Select Committee on Defence Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 142-159)


28 MARCH 2006

  Chairman: Good morning. Thank you both for coming to give evidence. This is the third evidence session in the Committee's first inquiry into the strategic nuclear deterrent. As you know, this is one of a series of inquiries that we will be conducting during the course of this Parliament. The morning will be broken into two parts: the first will deal with technical matters and the second with the wider strategic issues. Before we begin the evidence I would like to take two declarations of interest.

  Linda Gilroy: In my original declaration of interest I referred to various defence interests in my constituency. I would like to make it clear that DML lies on the edge of my constituency.

  Mr Borrow: I have already mentioned, but I think I should repeat this morning, that I am currently undertaking an Industry and Parliament Trust fellowship with Thales UK.

  Q142  Chairman: Are there are any other declarations of interest? That brings me straight to a point which Commodore Hare may wish to emphasise. While you are currently employed by Thales, is it correct that you wish to make plain that you are giving evidence this morning in a personal capacity, not as a representative of the defence industry in general or of Thales?

  Commodore Hare: Yes, please.

  Q143  Chairman: Do you want to add anything to that?

  Commodore Hare: Only that I left the nuclear deterrent scene some four years ago when I retired from the Royal Navy having spent the majority of my working life there. Since then I have been working for Thales UK for four years but in an area not related to nuclear deterrence in any way at all. I am in the underwater systems division that makes sonar sets for the Royal Navy. Ironically, we make them for the SSBN force, but essentially we are an equipment supplier. I have not been engaged in any professional activity for Thales on anything to do with nuclear deterrence or the submarine programme.

  Q144  Chairman: That is a very helpful introduction. Mr Whitehouse, would you care to introduce yourself as well?

  Mr Whitehouse: I am Corporate Development Director with DML. I have responsibility for corporate strategy and as such take a great interest in matters relating to future deterrence and the way that that interacts with the current programme. I was one of the senior team that input a lot of information into the DIS work last year.

  Q145  Chairman: I wonder whether we could begin by asking Commodore Hare to summarise what we currently have in the UK Trident system in terms of the main components and the technical capabilities that the system currently provides?

  Commodore Hare: Our nuclear deterrent capability is vested in a single system, Trident, which has a dual capability. It has a full strategic capability and a sub-strategic capability. That system, which has been bought from the United States, is hosted in UK-designed and built nuclear submarines, called in the jargon SSBNs, of which we have four. Supporting that system is some shore-based infrastructure, command and control, which is UK-designed and procured. There are facilities at Faslane, Coulport and Devonport which again are UK-procured and controlled. To go into a little detail on the Trident system itself, essentially it has four elements. There are the submarine platforms, which are UK-designed and built, in which the launcher, fire control and navigational sub-systems of the Trident system are hosted. The missiles which are part of the Trident system are procured from the United States. There is a pooling arrangement whereby the United Kingdom has bought 58 Trident missiles. At various times in a submarine's life, normally after refit, it has to deploy to Kings Bay, Georgia, to outload itself with the appropriate number of missiles from the pool. I would like to emphasise that the UK has bought them, but through expediency and a significant saving in the original Trident costs—something like £3.8 billion, I think—it was decided to use that pool in the United States rather than store and support the missiles in the UK. In my view, that was a decision based on expediency. Finally, there is the warhead for which the UK is the design authority and that is UK-procured. Those are the core elements of our singular Trident system which provides the UK's nuclear capability.

  Q146  Chairman: How is it operated?

  Commodore Hare: The operational posture comes under the heading CASD which stands for Continuous-at-Sea Deterrence. The thought behind it is that at any one time we have one submarine deployed on patrol which houses the complete strategic and sub-strategic capability. The missiles on board that submarine for safety, confidence and security-building measures are not targeted at anybody, and the alert status is now reduced from that which existed in the Cold War to a number of days. At any one time, however, there is one submarine ready to move up the alert and readiness status curve should the government of the day so dictate. The important point I would make about Continuous-at-Sea Deterrence and why it is such a pillar of our posture, if you like, is that this is largely a people issue. Operating nuclear submarines and the Trident system is an extremely complex and difficult business and we need to keep our people up to speed and focused on operating the submarines and missile system safely and effectively at all times. The best way to do that is by having one on patrol at all times. There is also the related escalatory issue that having one submarine at sea at all times is a recognisable status quo, so nobody will be confused by submarines coming and going from their base port at Faslane in a routine fashion. If one did not have CASD but some alternative and just deployed submarines when one wanted to one might be sending incorrect signals which might be misinterpreted by any potential adversary. That would be a pretty dangerous thing.

  Q147  Mr Holloway: Why would it take several days to operate them? Has some impediment been built in?

  Commodore Hare: No. Trident is technically a very flexible system and it can really do what you want it to do within certain constraints, but its various sub-systems, for example the navigation sub-system, take time to reach their accuracy limits. As you will understand, if you are to have a system as accurate as Trident's you have to know exactly where you and your potential targets are.

  Q148  Mr Holloway: But that would take several days?

  Commodore Hare: Not necessarily several days. Retargeting the Trident system does not take very long. There are some political rather than technical issues to do with the seven[1] days' notice.

  Q149 Mr Havard: The title of this discussion is the Strategic Nuclear Deterrent, but a doctrine is being developed about the sub-strategic use of what was designed as a strategic weapon or platform. Underneath that there may be a tactical use which is different. Can you say something about the idea of the use of this system in terms of its strategic and sub-strategic role?

