Memorandum from Michael Codner, Dr Lee
Willett and Gavin Ireland, Royal United Services Institute (RUSI)
This submission is a summary of a full assessment
of the White Paper which RUSI currently is preparing, with publication
planned for February 2007. This summary sets out issues which
will be of direct relevance to the forthcoming public and Parliamentary
debate. Other issues will endure beyond this point.
The White Paper is arguably
the most comprehensive and open official review of Britain's nuclear
deterrence policy, posture and capability.1
The White Paper makes no significant
changes to British policy, but clarifies some important aspects
of the Government's position. The White Paper is a policy paper,
and not a Green Paper setting out options: so, rightly, the White
Paper recommends a policy to be debated by Parliament.
The Cold War may be over, but
the nuclear age is not. The debate is not about whether a nuclear-free
world is desirable or not, but is about how Britain chooses to
exist in a world in which nuclear weapons are an enduring factor.
The critical questions in this
debate arguably are not what retaining an independent strategic
nuclear deterrent will cost or how long it will take to deliver:
instead, they are why does Britain need such a deterrent and what
value does it deliver to Britain.
It remains difficult to have
full public disclosure of all aspects of the Government's position
and thinking on an issue as sensitive as strategic nuclear deterrence.
However, there remain a number of crucial areas that have not
been fully addressed in the White Paper, areas which need to be
debated in advance of the Parliamentary vote. The Government should
expect to be asked to clarify these issues prior to the vote.
The timing of the Government's
decision is informed by the lifespan of the existing VANGUARD-class
ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) and the timescale required
to build a successor.
The lifespan of the VANGUARD
boats, limited largely by their nuclear steam raising plants (NSRP),
is stated by the Government to be up to 30 years. Arguably, the
30 years consists of a standard 25-year service life, plus an
option for a life extension of up to five years. What appears
to be new in the White Paper is the inclusion of two years of
sea trials in the life of the submarines, ie HMS VANGUARD's
25 years of service life start in 1992 when she was launched,
not 1994 when she entered into service.2 This is understandable,
as the life should indeed be measured from when the hull and the
reactor first begin operating. Thus, VANGUARD will come
out of service in 2017, or 2022 with a five-year life extension,
rather than 2019-2024 as originally anticipated. The critical
date, however, is 2023, when HMS VICTORIOUS, the second
boat in the class launched in 1993, comes out of service after
an extension to 30 years of operational life: at this point, with
only two submarines still available, Britain would no longer be
able to maintain the Continuous At Sea Deterrent (CASD) policy.
Thus, without a decision to build a new generation of submarines
and with no decision to extend the service life, the clock would
stop on Britain's independent deterrent in 2018. Further clarification
of the dates and timelines is required.
Some independent analysts have,
however, questioned whether the service life could not be much
longer. While the VANGUARD submarines could be refitted
for a much longer life, past experience has shown that defects
and costs rise sharply following refit of older submarines. This
could lead to the last years of the class being spent fighting
unreliability and increasing costs, while struggling to maintain
a credible deterrent.
Ultimately, while the position
of industry should only be a factor in when - and not ifBritain
decides to retain a deterrent, indeed the determining factor may
be the fragility of the submarine industry, which would struggle
to survive a 20-year gap between design of the ASTUTE-class
nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSN) and a future SSBN.
The future strategic environment
remains unknown and unknowable. History has proved that to be
the case. Britain is an established nuclear power with global
political, economic, defence and security profiles. Should Britain
wish to retain such global prominence, maintaining a credible
strategic nuclear deterrent in the face both of a broader range
of nuclear and an uncertain future arguably remains fundamental
to the support of British interests.
Britain's strategic nuclear
deterrent is a political tool of self-defence, designed to deter
highest level threats to the survivability of the nation, and
also to reduce the risk of nuclear blackmail.
The rationale for maintaining
the nuclear deterrent is based on the existence of nuclear arsenals
in at least eight other states, the fact that nuclear technologies,
know-how and desires are proliferating, the implicit assumption
that more states are likely to acquire nuclear weapons in the
future, the risks of rogue states and terrorist organizations
acquiring nuclear and other weapon of mass destruction capabilities,
and the calculation that nuclear aggression realistically can
only be deterred by the possibility of nuclear retaliation.
The political futures of at
least three established nuclear powersRussia, China and
Pakistanremain uncertain, particularly from the viewpoint
of their potential impact on British security interests.
