8 August 2014

UK Trident: Summer 2014

Every so often there is a post here about the public debate about the UK’s future nuclear deterrent which, on current plans, will be based on Successor SSBNs carrying Trident missiles. Three recent items seem to me to be worth recording.

Labour’s National Policy Forum

This Labour Party Forum has 198 members who met in private for three days in July. According to the Guardian:
A full report of what was agreed at the NPF will be published at the time of Labour's annual conference in the autumn and it will form the foundation of the party's election manifesto.
The LabourList website's Mark Ferguson liveblogged the NPF and reported “the wording delegates agreed on Trident (as per last night’s late night deal)”:
With other nations possessing nuclear weapons, and nuclear proliferation remaining a deep concern, we can never be absolutely certain as to what the future security landscape will look like. In July 2013, the current government published its Trident Alternatives Review which examined alternative defence systems and postures for the UK’s deterrent. Labour has said that we are committed to a minimum, credible independent nuclear deterrent, delivered through a Continuous At Sea Deterrent. It would require a clear body of evidence for us to change this belief. 
Labour recognises the importance of Britain leading international efforts for multilateral nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation. Following the action we took when in government, Labour would actively work to enhance momentum on global multilateral disarmament efforts and negotiations, looking at further reductions in global stockpiles and the number of weapons. This would be done in line with our assessment on the global security landscape. 
Labour would continue to take a leading role internationally to push the agenda of global anti-proliferation with nuclear and non-nuclear states. This is a vision shared by President Barack Obama and Labour would work with the United States and other allies, such as France, to advance ‘Global Zero’, which seeks to advance an action plan for the elimination of all nuclear weapons. Labour recognises that the success of past international bans on weapons of mass destruction such as landmines, cluster munitions, chemical and biological weapons. 
The NPT Conference 2015 will be a key moment for a Labour government to show leadership in achieving progress on global disarmament and anti-proliferation measures. 
Labour has said that the process and debate leading up to the next Strategic Defence and Security Review in 2015 needs to be open, inclusive and transparent, including examining all capabilities, including nuclear. It must also examine the cost implications as well as the strategic necessities, recognising the importance of the defence sector to the UK economy, and the need to protect and develop a highly-skilled workforce. To this end, a Labour government will have a continuing consultation, inviting submissions from all relevant stakeholders, including Labour Party members and affiliates, on the UK’s future defence and national security issues.
RUSI On Warheads

