Well, it looks like the US isn’t the only country grappling with the issue of nuclear modernization. Across the Atlantic, the British government is in the midst of such a debate. The latest shoe to drop was the release on July 16 of a much-anticipated government-commissioned report titled the “Trident Alternatives Review.” The report put forth a range of possible alternatives to the country’s current nuclear deterrent.
The report centers on the UK’s existing nuclear deterrent, known as the “Trident” program, and analyzes the possibility of maintaining a credible deterrent with alternative “systems” and “postures.” Currently, Trident is based on a fleet of four Vanguard-class nuclear submarines, equipped with submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) – “the system” – that are rotated in such a way as to ensure that at least one is at-sea at all times, thus providing Britain with a “continuous at-sea deterrent” (CASD) – “the posture.”
The review was guided by three central questions:
1. “Are there credible alternatives to a submarine-based deterrent [such as bombers or land-based missiles]?”
2. “Are there credible submarine-based alternatives to the current proposal [such as equipping an existing submarine class to launch nuclear missiles]?”
3. “Are there alternative nuclear postures, ie non-CASD, which could maintain credibility?”
Let’s look at what the report had to say about each of these questions.
1. “Are there credible alternatives to a submarine-based deterrent?” – NO
The report found little evidence to suggest that the UK could maintain its security with a land- or air-based nuclear deterrent. It rejected the alternative of land-based missiles, arguing that the missiles’ necessary location in highly-visible silos would make them too vulnerable to serve as a credible deterrent. Meanwhile, air-based options, in additional to facing technical concerns, were determined to be prohibitively expensive.
2. “Are there credible submarine-based alternatives to the current proposal?” – NO
Costs proved to be the biggest enemy to the submarine-based alternative. The report placed particular emphasis on the idea of a deterrent based on nuclear-tipped cruise missiles that could be launched from submarines. While the review maintained that the deterrent provided by Trident is one of unmatched “assurance” and “resilience,” and cautioned that a cruise missile deterrent would not have Trident’s survivability or range, it concluded that a cruise missile system would leave the UK capable of inflicting enough damage to deter “most potential adversaries.”
However, such an alternative would face serious cost problems. As the report points out, the development of an alternative system “could theoretically have been cheaper than procuring a like-for-like renewal of Trident,” but, in reality, faces two major issues. First, an alternative system would require substantive modifications to the UK’s existing deterrent infrastructure, which is designed specifically to support Trident. Second, an alternative system would require a new class of warhead, the development of which would pile on additional expenses in two ways: (1) the costs of actually developing the warhead; (2) the fact that the projected development timeframe of this warhead would exceed the anticipated lifespan of Trident’s Vanguard-class submarines, necessitating the procurement of successor submarines to bridge the gap between the end of the Vanguards’ lifespans and the deployment of the alternative system. Taken together, these various expenditures would result in the development of an alternative system being “more expensive than a 3 or 4-boat Successor SSBN fleet.”
3. “Are there alternative nuclear postures…which could maintain credibility?” — MAYBE
The report highlighted several potential alternatives to the CASD maintained by Trident, ranging from “focused deterrence” (in which the British nuclear deterrent would be concentrated against a specific adversary when the need arose, but would otherwise “adopt a reduced readiness level”), to “preserved deterrence” (in which the UK would not regularly deploy its deterrent, but would retain the ability to do so). The report cautioned that reduced-readiness postures would leave the UK more vulnerable to surprise nuclear attack, but reduced readiness would be viable, provided that the British government is confident that such a preemptive attack is not likely. Moreover, as the report pointed out, a reduced-readiness posture would allow Britain to field a smaller Vanguard fleet than is currently required for CASD.
So, what does this mean for the British nuclear deterrent? At the moment, it’s difficult to tell. The report is not a policy document, and will not directly impact the British government’s nuclear posture. However, it is likely to fuel the ongoing debate between the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties, coalition partners who have found themselves increasingly at-odds over how to approach Trident’s future.
Already, the Liberal Democrats, who have strongly pushed for a reduction in the size of the Vanguard fleet, have seized upon the report’s findings as evidence that a smaller fleet could still provide Britain with a viable deterrent. Meanwhile, Conservatives continue to defend the existing Trident configuration, as evidenced by a recent editorial by Minister of Defense Philip Hammond arguing that cuts to Trident would be “reckless” and lead to “the erosion of our national security.” The Labour Party also appears to have staked out a position closer to the Conservatives, with one official remarking that CASD is the most effective way to maintain the UK’s security from nuclear threats.
Another interesting wrinkle in the debate over Trident’s future concerns the upcoming Scottish independence referendum, currently slated for September 2014. Britain’s Vanguard submarines and Trident missiles are based at a naval facility in Scotland, but the Scottish National Party (SNP) has pledged to rid Scotland of nuclear assets if the referendum is successful. London has floated the idea of maintaining the Trident base as sovereign UK territory in the event of a “yes” vote on Scottish independence, but SNP has expressed strong opposition to that option.
At any rate, the Trident issue will certainly not be going away – back in 2010, a final decision on the program’s future was deferred until after the 2015 general election, meaning that this heated debate will be with us for at least another two years.