In the Cold War, British deterrence
policy was based on the certainty of response, that in certain
circumstances Britain would respond with nuclear weapons. Today,
with more numerous and more diverse potential threats, this uncertainty
in threat is offset instead by strategic ambiguity and uncertainty
in Britain's response: no potential adversary could be absolutely
certain that Britain would not respond, an uncertainty which increases
significantly the complexity of an adversary's decision-making.
Ambiguity arguably is a useful
and calculated deterrent stance, but the Government has yet to
convince some that the White Paper demonstrates a robust policy
and doctrine for strategic nuclear deterrence, and its declared
sub-strategic component. The White Paper did not clarify the distinction
between the strategic and sub-strategic concepts. Indeed, it did
not mention sub-strategic at all. It also has been argued by some
analysts that Britain has a deterrent capability at present, but
no firm deterrent policy as yetperhaps, not least, because
the future context and future threats are so hard to define.
While deterrence strategy needs
to be grounded in reality and clearly related to national policy,
deterrence theory and practice is based on conceptual arguments
that are open to discussion and differences in interpretation.
It is perhaps for this reason that the White Paper does not delve
into discussions of the theoretical and practical application
of deterrence: so doing might indicate to a potential adversary
how Britain thinks deterrence might work, but might also leave
the Government open to intellectual criticism of its thinking.
The debates around the White
Paper would benefit from an assessment of what deterrence is,
how it is achieved, what are the implications of deterrence theory
and practice of the changed strategic environment, and what are
the circumstances in which nuclear deterrence might be relevant.
The concept of nuclear deterrence
remains powerful in the MoD and in the wider British politico-military
establishment. The White Paper argues explicitly that Britain
does not possess a nuclear deterrent for reasons of status. There
remains a strong argument, however, that nuclear weapons today
hold as much significance in creating international status and
influence as they do in deterring nuclear war.
Britain's strategic nuclear
deterrent is a political weapon of last resort, designed to deter
high-end, nuclear threats to the survivability of the nation.
The White Paper reinforces this posture, with a credible, minimum,
independent strategic nuclear deterrent deployed on invulnerable
submarines operating in a CASD patrol cycle giving Britain the
ability to effect deterrence where and when required. For the
foreseeable future, Britain will continue to retain one submarine
continuously on deterrent patrol.3 The fundamental principle for
an effective deterrent is a survivable platform and weapon system
which can deliver the desired effect and the place and time of
choice, holding at risk anything which a potential adversary may
value. Only a submarine-based system deployed in a CASD cycle
can deliver this guarantee.
None of the other options addressed
in the White Paper would provide the requisite strategic capability,
nor would they be more affordable.
The critical question to address
is if and why Britain should look to reduce the deterrent flotilla
to three boats. It should be borne in mind that the Polaris programme
originally called for five submarines, although this number was
reduced to four, and that four boats provide sufficient redundancy
in the system for something as critical as the national nuclear
deterrent, should something unforeseen occur to one of the submarines.4
Improvements in submarine technologies, build and maintenance
may help improve submarine availability, but a reduction to three
submarines may not deliver proportionate cost savings while increasing
the level of risk. It should be noted, too, that a reduction in
the number of SSBNs would impact upon the taskings for SSNs required
to protect the deterrent, and thus may increase arguments to reduce
the number of SSNs further still if affordability challenges for
the Armed Forces and for the Submarine Service continue.
A particular issue should be
noted with regard to options for using cruise missiles. Cruise
missiles travel at slow speeds, and have been shot down in combat.
Deploying the national strategic deterrent on such missiles would
risk nuclear warheads falling in to the wrong hands.
The final cost of the submarine
is also subject to several key decisions, such as the number of
missile tubes, the choice of new or existing nuclear propulsion
plant, and the level of advanced technology introduced.
Britain's nuclear submarine-building
industry compares favourably with those of France and the US in
terms of production time, cost and technology and capability.
Relative unit procurement costs for SSNs and SSBNs are compared
The White Paper refers to the
future running costs of the nuclear deterrent as "between
5 and 6% of the defence budget".5 This is in contrast to
previous statements, which have detailed a running cost of between
2 and 4% since 1997. Moreover, the White Paper states that the
commitment to investing in the Trident D5 (Life Extension) programme
will cost Britain in the region of £250 million in total.6
However, the costs of buying original D5 missiles were £1.17
billion. Does this mean that £250 million is the buy-in price
for the LE programme, with more due in due course for the missiles
themselves? Thus, the Government will need to inform the debate
with a focus on through-life costs, and clarify the expected demand
on the defence budget for the future of the deterrent, as well
as where the funding will be sourced.