Back in March, I posted about a paper produced under the auspices of the RUSI think tank which aimed to debate Continuous At-Sea Deterrence. Its author, Hugh Chalmers, has since written The Bang Behind the Buck, Replacing the UK’s Nuclear Warheads which centres on the proposition that:
… the next Parliament may have to start considering a replacement [for the UK’s nuclear warheads] towards the end of its term if a replacement were to be needed by the latter half of the 2030s. (page 1)
and is consistent with the 2010 SDSR statement about replacement warheads:
3.12 Since 2006, work has been progressing in order to determine the optimum life of the existing warhead stockpile and the range of replacement options. Under the 1958 UK-US Agreement for Cooperation on the Uses of Atomic Energy for Mutual Defence Purposes (the ‘Mutual Defence Agreement’) we have agreed on the future of the Trident D5 delivery system and determined that a replacement warhead is not required until at least the late 2030s. Decisions on replacing the warhead will not therefore be required in this Parliament. This will defer £500 million of spending from the next 10 years.
if “by the latter half of the 2030s” and “at least the late 2030s” are taken as meaning the same thing. The RUSI paper thinks the need for replacement may arise because:
… it is unclear whether it [the UK’s current arsenal of nuclear warheads] will continue to age gracefully. The complex array of interconnected components that make up the UK’s warhead deform and decay over time, affecting its behaviour and thus the reliability of the warhead. … Eventually a fault may arise that cannot be easily remedied, and replacing original parts with alternatives gradually alters warheads from their original tested design, introducing uncertainty into their functioning and effectiveness. (page 1)
But unpromisingly for the reader:
Despite being pivotal to the long-term operation of the UK’s nuclear force, very little information has been made available as to what replacing a nuclear arsenal actually involves and how a replacement decision will ultimately be made. This is because most details of the UK’s nuclear arsenal and the methods used to maintain it are understandably classified. This paper draws upon what open sources are available to shine some light onto this issue by outlining the composition and status of the UK’s nuclear arsenal, and describing how it might ultimately be replaced or renewed. (page 2)
And the reality of the UK’s situation is that:
The origin of the current Trident warhead, and indeed most of the UK’s past nuclear warheads, can be traced back to the 1958 MDA with the US. This agreement, forged in the shadow of the Soviet Union’s burgeoning intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capability, ended twelve years of nuclear separation between the former wartime collaborators and gave the UK access to more advanced nuclear expertise and capabilities from across the Atlantic. (page 2)
So it’s not surprising when, nine pages later and towards the end of the paper, we are told:
The future of the UK’s nuclear arsenal is therefore inextricably linked to that of the US. (page 11)
and that in summing up the Future of the UK’s Nuclear Stockpile:
If indications emerge within the next parliament that the UK’s nuclear stockpile may not survive past the late 2030s, the government at the time will be faced with a dilemma. Without a clear steer from the US, the UK may have to choose between developing a replacement warhead with an uncertain supply of components (and over time, missiles), or retaining an arsenal of suspect reliability. In the case of the former, the UK might embark on a pathway that, at best, produces limited results, and, at worst, risks jeopardising the much-valued exchange between the two nuclear partners. Given this tough choice, pressure to replace the UK’s warhead may meet equal and opposite pressure to delay until a clear pathway can be developed in collaboration with the US. (page 12/13)
In this paragraph there are three ‘may’s, one ‘if’ and one ‘might’ and by my reckoning there are 39 ‘mays’, 21 ‘if’s, 16 ‘might’s, 10 ‘could’s and 10 ‘were’s (as a subjunctive) in the whole paper, reflecting its subject’s inherent uncertainties: to paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, it has too many known unknowns and unknown unknowns. One of the few official statements on the subject was in the 2013 Trident Alternatives Review (TAR) which is correctly quoted as stating “that replacing the UK’s [Trident] nuclear warheads would take approximately seventeen years for the first unit at an estimated cost of around £4 billion in 2012 prices” (page 1), although the 50% confidence associated with this figure (TAR paragraph 25) was not included, nor was the interesting remark at TAR paragraph 5.12:
Analysis of the timescales likely to be associated with delivering a new warhead was conducted, using as a baseline studies that supported the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review and ongoing studies for a possible new Trident warhead (should one be required).
Most readers will conclude that the author has done as good job as could be expected in the circumstances. This paper is better written than its predecessor; indeed the author thanks six named individuals and “a number of experts”. The conclusions it reaches, given the nature of the Mutual Defence Agreement, are perhaps not that surprising. A cynic might say that it could just as appropriately been called The Buck Behind the Bang.

BASIC's Trident Commission Concluding Report 

Launch of the Concluding report in July 2014
BASIC, the British American Security Information Council, describes itself as “a small but influential think tank with one very large idea: we want a world free from the threat of nuclear weapons”. It set up the Trident Commission in 2011 as an inquiry into Britain’s nuclear weapon policy and the issue of Trident renewal with a membership of eight from appropriate ranks of the great and the good. I won’t list them all here, but will note that they include a former Conservative defence and foreign secretary (Rifkind), a former Labour defence secretary (Browne) and Professor Lord Hennessy of Nympsfield (Peter Hennessy, as he is disrespectfully labelled in posts here).

Anyone who wants to go into the Commission’s activities over the last three years should start with their webpage and read on to locate Evidence Received and Background Briefings. The papers in the latter were by BASIC staff with one, Alternative delivery systems and their platforms, by Matt Cavanagh, a former Labour SPAD who worked on defence issues.  The Commission focused on three questions in particular, namely:

Should the United Kingdom continue to be a nuclear weapons state?

If so, is Trident the only or best option for delivering the deterrent?

What more can and should the United Kingdom do to facilitate faster progress on global nuclear disarmament?

Whatever BASIC may have expected or hoped for, the Commission’s answers to these questions in the Summary Conclusions tend to endorse the status quo. So, on the first:
Based upon the two key specific considerations, namely national security concerns and responsibility towards the Alliance, the Commission has come to the unanimous conclusion that the UK should retain and deploy a nuclear arsenal, with a number of caveats expressed below. Most notably, it remains crucial that the UK show keen regard for its position within the international community and for the shared responsibility to achieve progress in global nuclear disarmament.
We are conscious that our conclusion — that the UK should retain and renew its nuclear deterrent — must be weighed against the considerable cost of renewing and operating Trident, a cost that is a rising proportion of the defence budget (as capital spending on the project increases and as spending on other defence capabilities reduces). Over the life of the project, it can be expected that capital, running, and decommissioning costs associated with the nuclear weapons project account for roughly 9-10% of the overall defence budget, though into the 2020s we will experience a higher spend, and after that a smaller amount. However, we believe that cost must be of secondary importance to the judgment over whether forsaking the UK’s nuclear deterrent capability could open the country to future strategic risk. (page 6, L-HC)
On the second question:
The government’s Trident Alternatives Review considered the technical case for alternative platforms and delivery systems, concluding that at present there were no benefits to be had from choosing a different nature of system at this stage. The Trident SSBN (Ballistic Missile Submarines) system meets the criteria of credibility, scale, survivability, reach and readiness. Whilst the Commission is not in a position to interrogate in depth the information and assumptions underpinning the Review, we are opposed to proposals to develop alternative platforms and delivery systems, with new warheads, simply on the basis of possible but speculative cost savings. The choice of system and posture must be credible when considering national security and alliance relationships, and must embrace the UK’s responsibilities to stability and the wider international community. Whilst dual-use systems have the benefit of adaptability to circumstances, we have serious concerns about their capacity to increase strategic ambiguity, which would both complicate arms control and cause confusion in crises. (page 7, R-HC)
The third question is addressed on pages 8 and 9 of the Summary Conclusions and in Chapter 3 and anyone interested in diplomacy, non-proliferation and the “disarmament ladder” should consult those. Suffice it to say that the Commission is in favour of progress on nuclear disarmament and outlines constructive steps which the UK could take.