  Commodore Hare: I think that there is a lot of misinformation about the so-called sub-strategic role which you yourself mentioned. Sometimes it is confused with a tactical role which is not what either our policy or the Trident system is about. This is not a system that is geared or operated to achieve military objectives, by which I mean taking out a town, city, territory or whatever. It is for strategic use only and is on the right hand of the deterrence equation to be used in extremis when the survival of the nation state is at stake. When the sub-strategic concept was introduced its role was described by Lord Robertson in his speech in Aberdeen in 2001,[2] if my memory serves me well. It will be on the record. We use the term "sub-strategic", not "tactical", deliberately. It is a sub-strategic role. What it means is that it offers the government of the day an extra option in the escalatory process before it goes for an all-out strategic strike which would deliver unacceptable damage to a potential adversary. It gives it a lower level of strike with which to demonstrate will, intent or whatever. It does not have to be used at all but it gives the government of the day that extra option at the sub-strategic level. To my mind, that is a welcome option.

  Q150 Mr Havard: In terms of configuration that does not mean a great deal?

  Commodore Hare: Not a great deal.

  Q151  Mr Havard: You would deploy one warhead as opposed to a number?

  Commodore Hare: The actual number and deployment and nature of warheads or missiles is fairly classified information, but as I said in my opening statement when each submarine goes to sea it has the capacity to fulfil the complete spectrum of capability, strategic and sub-strategic.

  Q152  Linda Gilroy: Mr Whitehouse, from a technical and operational standpoint, to what extent is the UK's Trident system dependent on the Americans? Can you tell us whether in practice the UK could use the system independently of the United States if it so wished?

  Mr Whitehouse: First, obviously the UK is reliant on the US facilities in Kings Bay for turn round of the missiles when the submarines are in refit, unlike Polaris. That is fairly fundamental. Secondly, the systems that sit within the submarine associated with missile targeting and firing are obviously reliant on design authority support from the US. That is another key element. In the event that any of the components within the re-entry vehicle system and warhead are reliant on the US for design safety case substantiation, that is a third key element. According to my understanding—perhaps Commodore Hare can add to this—obviously the decision to use the weapon is a very serious matter, but essentially that is something which is under UK control.

  Commodore Hare: I would absolutely endorse that. Certainly, operationally the system is completely independent of the United States. Any decision to launch missiles is a sovereign decision taken by the UK and does not involve anybody else. I have read talk in the press about the Americans having some technical golden key. That is just not right; they do not. As Mr Whitehouse has indicated, the only engagement with the United States that we have now, and which we have had for a very long time, relates to the design authority for the missile and supporting launcher, fire control and navigational sub-systems that are housed in the Vanguard-class submarines.

  Q153  Linda Gilroy: I think that some commentators also say that not only is it a technical golden key but in the event of the United States not liking a decision taken by the UK it could very quickly make it difficult for us to operate the system independently?

  Commodore Hare: I would be very interested to hear how. The best analogy I can give is that if Ford went bust tomorrow all the Ford Focuses in the country would not suddenly come to a grinding halt. Certainly, it would be difficult if the United States withdrew its design authority and logistics support for the missiles, fire control launcher and navigational sub-systems. Eventually, it would cause some difficulty, but I argue that that would take quite a long time. I think that the risk of that happening is very low. As you know better than I, the Americans have been our allies for well over 100 years, and certainly there is no indication of the US withdrawing its support today or in previous history, as I understand it. One must balance that risk against the enormous cost benefits that we have in procuring an American system to house in our submarines. That should not be underestimated.

  Q154  Mr Hancock: You are right to suggest that there has been a lot of press speculation about whether or not the system is truly independent. We have always prided ourselves that this is our independent strategic nuclear deterrent, if we leave out of account the option that the Americans might shoot down a missile that we fired. One of the speculations in the newspapers and elsewhere at the weekend is that if the Americans wanted to prevent a missile being used they could bring it down. There was also the suggestion that technically they could disable a missile as they do with test launches. Missiles fired in tests are brought down by an inbuilt signal sent to the warhead or missile itself, not the carrier. Are both of you saying that the Americans do not have that capability? If we are to progress this debate the independence of our deterrent is of vital importance to the British people if they are to support something like this. If it is there only to back up the Americans that is a different thing. Do you say it is impossible for the Americans to bring down our missile by a code similar to that which they use in a test launch?

  Commodore Hare: Nothing in this world is "impossible", but to the best of my knowledge and experience that is just not right.

  Q155  Mr Hancock: "Not right" if it is possible for them to have that capability now you do not know of it?

  Commodore Hare: Correct.

  Q156  Mr Hancock: Mr Whitehouse?

  Mr Whitehouse: I agree with that.

  Q157  John Smith: Dealing specifically with communication systems to be able to target the missiles, is there any dependence on the Americans in that area?

  Commodore Hare: Absolutely not.

  Q158  John Smith: I absolutely agree with your observation about our being allies for the past 100 years. That is why I sit back aghast when we have such difficulty in negotiating technology transfers on something as basic as the Joint Strike Fighter. I am not exactly at ease with the idea that we should not worry about it because they have been allies for a very long time. But we are dependent on the Americans for being able to target our missiles?

  Commodore Hare: No.

  Q159  John Smith: Not in any way at all?

  Commodore Hare: No.

1   Note by Witness: There are some political rather than technical issues to do with the several days' notice, not the seven days notice. Back

2   Note: Lord Robertson's speech was on 1 March 1999 in Aberdeen, not in 2001. Back

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