The critical issue with cost,
however, is not necessarily the raw amount that renewing the deterrent
will cost, but how much value an independent strategic deterrent
delivers to Britain and what the taxpayer is prepared to pay for
the benefits offered by the deterrent.
Whilst the state of the industrial
base must not be a rationale for retaining a nuclear deterrent,
it is an important factor to consider once that decision has been
taken in principle.
A figure of 14 years is commonly
cited for the design and production of the VANGUARD-class.
While the decision to build the VANGUARD class was taken
in 1980, work on the class had in fact been under way for some
considerable time before this. While Government statements from
as early as 2004 declared that work was underway on a replacement
deterrent system as early as 2002, the 17 year timescale may present
The 17 year timescale for a
replacement SSBN arguably may restrict some potential new developments.
For example, it may not allow nuclear reactor shore testing to
take place, effectively constraining the options for a significantly
new nuclear power plant. Overall, the tight timescales may prescribe
a design based around existing British designs, rather than a
newer design which may be able to bring different approaches.
Furthermore, major items of equipment may need to be ordered more
than a decade in advance of the submarine's entry into service.
The purported option of building
another four copies of the VANGUARD-class submarine would
be infeasible and counterproductive, as would delaying a decision
to build the replacement class until 2010. The submarines would
still be costly to build, and the use of the existing designeven
with re-work resulting from obsolescence or supply problemswould
result in the atrophy of submarine design skills.
If the submarine industry was
to decline, Britain could also lose the ability to build and operate
SSNs. This would be detrimental to Britain's expeditionary policy
and would lessen considerably Britain's ability to project conventional
UK DETERRENT PROGRAMME
There is no evidence to suggest
that other nuclear powers or potential nuclear powers would renounce
their programmes and plans should Britain unilaterally abandon
its deterrent, nor that nations such as Iran or North Korea were
waiting on the outcome of the British debate before deciding whether
or not to press on with their own programmes.
A firmer resolution on international
co-operation in nuclear weapons programmes will complicate the
already ambiguous position of the US-UK relationship. For example,
the 1958 Anglo-American Mutual Defence Agreement (MDA) (the agreement
which defines Anglo-American nuclear co-operation) could be complicated
by attempts to close a perceived loophole in the terms of the
Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), one which allows states such as
Pakistan and North Korea to trade in designs and parts of nuclear
weapons without transferring actual devices. The result of this,
for Britain, may be a gradual disengagement from the US on collaborative
weapon design, with the possibility that a replacement for the
existing British Trident warhead would be designed by the Atomic
Weapons Establishment (AWE), with minimal input from their US
The course of US and British
arms control policy has important ramifications for the Anglo-American
nuclear relationship. Clarification from the Government of the
direction of British arms control policy would be useful in the
on military nuclear technology remains one of the most stable
and significant facets of the "special relationship".
The most significant decision
is yet to be made. According to the White Paper, "decisions
on whether and how to replace [the existing] warhead are likely
to be necessary in the next Parliament".8 In replacing or
extending the current warhead, any move to qualitatively improve
or modify its capability would be even more controversial than
the present proposal to replace the submarines.
There is potential for closer
co-operation with the US on matters of submarine and nuclear reactor
design and, perhaps, build. This would not automatically result
in significant cost reductions, as US submarine programmes have
generally been more costly than their British equivalents and
work to different design priorities.
Significant questions remain
regarding the cost of the US components to be built into a new
British-built submarine, principally the missile launch tubes
which are no longer fabricated in the US.
Discussion on technology transfer
and potential International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR)
issues is required smartly if problems such as those which surrounded
the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) are to be avoided. Whilst the supply
of US equipment and technology is likely to proceed, the cost
may rise to unacceptable levels unless firm agreement is reached
early in the programme.
The MDA was renewed in 2004
and will need to be renewed again in 2014. It is not clear what,
if anything, the US receives in return for sharing its expertise,
but some have argued that Britain will be required to support
US foreign policy as a result of signing the agreement.
Britain's nuclear deterrent
remains an important part of the European contribution to NATO,
with its sub-strategic policy a central element of NATO's deterrent
strategy. However, NATO's doctrine of sub-strategic deterrence
remains largely under-developed since the end of the Cold War.
The Government will need to clarify the precise role of sub-strategic
Trident in the NATO context.
