Friday, February 11, 2011

UK Nuclear Future

(A good book. In fact, a great book - go read it.)

In part one and two of these random musings (do they qualify for capital R and capital M at this point? I leave that to you, dear reader...) we looked at the history and the future choices for the UK nuclear weapons. Now, enough of my quasi-academic pontification: what would I actually *do* if I were in charge? And Why?

The first point is that though the world is an unstable place with active proliferation attempts by non-nuclear States that are not UK or western-aligned, it is not clear that the Irans or North Koreas of this world have either the capability or intent to attack the UK with a nuclear armed missile, nor is it clear that they are not deterred by the US nuclear guarantee to NATO.

Really? What surely they're all crazy mullahs / mad Stalinists?

Well, let's assume that Iran successfully builds a nuclear weapon, and successfully integrates it with one of their current missile systems - e.g. Shahab-3 or the Ghadr-110, and then moved these missiles up to NW Iran, could they even hit the UK?

Courtesy of Great Circle Mapper (hours of fun!), here's the range of the 1200nm Shahab-3 (Meteor-3) from Tabriz:
And here's the 3,000km range of the Ghadhr-110:

As you can see, neither can hit the UK, though if they were accurate enough, they could hit Cyprus with the UK's Sovereign Base Areas. I've no idea of the Circular Error Probable over the 780nm from Tabriz to Akrotiri - but given that the Iranian attacks on Baghdad (and vice-versa) during the "War of the Cities" was not notably precise (not surprising as the SS-1 SCUD derivatives used - themselves derived from Hitler's WWII V-2 rockets - are prone to wander off by themselves), it is asking a lot of Iranian missile design to be able to develop a precision strike capability to hit Akrotiri today. As range increase, accuracy falls away sharply, so I would predict that hitting Rome with a Ghadhr-110 will be something of a crapshoot from Tabriz.

Of course, it is likely that given time, money and imported technology from wherever, the Iranians could produce a longer range missile. And according to Wikileaked US State Department cables, Iran has some 19 North Korean BM-25 Musudan missiles, with a range of 4,000km / 2,485 miles. Fired from Tabriz, BM-25 could, theoretically hit Heathrow 2,424 miles away. 
(And no, this blog is not advocating urban regeneration of Hounslow and Feltham by Iranian missiles irrespective of how desirable such regeneration may be.)

All of which assumes that the Iranians and North Koreans would want to. 

And that's the crux: If Iran had the capability, and was able to prepare and launch a BM-25 with a nuclear warhead against London, and did so, then Article V of the North Atlantic Treaty - all of that armed attack on one is an attack on all business - would presumably be invoked, and Iran would suffer a devastating US nuclear counter-attack. 

So: one element of the rationale facing the UK in the £100bn like-for-like replacement of CASD by new SSBNs and Trident is that there may be some Iranian or other nutters who decide on national self-destruction, or who are going to nuke the UK and don't expect the US to shoot back. I would posit that the likelihood that the Iranians decided not to nuke London based on the UK SSBNs is in fact vanishingly small, as the Iranian and North Koreans are - just like the Soviets in the Cold War - focussed on the survival of the regime above all else. (So was Hosni Mubarak. Oops.) But nothing is going to overthrow the regime more surely than lobbing nuclear weapons on rockets at western cities - therefore, it isn't going to happen.

"Ah", I hear the realists cry "But these people are millenarian nutters for who death is not a problem." And thus they aren't rational.


 (V. I. Lenin. Old-skool millenarian nutter. Innit?)

There are two responses to this: first, that the Soviets were ostensibly (and officially) millenarian nutters who wanted to change the world, but yet they were deterred, largely by America's nuclear arsenal. Secondly, if these millenarian nutters are actually not rational, then presumably they can't be deterred, so the UK SSBNs are useless anyway. This second argument obviously also applies to the nightmare scenario of Al Qaeda getting its hand on a nuclear device - because they can't be deterred and they don't have any territory to nuke anyway.

Which leaves proponents of CASD replacement saying something like, "Well yes, but we might need it, and in any event we're a great power and need the accoutrements of Great Powerdom, like nuclear weapons." Which, all you astute readers out there will have noticed, is precisely the circular argument that this debate started with in 1946.

So actually neither argument supports the idea of replacing Trident with CASD. Hooray, we've just saved £100bn.

Or have we?

I think we probably have. My personal position is that there is no obvious, credible threat - threat comprising of technical capacity and intent - to the UK posed by nuclear weapons. Further, the £100bn - and the £20 - 30bn of capital costs over the next decade to replace the existing SSBNs - will totally distort an already badly stretched (read: broke) UK defence budget, and to go ahead with the SSBN replacement will mean that other, useful - and in some cases critical - capabilities will have to be cut to fund it. This is madness. 

(WE177 - small. Large bang, however. Make sure you mean it before you let it off; unintentional detonations probably best avoided, and are likely to create lots of paperwork. Paperwork like this is always bad.)

So my solution? 

Scrap Trident - indeed, bring the existing SSBNs in now and stand down CASD, saving the current operating costs. Retain the nuclear engineering knowhow and bomb-making capability at Aldermaston and Burghfield to provide technical expertise in disarmament and nuclear verification, and in extremis, the ability for the UK to fabricate an air-dropped nuclear weapon in 12-24 months - after all, the WE177 plans presumably still exist, and if requried, fabricating new weapons should only be an engineering task. In other words, the UK would assume a position similar to that of Japan - no weapons, but a clear technical breakout capability if required.

And this would also mark a coherent step towards nuclear disarmament, making the UK the first Permanent Member of the UN Security Council to give up deployed nuclear weapons. 

Thoughts, as always, most welcome.

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