreme circumstances. … Adopting a flexible approach to non-continuous postures, in which the UK would calibrate its forces from high to low readiness, would require the UK to consider the status of its nuclear forces on a more frequent basis. In the face of an evolving crisis, the UK would need to take a number of decisions over whether and how to initiate, sustain and ultimately terminate extended periods of patrolling – decisions that are currently unfamiliar.
… a non-continuous nuclear force would not ‘de-couple nuclear weapons from the day-to-day calculus of national security’; instead, it would pollute areas of decision-making where it was previously of little relevance.
In this case, a key challenge to abandoning continuous at-sea deterrence may not be the preservation of credible nuclear threats, but the development and implementation of organisational structures that would allow decision-makers the time, freedom and confidence to calibrate nuclear forces in response to emerging threats. At the political level, overt changes to nuclear readiness may have to be explained not just to the public, but also to the UK’s adversaries and allies. …And on page 19:
A former submarine officer has voiced concerns that if the UK’s nuclear forces are rarely, if ever, called upon to deploy (such as in a ‘preserved’ posture), then a similar rot [to that affecting silo-based USAF ICBM crews] might eventually set in. In this case, rather than reinvigorating morale by moving back to continuous at-sea deterrence, the wholesale abandonment of the UK’s nuclear forces would be a more suitable alternative.Regrettably there is no endnote as to where these concerns were voiced. Finally, one of the concluding remarks has certainly got it right:
… the desirability of abandoning continuous at-sea deterrence rests upon a rigorous analysis of how non-continuous postures would actually work in practice, with explicit consideration of when the UK might have to call upon its nuclear forces and how exactly it might calibrate them in response to an emerging threat.National Security Council, or some ministerial subset of it, will meet to decide whether to order the third and fourth Successor submarines. They will know things that we don’t, like the outcome of the Scottish independence referendum and the extent of the recovery of the UK economy, and many things we probably never will, like the maintenance requirements of PWR3. One can imagine that if extensive analysis by the RN and the Ministry of Defence shows that CASD can be maintained for a very high proportion of the Trident Successor in-service life (ie to the fifth or sixth decade of this century) with three submarines, there might be reluctance to order a fourth. However, if the fourth Successor makes the difference between sustainable CASD and any of the alternative postures identified so far, it would have to be a group of politicians with a high degree of confidence in their ability to manage a crisis who would decide to spend the money on something else.