The population at large may not know it or at least realise it but for over forty years the threat of direct military action against the United Kingdom has been curtailed by the force of Royal Navy ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs). Conventional thinking dictates that the Royal Navy’s fleet of SSBNs are small in number compared to either the United States or the Soviet Union but when one looks at just how much firepower one of these submarine has at its disposal things get put in to perspective. In simple terms the Trident missile equipped Vanguard-class submarines have more firepower at their disposal than the entire Western Allies had against Germany throughout World War II but even more worryingly for a potential aggressor the submarines are extremely difficult to detect. This means that if any one nation launched a surprise attack on the United Kingdom they would be guaranteed to sustain millions of casualties as well as the loss of much of their infrastructure in retaliation. Known as “Mutually Assured Destruction” or more appropriately MAD this is the very essence of nuclear deterrence: one of the most vital but perhaps underappreciated aspects of British defence in the 21st century.
But while this fact seems lost to the population at large it does seem that everyone in the United Kingdom has an opinion on it. In the 2015 general election the topic of replacing the current fleet of Vanguard-class SSBNs and their Trident missiles was the one area of defence where all the major parties gave their view. The Liberal Democrats and Scottish National Party wanted to scrap it, Labour wanted a partial replacement and the victorious Conservatives wanted to replace it with four new vessels. In August 2015 the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) 2015 got under way in the halls of power and it remains to be seen whether David Cameron’s Conservative government will make good on their promise.
Regardless of whether the Conservative government do or don’t meet their pledge regarding Trident they will receive heavy political opposition. Known as the Successor program, construction of the first submarine must take place in 2016 if the new vessels are intended to be in service by 2028 when the Vanguards will have to be withdrawn and the decision to start building must be given in the outcome of the SDSR. The issue is that the figures involved in replacing Trident are staggering. Covering the costs of the submarines, missiles and support infrastructure the current cost of the Trident replacement program is between £20 billion and £24 billion.
Cost has been the primary focus of opposition to the replacement of Trident in the UK and many in the UK argue that the nuclear deterrence is now an obsolete concept given the political and strategic situation Britain currently finds itself in. Despite the sabre rattling from Moscow over the Ukraine crisis the British public continue to view the war against Islamic extremism as the most pressing defence consideration and for that drones, warplanes and Special Forces are what are needed.
So is there a way that Britain could maintain a nuclear deterrence against a major aggressor without going to the colossal expense of building four new “Successor-class” nuclear submarines?
There are two alternatives to Trident. The first is to base the missiles on land instead of sending them out to sea. This would maintain a nuclear deterrent but would be significantly more vulnerable to surprise attack since they would be in a fixed location meaning they would be the first targets to be attacked in a nuclear first strike against the UK. Another less obvious problem is that if the UK detected an incoming surprise attack then the UK would have to respond in minutes but would that be enough time to reprogram the missile guidance system if the attack was from an unexpected quarter e.g. the weapons are targeted at Russia when it is North Korea or Iran who are firing on the UK. Finally, in the 21st century how many of the British public would be happy to sit down in their living rooms watching Ant and Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway with a nuclear missile silo across the street? The days of where the country was much more conscious of the nuclear threat and the needs that arouse from it are well and truly over and it would be political suicide for any government to argue for the building of silos in the UK. Mobile launchers would be an alternative but again where would they be based when on deployment and how would the country react to seeing an armed mobile Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) launcher broken down on the M25?
The second alternative then is that the nuclear deterrence is taken back over by the Royal Air Force (RAF). Until 1969 nuclear deterrence was the primary responsibility of Britain’s legendary V-Force; a series of three nuclear armed bombers that stood alert initially with free-fall nuclear weapons and then later with Blue Steel air launched missiles that could be fired outside of enemy defences. In the late 1950s the British government signed on to the American Skybolt missile program. This was effectively an air launched ICBM that could be fired from thousands of miles away significantly reducing the risk to the bomber while increasing its potency. The election of John F. Kennedy saw Skybolt cancelled much to the anger of the British who already had plans in place for the next series of V-Bombers to carry the weapon including an Avro Vulcan B.3 which had such long endurance that it was designed to carry a second crew. To appease their allies the Americans offered the British the Polaris ballistic missile and the stage was set for Britain’s nuclear deterrence policy comprising of nuclear submarines.