In the White Paper, the return
of use of phrase "independent centre of nuclear decision-making"
raises the question of whether Britain is trying to pull its independent
deterrent away from its NATO commitment.9
While French domestic support
for its deterrent is higher than British domestic support for
Trident, France's nuclear forces - more extensive than Britain's
and entirely French-producedare very costly to maintain,
drawing on around 8-10% of the defence budget. There is growing
pressure for this figure to be reduced.
Current Anglo-French co-operation
on nuclear weapons and non-proliferation is focused on the Joint
Commission on Nuclear Policy and Doctrine, established in 1992
and made permanent in 1993. The Commission has achieved a substantial
measure of discussion and agreement.
Deeper Anglo-French collaboration
would be constrained by a range of factors, including cost, the
French emphasis on self-reliance, and a range of international
agreements including the NPT, the Missile Technology Control Regime
and the Anglo-American MDA.
The White Paper reiterated the
concept of Britain acting as an "independent centre of nuclear
decision-making" in the context of the UK-US-France relations,
which effectively discards the option of pursuing a co-ordinated
Anglo-French deterrent force.
Finally, both state's basic
rationale for possessing a nuclear deterrentto ensure the
unimpeded exercise of sovereignty in times of crisismakes
closer co-operation in build or operation highly unlikely.
Wider European/Global Relations
Some analysts have raised the
questions of whether Britain's global reputation would have been
enhanced had Britain abandoned its deterrent, and whether the
decision to renew the deterrent has damaged Britain's image.
Arguably, all the Government
has done is maintain the status quo.
The decisions taken in the White
Paperto remain a nuclear power, to build a new class of
submarine and to invest in the LE programmearguably are
reversible, although at some cost.
In the short term, while 2007
should see a commitment to the concept phase of the submarine
programme and Britain signing up to the LE programme, the Summer's
Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR) may have significant implications
for the affordability of the deterrent renewal programme.
The critical decision time actually
comes in the middle of the next decade, when: the Government will
need to re-negotiate the MDA; the decision will need to be taken
on whether to build three or four submarines; the main investment
in those submarines will be made; the Government will need to
start considering whether to buy into any successor missile programme
to the LE; the Government will need to make a decision on whether
to refurbish or replace the current warhead.
Until this time, there remains
a window if opportunity to discuss Britain's role in the world,
the need for strategic deterrence, and whether global multi-lateral
disarmament can be more than an aspiration.
1 Ministry of Defence (MoD) and Foreign
and Commonwealth Office (FCO). The Future of the United Kingdom's
Nuclear Deterrent. Presented to Parliament by The Secretary
of State for Defence and The Secretary of State for Foreign and
Commonwealth Affairs, by Command of Her Majesty. Command 6994,
December 2006. Norwich: The Stationery Office (TSO).
Previously, the 1998 Strategic Defence Review (SDR)
had revealed what was regarded then as an unprecedented level
of discussion of Britain's nuclear posture. The current White
Paper numbers over 50 pages: SDR's analysis numbered only several
(see: MoD The Strategic Defence Review. Presented to Parliament
by the Secretary of State for Defence by Command of Her Majesty.
Command 3999. London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office, July 1998).
2 See: MoD and FCO. The Future of the
United Kingdom's Nuclear Deterrent. "Fact Sheet 4: The
3 MoD & FCO. The Future of the United
Kingdom's Nuclear Deterrent. p 26, para 5-8. For a detailed
discussion in the White Paper of SSBN operations, see p 27, box
4 Under CASD, four submarines rotate through
the patrol cycle to enable Britain to keep one boat permanently
on patrol with sufficient redundancy should unexpected problems
occur with one of the submarines. The White Paper argues that
CASD could be maintained with only two submarines rotating through
the patrol cycle (either with a third boat in re-fit, or with
two more having retired from service), but that this posture could
only be maintained for `limited periods' (see: MoD & FCO.
The Future of the United Kingdom's Nuclear Deterrent. p 26, para
5 MoD and FCO, The Future of the United
Kingdom's Nuclear Deterrent. p 27 (para 5-14).
6 MoD and FCO. The Future of the United
Kingdom's Nuclear Deterrent. pp 7 and 26 (para 5-10).
7 Hoon, G. (then Secretary of State for
Defence). Hansard, 30 June 2004, column 356W.
8 MoD and FCO, The Future of the United
Kingdom's Nuclear Deterrent. p 30-31, para 7.4.
9 MoD and FCO. The Future of the United
Kingdom's Nuclear Deterrent. pp 18 (para 3-4) and 20 (box
22 January 2007