Thursday, January 27, 2011

UK: Is it time for a post-Trident future?

May 26, 2009 - HMS Victorious fires an unarmed Trident II-D5 SLBM

This is a post I've been mulling over for a while. Regular readers will have seen lots of posts on SDSR and the current orientation of UK defence and security policy, but nothing in depth on the budgetary elephant in the room - Trident, the UK's sole nuclear weapon / Weapon of Mass Destruction programme. (It's always struck me as amusing that "we" have nuclear or atomic weapons for "deterrence"; "they" (presumably North Korea, Iraq, Iran, Libya) have "WMD".)

In this first post, I'm going to canter through the "how we got here" elements of UK nuclear policy, and then I'll follow up with UK future nuclear choices.

Ancient History
The history of the UK's independent nuclear deterrent is well known. It started early in WWII with British and European emigres as Tube Alloys and became a junior partner at Las Alamos in the Manhattan Project; indeed, so the story goes, the code name meant that it was lost in the US Navy's archives for some months as the code name was assumed to be the (not very interesting) subject. After the end of the Pacific war, the US cut off nuclear cooperation in the 1946 McMahon Act, and an impoverished UK Labour Government under PM Clem Attlee and Foreign Secretary Ernie Bevin started an indigenous programme without bothering to tell the rest of the Cabinet, let alone Parliament or the British taxpayers.

The important question is Why?

The argumentation in 1946 was similar to today, and is impressively circular. 

1. Great Powers have the most advanced and most terrible weapons.
2. Nuclear Weapons are the most advanced and most terrible weapons.
3. The UK is a Great Power, therefore the UK must have nuclear weapons.

Or, in the words of Bevin at the time, "We've got to have this thing. I don't mind it for myself, but I don't want any other Foreign Secretary of this country to be talked at or to by the US Secretary of State as I have just been... We've got to have this thing over here, whatever it costs ... We've got to have the bloody Union Jack on top of it."

Canny readers will note the absence of anything to do with the Soviet Union - or, pace Jim Hacker, even the French. Since inception, UK nuclear policy and posture has been far more about perceptions of national standing than about military utility. As such, it plays on the most neuralgic elements of Whitehall's psyche - what Dean Acheson scathingly referred to in the 1960s as the result of "Britain losing an Empire and [being] yet to find a role".

(Why build one bomber when you can build three? Top to bottom, Victor, Valiant and Vulcan. Remarkably, all entered service. There was even a fourth prototype - the Short Sperrin - in case these three designs failed.)

In 1952, the UK thus became the third nation to conduct a nuclear detonation after Australian kindly volunteered the Monte Bello Islands as a nuclear test site, and in 1956-57 the UK and Australia followed up with a joint test series at Maralinga, South Australia. Combined with the development of the V-Bombers, the Royal Air Force fielded a nuclear strike force that would grow to more than 120 bombers by 1964. This was largely indigenous but there were some borrowed US freefall bombs and the RAF also operated 20 Squadrons of American Thor IRBMs between 1959-63. At the tactical level, the UK also developed the indigenous WE177 series of free fall atomic bombs and nuclear depth-charges. WE177s were in service from 1966 to 1998, and their retirement meant that Trident SLBMs are now the UK's only atomic weapons. 

The Polaris Sale Agreement, December 1962

(SuperMac hoodwinks Kennedy, or something.... Nassua, December 62)

Unfortunately, just as this massive investment was coming into service in 1960, Gary Powers inconsiderately got himself shot down over the USSR, and the threat from surface to air missiles (SAMs) made it increasingly unlikely that an independent UK bomber offensive against the Soviet Union would meet minimum UK deterrence - guaranteed destruction of Moscow, known in suitably Clancy-esque terms as "The Moscow Criterion". Therefore, the UK, which had terminated its' indigenous ballistic missile programme in 1960, attempted to buy missiles from the US for the bombers - the ill-fated Skybolt programme - and when Skybolt was cancelled by the US, PM Harold Macmillan sweet-talked President Kennedy into supplying Polaris submarine launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) at Nassua in Dec 1962 immediately after the Cuban Missile Crisis.

The deal was that the UK would build the submarines and the warheads, crew the submarines and lease the missiles. (If you fire it, you pay for it. We know where you live.) In return, the UK would commit them to NATO under all circumstances except the undefined "supreme national emergency". Quite what this was or how it could break out without it being a reasonably serious day for NATO as a whole was never defined. 

(HMS Renown, a UK Polaris submarine. Dull. Much less interesting than shiny aeroplanes.)

From Polaris's introduction in 1969 onwards, the notion of the UK having an independent strategic nuclear capability was questionable. Could the UK fire some missiles without telling the US? Probably, and more importantly, the other side couldn't know that you couldn't or wouldn't, creating at least the potential for a second decision making hub and removing the fear of strategic decoupling - namely the European fear that the US may ultimately renege on the nuclear shield, and let conventional Soviet forces run riot in Europe as long as the Soviets didn't target American cities.

Chevaline to Trident
In US Navy service, Polaris was superseded by the longer-range Poseidon, and both were replaced by Trident I or II by 1992. In the UK, Polaris was retained, but the Moscow-criterion was under threat by the deployment of the Moscow Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) System, which used nuclear armed interceptor missiles (eek!) to knock out incoming ICBMs.

(Roan Antelope - Antelope Chevaline)

The UK therefore developed a series of decoys and penetration aids under Project Chevaline, keeping UK Polaris in service until the mid-1990s. Technically, Chevaline - so named because an official rang London Zoo asking for the name of a large antelope - was a fiasco, running a decade late and £1bn (in 1979 money - £3.6bn today) overbudget, not a penny of which was disclosed to Parliament under either successive Conservative, Labour or Conservative administrations. In fact, so great was the Parliamentary outcry when the costs and disaster that was Chevaline came out, that it led Parliament to instruct the UK National Audit Office to produce an oversight report, now called the Major Projects Report.

Policy Implications

The crucial point is that the UK's "independent" nuclear deterrent since 1969 has been continuously reliant on the US for production, testing, engineering support and development work in support of this "independent" deterrent. There have been benefits on both sides - the UK saved a colossal amount of money by buying American rather than following the French route and building it all at home. And the US shared the costs of the missile section of the submarines - the Common Missile Compartment, CMC - as well as effectively gaining an additional ballistic missile submarine on patrol that someone else was paying for.

But in my view, the undisclosed price the UK paid was the fear that the US would cut nuclear cooperation a second time meant that UK foreign policy options were constrained for fear of offending the USA. As a result, the paradox of the independent nuclear deterrent was that it appears to have seriously constrained independent UK foreign policy.

Tomorrow, we'll look at the current situation, and the costs and options for future UK nuclear policy.

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