Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Replacing Trident

The present UK defence Budget is under enormous pressure. With a £37 billion pound hole in MOD finances to be plugged many programs will likely have to be canceled or scaled back. The Government is also said to be seeking a 10%-15% reduction in military spending over the next 5 years. In addition to this the treasury is now stating that the MOD will have to find the money to replace the current Trident System. Traditionally the treasury has funded this separately. With the initial cost of the program likely to be on the order of £20 billion and the entire program including through life costs potentially as high as £100 billion the MOD will likely be decimated trying to afford this.

A number of studies have looked at potentially cheaper easier ways to replace trident. However every study has come back backing an SLBM on the grounds of effectiveness, cost and political fallout.

I do not doubt that a Ballistic Missile Launched from a Submarine is the best way to give the United Kingdom a credible deterrent. However spending £100 billion on a ship that's only job is to destroy the world is unaffordable, inefficient and robbing other areas of defence to pay for it is dam right dangerous in the present climate.

With this in mind I would like to examine a cheaper way to provide our deterrent in light of the present funding crisis the government presently has.

Why Do we have Nuclear Weapons?

At the height of the cold war this question was obvious. We needed to deter a Soviet attack on Europe. While the USA provided most of the Nuclear Weapons deployed by NATO the question the Russians could always ask is would the US use these weapons unless directly threatened on home soil. The answer according to Robert McNamara (sectary of Defence under JFK and LBJ) was no. Having the UK and France with credible deterrents complicated this picture for the soviet's. No longer having to Solly factor in a US response but two other nation's as well who were allot closer to the potential area of conflict.

After the end of the cold war this question is much more difficult to answer. Indeed knowing that the US and Russia have over 6000 deploy able war heads each seems almost comical in the modern age. The UK has around 200 war heads which is less than any other permanent member of the security council. With the reduced level of threat in the world in the interdependence we all have the question of maintaining a nuclear deterrent becomes more difficult to answer. The government points to rogue states such as Iran and North Korea as our principal threat. However given the despotic nature of these countries leaders the threat of mass nuclear retaliation is probably not the best way to deter an attack from them. Continuous at sea deterrents cost £10's of billions are hard to justify if the only threat they have to counter is a piss poor middle east of far east aggressor who does not have the range or capability yet to hit us.

Indeed if this is the only threat we will face it would be better to spend the money on ABM defences. A large single ICBM would be relatively easy to knock down in the boost phase with a Type 45 and Aster 30 or 45 missile.

The other main argument used to maintain the deterrent is that in an uncertain future we can't be too sure about when we may face another major threat. Nuclear weapons took decades and cost billion's to develop and if we get rid of them we will loose the ability to easily make them again in future. This argument is a valid one. However it cannot justify the expensive use of continuous at sea deterrence with the ability too launch a counter strike in 15 minutes.

The main reason as I can see that we maintain our deterrent is a diplomatic and political one. As they said in yes minister "we have nuclear weapons because the French have them" With our place in the world already under threat from the rise of the mega powers removing our Nuclear capability would likely lead to us loosing our seat on the security council. It would also be even more difficult for us to follow our own foreign and military policy if we solely rely on US help in the worst case scenario. This is a valid argument as well however it does not justify a cold war style deterrent system with all the cost it entails.

Types of Nuclear Missions

In the modern age their is almost zero chance that we will be required to lob hundreds of warheads at an adversary in an all out exchange (World War Three Style)

There are three possible scenarios I can envisage for a nuclear exchange (even though they are very remote possibilities. Any deterrent system should be based on these scenarios)

  • Terrorist Strike ( Use of NBC weapons by a terrorist cell would require a response probably limited to several tactical weapons 50kt-100Kt
  • Rogue State ( Iran or N Korea firing several missiles at us or our allies. We could almost certainly rely on the US for the response which would likely be taking out of military facilities and possibly the nations capital. One war head for the city and possibly 10-12 aimed at military bases) ( 2 D5 missiles could provide this.)
  • Major Power (some kind of exchange with Russia or China very unlikely but really the only major opponents we could even think of having a nuclear exchange with.) (Weapons used to take out military bases and civilian structures but probably not cities in the modern era unless they hit ours first) Would require dozens of missiles and war heads. The exchange would almost certainly involve US, UK and probably France as well.
Any of the above scenarios excluding the terrorist one would not happen over night but instead would build over time. Allowing for forces to be deployed and weapons to be made ready. They would certainly not involve some type of Nuclear sneak attack with no justification.