The Commission gave careful consideration to CASD and list reasons for and against its continuation and possible alternatives in Chapter 2 (pages 30 to 32). The Summary Conclusion was:
Some see a CASD posture as essential to any credible seaborne nuclear deterrent that would meet the UK’s needs into the foreseeable future. As a Commission looking ahead into a rapidly-changing world picture, we believe there are further steps that could be considered between the current posture and full disarmament, when the strategic conditions allow, with relaxed CASD as one of those steps. We are, however, divided over whether the UK could take this step independently, or only multilaterally with other nuclear weapon states. 
Some of us believe that CASD should be maintained for the foreseeable future and that we must wait for improvement in the security environment, specifically a reversal of the current trends in the modernisation of nuclear arsenals elsewhere and stronger indications of a matching intent to disarm. Some of us believe that the strategic environment today, which does not involve a current or near foreseeable strategic military threat to the UK and its vital interests, enables us to drop continuous patrolling and retain instead the capacity to increase patrols should crisis threaten. 
There is in any case an opportunity to initiate a full conversation with the United States and France on the conditions that could allow the allied nuclear weapon states to consider closer coordination of their continuous patrolling posture. (page 8)
The question of the number of Successor SSBNs is addressed in Chapter 2:
The Ministry of Defence assumes that the UK will still require a four submarine fleet to have a high confidence of maintaining an indefinite CASD posture, though decisions on this will be taken later*. This is because, even with the modernized PWR3 reactor that no longer requires mid-life refuelling, the new submarines are still expected to need complex mid-life overhauls for other components that could last several months. We do not have sufficient information to come to a definitive view on whether three submarines would be sufficient for a CASD posture, or whether replacing the four existing Vanguards with four successor submarines represents an increase in patrolling capabilities because of the higher reliability of new technology.
* Refers to the TAR paragraph 3.36, p.29 which reads:
Classified analysis about attempting to maintain continuous at sea deterrence with a 3-boat SSBN option showed that the risk of unplanned breaks relates directly to the number of submarines available for operational deployment, which in turn relates directly to the total number in the fleet. The modelling suggests that, over a 20 year period, a 3-boat fleet would risk multiple unplanned breaks in continuous covert patrolling as well as requiring regular planned breaks for maintenance and/or training. Experience to date with the Resolution-class and Vanguard-class SSBNs is that no such breaks have occurred or been required with a 4-boat fleet.
The TAR mentions PWR3 once (paragraph 5.19) and then only as being the reactor costed for the SSN(Vertical Launch) option. However, the Trident Commission’s Background Briefing Paper 3, Measuring the financial costs, states on page 22 that:
… the Successor submarine will be using PWR3 technology, so that mid-life refuelling will not be necessary …
At this point it is worth noting that the RUSI paper could only have been improved by consideration of and reference to some of the material prepared for the BASIC Trident Commission.

Summing Up

None of the above, Labour’s policy, the RUSI and BASIC reports, is advocating any significant changes to the current plans for replacement of the UK’s Trident SSBNs. The only issue of substance seems to be the number of submarines. In 1908/1909 during the Anglo-German arms race, the slogan popular among enthusiasts for the Royal Navy’s Dreadnought battleships was “We want eight, and we won’t wait”. Over a hundred years later, the number of the Navy's Successor SSBN’s is unlikely to be an issue in the 2015 election, let alone be the cause of a slogan – what would it be - “Three or four, but certainly no more”, perhaps?

As for CASD, it’s probably egotistical even for a blogger to quote himself, but this is what I said last time, and nothing I’ve read since makes me want to revise it yet:
My guess is that at some point in the future a Conservative or Labour 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.

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