Saturday, November 26, 2011

Strategic Thinking on Trident Part II

(The Muppets' take on SDSR. As opposed to the take of the muppets who actually did SDSR.)

I was reflecting on Trident with a friend the other day, and unusually, we agreed on something: that the key questions are all about prioritization and the UK's role in the world, with the international legal questions playing a constructive but not definitive role. Indeed, dear reader(s)*, I (sadly) accept that the UK will attempt to finesse any argument on NPT Art VI based on whatever the Government decides it wants to do - though I broadly accept Daniel Joyner's argument on Art VI, and specifically Christine Chinkin's 2005 Opinion on the UK's obligations under the NPT, and that replacing Trident would be inconsistent with the UK's NPT obligations.**

The question my friend and I sparred over was whether there was a case for Trident replacement based on the uncertainty of the world situation, and the possibility / probability of further proliferation of nuclear arms; specifically, should Iran go nuclear, would this prompt Saudi acquisition of nuclear capability as Sir Malcolm Rifkind MP suggests, leading to the nuclearisation of the rest of the Middle East

(DF-21C. Presumably Saudi ones at least get a different paint scheme.)

I am the first to agree that there is little to be gained in terms of regional security by the proliferation of atomic weapons to Iran and Saudi Arabia. Indeed, as the Atlantic Magazine points out this week, the insecurity of Pakistan's atomic arsenal is perceived as one of the three most serious national security threats to the US; the notion of Saudi buying an atomic capability from Pakistan (or more implausibly, Israel) to mount on its recently acquired Chinese Dong-Feng 21 (CSS-5) MRBMs is plausible and worrying. But the should the expectation that Iranian nuclearisation and Saudi response mean that the UK should go ahead and replace Trident? 

In a word, "No".


The rationale for an independent UK nuclear capability has historically been based around the perceived need for a second-decision making pole in a superpower exchange: bluntly, would - when push came to shove - the US initiate a tactical / strategic nuclear exchange which would result in the destruction of the American homeland to respond to a conventional Warsaw Pact invasion of Western Europe? In case the answer was "no" - or "possibly no" - then the case for a British (and French) nuclear force that could inflict enough damage on the USSR to deter the Soviet Union from trying it on - the fabled "Moscow Criterion" - was intellectually defensible. 

However, it was only required because the US could have been subject to nuclear blackmail - something that none countries of concern (Iran, Pakistan, North Korea) have demonstrated. And it is instructive to see how far from this position these countries are: the closest would be North Korea if it were able to deploy a reliable Taepo-Dong 2 ICBM force with which it could hit the US west coast - which is about a million miles from the current position of two public test flights that ended in failure, and no evidence that the required small (under 500kg) nuclear warhead exists in North Korea. If Pakistan can produce the Tamiur ICBM (yet to be tested, much less deployed), the reported 7000km design range does not bring the US within range - see below:

(OPAB is the ICAO code for Abbotabad - Osama bin Laden's last home town.
7000km is the lighter area - excluding all of the USA.)

As such, Tamiur poses no threat to the US and therefore there would be no cost to the US in responding to (the currently - and for the foreseeable future - technically impossible) proposition of a Pakistani nuclear ICBM attack on the UK. Consequently, the fear of nuclear blackmail leading to strategic decoupling of US from NATO from a Tamiur-style ICBM is simply non-existent. (It is accepted that Pakistan could put an atomic weapon in a shipping container and deliver to target on a truck - but unless you're prepared to retaliate on suspicion of the source, Trident is no use to you.)

It is also hard to see that the US/NATO gains much from UK Continuous At-Sea Deterrence (CASD) given the very limited number of warheads that UK Trident now carries. Indeed, the gang over at Arms Control Wonk argue persuasively that even if the US defence cuts from the failure of the Budgetary Super Committee disproportionately fell on the nuclear forces -  leading to the removal of a land-based ICBM and cutting SSBN(X) Trident submarine replacement to 10 boats from 12 - then the US could still configure its forces to max-out the New START limits. With 1550 warheads, it's hard to see what difference 48 UK CASD warheads makes to the decision-making of, say, North Korea or Pakistan now or in the next 20 years.

It is on this basis that I'm coming to the position that the UK gains very little in security terms from retaining Trident; it does however cost at least £30bn that could make a significance difference to the UK's conventional forces, which, as we've discussed ad nauseam here is actually what could make a significant difference to the UK - and to NATO and the UK's non-NATO partners. Moreover, until the UK brings the new aircraft carriers into service - preferably with some aircraft to fly off them - UK conventional long-range short-notice conventional force projection is limited to two cruise missile systems: the RN's with BGM-109 Tomahawk from its attack submarines (SSNs) and RAF Tornados with Storm Shadow. Both systems are excellent and provide complementary capabilities. Indeed, HMS ASTUTE recently completed the first of class firings of Tomahawk in the USA.

As good as these systems are, there are clear limitations - Storm Shadow is comparatively short-ranged (reportedly under 300nm) meaning that some credible target sets will require the Tornados to overfly defended territory with attendant greater risks, and will in any event likely require local basing rights for the Tornado launch aircraft. Tomahawk is long range (more than 1000nm) but the RN is suffering from an acute lack of SSNs with the older Swiftsure-class boats now retired, and the first of the Trafalgar-class also struck without the replacement Astute-class SSNs ready to replace them. Moreover, the Trafalgar-class's maximum warload of 30 torpedoes and Tomahawks means that the total number of missiles is actually available against any target set is likely to be less than this. And though stealthy, a submarine can only be in one place at once.

(USS Ohio undergoing SSBN to SSGN conversion)

Decomissioning Trident could address both of these problems. As part of the 1992 START II Treaty, the US Navy would have to reduce its total SSBN fleet to 14. However, instead of scrapping them, it converted four of its 18 Ohio-class SSBNs to carry up to 154 Tomahawks instead of Trident missiles. The result is an impressively balanced, stealthy, strike platform, which provides far more relevant capability to today's - and tomorrow's - conflicts than the Trident missiles formerly carried. Better still for the UK, given that the UK's Vanguard-class SSBNs have the same missile compartment design - though mounting 16 rather than 24 tubes - conversion to Tomahawk carriage should benefit from the considerable work already completed by the US Navy. A full-up Vanguard-class SSGN could carry 106 Tomahawks - more than three times the theoretical maximum number on a Trafalgar-class.

SSGN conversion and already anticipated life-extension to the Vanguard-class would allow the UK to have a deployable, long-range conventional precision strike platform through to the full operational capability of the Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers in the mid-2020s. Food for thought!

* As per ES, it is essential to provide grammatical certainty
** This raises the interesting question of what would happen if the Finance Act which provided funding for Trident were the subject of a Judicial Review....

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