Alternative Deterrent

There are two main alternatives to SLBM's.

Submarine Launched / Air Launched Cruise Missile

The main advantage of this type of solution is that it could be performed by existing platforms such as Astute Submarines or Typhoons. Most cruise missiles were originally developed to deliver nuclear weapons and modifying Storm Shadow to carry out this role would be relatively easy and cheap.

The main drawback is that in order to build a deterrent as credible as the SLBM we would need hundreds if not thousands of deployed warheads. An enemy will always consider it to be possible to shoot down most of the missiles and would likely not be deterred from attacking.

The other main problem is that if we say needed to fire some conventional weapons at China or Russia they would have no way to know that these were not Nuclear weapons and would likely respond with their own Nuclear weapons before they found out.

Land Based ICBM

On the face of it the cheapest solution however the political difficulties of sighting missile silos in a small country like the UK have always prohibited this. Fixed sites are also easy for a potential aggressor to knock out. Land based ICBM's are going out of favour with the US and France so we would probably have to build our own system from scratch.

It seems clear that an SLBM system continues to be the most viable and cheapest solution for a credible deterrent.

Why does Trident need to be replaced?

This is a valid question. The government puts the need for the first trident replacement vessels in 2022-2025. Given the US Ohio class vessels were built before the Trident vessels it seems strange they will retire later around 2030-2040.

This is because the Ohio's have had a major midlife upgrade to extend their life. The Royal Navy sates that as it only has 4 boast as opposed to the US Navy's 14. It cant pull ships of the line for long enough for this type of overhaul. It would be left with only 3 vessels instead of the 4 required to provide at sea deterrents.

This is probably nonsense as three ships could maintain the deterrent as long as one is not knocked out in an accident. However maybe the bigger question we should ask is do we need continuous at sea deterrents. The chance of a massive sneak attack from another major country a basically zero. Also we can probably rely on other NATO allies in the event of a sneak attack to respond. Giving the Vanguards a mid life overhaul and extending there service for 10-15 years would allow us to make the Trident replacement decision much later and allow us to pay for it at a time when our budget is not so badly stretched by the global recession and two wars. Moving the replacement forward in time would also better allow us to fit in our system with the US and French repalcements.

At present the US will replace its Trident D5 missles with the Trident E6. However the replacement would be needed until after 2030. If we have to design a submarine between 2012-2020 we will have no idea of the size and dimensions of the missile. If the US decides to make E6 a different size to D5 as they have done in the past our Submarines would be useless.

The French will also need to replace their vessels after 2030 as well. Finding a few billion for a submarine upgrade would be much more feasible in the present budget that £20 billion + for a replacement.

The real reason the Navy needs to build a Trident replacement is to keep the Nuclear Submarine industry going. The UK needs to build a new submarine every 22 month's to maintain the Rolls Royce reactor making facility and the yard at Barrow. With the Astute class production run coming to an end after boat 6 or 7 in 2015-2018 the yards will need something else to do.

The last gap in nuclear submarine production from the late ninety's to the mid 2000's decimated the UK's capability and meant that BAE needed allot of help from the US to build Astute. While under handed this argument is valid. Having a viable Nuclear Submarine Industry is key for the continued existence of the present style Royal Navy. The Navy was not actually expecting to have to pay for these boats from its own budget and we might just see the treasury's decision make the MOD pay for the replacement lead to the Vanguards life being extended.

Cheaper Submarine Solution's

The main cheaper submarine solution that has been touted is combining the SSN and SSBN fleets into a single vessel type. The idea being that maintenance can be shared, R&D cost spread across a larger number of units and vessels maintained for redundancy can be reduced.

The main draw back is the size of the vessels required. Nowadays SSN's spend much of their time in the littorals. An Astute class already weighs in at 7000 tonnes. A Vanguard SSBN comes in at a whopping 16,000 tonnes. It would only really be feasible to add 4 missile tubes to an Astute until it became to bulky to operate in the littoral environment. Just 4 missiles could be armed with up to 40 War heads.However with most feasible nuclear missions requiring just a single warhead the submarine could probably only deploy 13 warheads i.e 3 missiles with a  single warhead and 1 fully armed with 10. Hardly a credible deterrent to someone like China. Adding in more missile tubes would likely make the vessel to large to operate in the Littorals where it is designed to spend most of its time.

A New Solution

Looking at what an SSBN does, one has to ask the question why keep the N. The main purpose of an SSBN is to sit quietly in the middle of the ocean secret, silent and undetected. Ready to fire a barrage of missiles if required. Nuclear propulsion is very noisy and requires a super human effort to make these vessels as quiet as they are. In the cold war Nuclear propulsion was the best way to achieve this. However advances in diesel Submarines SSK's over the past 20 years have negated many of the benefits of a Nuclear Submarine. SSN's required to deploy all around the world and also out run surface ships to make attacks can justify the expense of nuclear. However if all you want to do is sit quietly below the surface and not travel to far an SSK with air independent propulsion is a much quieter and much cheaper solution.

Some may say that an SSBN mike be expected to sneak up quietly to an enemy coast and must be able to deploy any where in the world. For a preemptive strike this is the case. However for a deterrent system expected to launch in 15 minutes at any where in the world it is not. A missile such as Trident has the ability to travel 12,000 km. A range such as that puts any potential advisory we could ever face in range of a missile fired from the base at Faselane. An SSBK with 12 launch tubes could be built for allot cheaper than a SSBN. Maintenance period would be less leading to less boats being required. Perhaps just 3 vessels could meet this requirement. Instead on 90 day patrols these could be reduced to jsut 30 days. The boats could sit quietly of the West Coast of Scotland in heavily defended territory with aircraft, Submarines and surface ships all providing additional protection. a 30 day patrol could be carried out purely on AIP with no need to surface. Shorter patrols would likely put much less stress on personal and help to retain high quality staff.

Building an SSK with AIP would also help UK industry. We have not built an SSK since the upholder class in the late 1980's. Our SSN's are to advanced and expensive to sell on the open market. As a result our submarine export market is now zero meaning that our yards rely solely on Royal Navy orders to sustain them. The AIP technology developed for the SSBK could easily be put into smaller vessels and sold helping to sustain the yard at barrow even when they navy has no orders to place.

Choice of Missile

The UK has always relied on the US to provide it with SLBM's. While the UK pays part of the development costs and buys 64 of its own missiles it does not own any. Instead the USN provides 64 missiles to the RN from its stockpile and rotates them for maintenance and upgrades. Hardly and independent Deterrent. While I do not wish to waste allot of money on a new missile system I think operating along the present lines makes a mockery the notion of an independent deterrent.

The French spent EUR 4 billion developing their own SLBM M51. While in the past US missiles where much better than their French Counterparts the E6 trident is likely to be very similar to the d5 as well as a newer generation of French Missiles. Cooperating with the French instead of the US would allow us to have independent maintenance facilities and joint manufacturing. With the problems the French military is having at present they would probably be willing to allow us access to all their technology and our requirements fro the missile would be identical. 8-10 MIRV warheads with a 12,000 km range.

Sustaining Industry

It is my belief that the Navy has to maintain a fleet of SSN's. These vessels are perhaps the most important weapons platforms in the modern era. With rising costs the number of platforms has been cut to the bone. * Astutes reduced to just 4-6 maybe 7 if we are lucky to replace 14 Trafalgar and Swiftsure Class. We must maintenance a building rate of one vessel every 2 years to maintain the industry. Instead of a new SSBN I would simply increase the order of Astutes to 12. Given a 2 year build time and a fleet of 12 ships being repalced every 24 years we could sustain both the fleet and the industry. The batch 2 astutes 7-12 should be modified with a four silo missile tube inserted. This tube should be flexible able to accommodate a trident D5 or 7 tomahawks in the way the US Navy Ohio SSGN's can. These vessels could be used in the traditional SSN role or as an SSGN with up to 66 Tomahawks. They could also be used to plug the gaps in the at sea deterrent when the Vanguards enter extended refit. They could also be used to supplement the SSBK's in times of crisis or if a Major adversary appears. We can Insist that any Joint program with France have a missile volume able to fit inside our tubes on both the SSBK and Astute Batch 2 Sub's


If we look at the budget of £20-25 billion which will be required to replace the existing trident system.

£11-£14 billion will be allocated to purchase the new Submarines

Changing the system to the one I have outlined would cost

6 Additional Astute Submarines  £ 1 billion each = £6 billion

3 SSBK Cost estimate £600 million per vessel = £ 1.8 billion

The total cost of the project would be £7.8 billion roughly half of a like for like replacement. Obviously SSK's even with AIP systems are much cheaper than their Nuclear counterparts. They are also significantly cheaper to run through the vessels life time.

Not only would we save a massive amount on the submarine replacement but we would also have the utility of 6 extra SSN's in the fleet with a massive cruise missile load. We would be better able to sustain or Nuclear Submarine industry and we could get back into the field of submarine export. Something we have been unable to do for over 20 years.

With an SDSR which is suppose to be getting rid of cold war relics it seems strange that the only real cold war relic we have left (Trident)  is ring fenced from cuts and its repalcment is not open to debate.


  1. Very impressive work, I must visit more often, however.

    The UK cannot rely on our allies to retaliate for us if we are incapable of doing so ourselves.
    Russia Nukes London
    France Nukes Moscow
    Russia Nukes Paris

    What does France get out of this arrangement?
    It might be a paper promise made, but it will never be carried out.
    Or certainly, the Russians dont believe we will ever carry it out.
    In the final warplans before the fall of the USSR, they intended to use nuclear weapons extensivly against NATO nations without their own weapons.

    Its also easy to say, theres no nuclear threat, but it takes a decade to design and build a fleet of SSBN's, longer actualy to build all 4.
    Can you really say that a decade from now, Russia wont have gone back to its usual state of madness?
    Or an Arab Union wont be retaking the former holdings of the Ottoman Empire, backed up by an oil funded NBC program?

    The Ohio class is not the Vanguard Class.
    Ohio was designed with a 50 year life span and a mid life upgrade in mind.
    Vanguard wasnt

    CASD is not so much about "sneak attacks" as it is avoiding escalation.
    Would you mount a patrol everytime Putin loses it on TV? Would you mount a patrol When Russia invaded Georgia? When it cuts gas supplies? How about when if it invaded Ukraine or Finland or Estonia.
    Thats bloody dangerous.

    Although the Missile rotation system isnt brilliant, theres not a lot the Americans can do.
    If they refuse to maintain them anymore, we have a few years to figure out how to do so ourselves, and we could sell half a dozen to Russia/China/India/Brazil/Iran.

    I like the idea of an Astute class with 4 ICBM tubes, however, not as sure about the diesel submarine.
    I thought the main reason for nuclear fuel was lower lifetime costs.

    Also, I think an Astute could be diesel powered, although its massive, the majority of its size was to accomodate the nuclear reactor, which is the same one as in Vanguard.

  2. Hi raging Tory, Some very valid points. In a world where we hope to operate independently you are correct we must have the ability to respond to a nuclear threat ourselves. While I would love to see a like for like replacement of trident I think operating in the current financial climate we have to be realistic. Using the extra 6 Astute to fill in any gaps would allow us to maintain CADS albeit with less weapons. An SSBK would be cheaper to build and potentially much harder to find close into the coast. While this new look deterrent would not be quite as effective as our present one, it would give us 90% of the nuclear options our present system does. Through life fuel costs would be offset by the smaller crew and less need to train Nucleur technicians. We could also better preserve our submarine industry.