This was not the end of the nuclear role for the RAF but they did have to play second fiddle to the Royal Navy. A new free-fall tactical nuclear weapon, the W.E.177, was developed which was carried by Vulcans and later tactical aircraft such as the Blackburn Buccaneer and then the SEPECAT Jaguar and Panavia Tornado until 1998 when it was finally retired. No replacement was sought for the weapon and the RAF has had no nuclear role since. So how difficult would it be for the RAF to resume that role and how would it look?
The cancelling of the “Successor-class” would free up vast sums of money for development of a new nuclear weapon for the RAF. Let’s be clear however that even in this scenario the chances of building a new bomber are very slim and that the nuclear role would be taken on by existing platforms. Britain has the technical know-how to design and build a new nuclear warhead and so it would be a case of developing the delivery system which would have to be a stand-off weapon given the sophistication of enemy defences. This could be achieved by developing Storm Shadow in to a nuclear air launched cruise missile since as a dispenser system it already has a large weapon bay to fit the warhead. Another advantage to building a nuclear Storm Shadow is that the weapon is already integrated in to existing Tornado and Typhoon platforms and will become part of the arsenal of the RAF’s F-35B Lightning II.
So if the weapon is developed and enters service what would this mean for the RAF’s operations? The RAF would certainly argue that some of the money saved from scrapping the “Successor-class” should be spent on additional Typhoons or F-35B Lightning IIs since at present the RAF is already quite stretched just meeting its requirements in the fight against Islamic State. This could offer the opportunity to develop a dedicated penetration version of the chosen aircraft in the same way that the French developed the N-version of the Dassault Mirage 2000 for their airborne nuclear deterrence and would likely take the form of a two-seat Typhoon with the rear pilot having access to a wide array of electronic defence systems to defeat enemy radars and guidance systems. The RAF would have to return to the old days of nuclear Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) where a squadron of nuclear armed combat aircraft remain on the tarmac ready to launch at a moment’s notice should an attack on the UK be detected. If the F-35B adopted a nuclear role then this would open up the Royal Navy’s carrier force to having a nuclear role as well which would greatly expand the deterrence since the carriers could be rushed to a hot spot and as a constantly moving object would be a more difficult target to attack in the event of a pre-emptive strike by the enemy.
Using aircraft has some advantages over the nuclear missile submarine fleet. Firstly while Trident remains an apocalyptic weapon for the end of the world, aircraft can tone down the nuclear response becoming more surgical in its application to minimise the effects of destruction and fallout (providing of course the attack can be carried out efficiently enough to prevent retaliation and subsequent escalation). Also it is far more difficult to detect a low flying high speed aircraft, especially stealth aircraft like the F-35, than it is to detect an incoming ballistic missile coming down from the edge of space. Also a combat aircraft can defend itself against the enemy if its electronic defences fail.
These capabilities must be balanced against the major drawbacks of using aircraft. As was realised back in the 1950s and 60s the time between detection of a surprise missile attack and the weapon actually reaching its target (which would be Britain’s nuclear aircraft bases) would be anywhere between four and fourteen minutes. The RAF expected to get at least four of its bombers off the tarmac in that time with the rest of the squadron being destroyed before taking off – in fact the RAF also predicted that the fourth bomber would likely be destroyed in the subsequent shockwave from the destruction of its base meaning only three would make it up. Using aircraft carriers is hardly the ideal solution either. Excluding a nuclear attack the aircraft carrier would also have to contend with enemy warships, submarines and aircraft since while it is a mobile airfield it is an extremely difficult target to hide.
Another consideration is whether these tactical aircraft would have the range to launch an attack against Russia for example from bases in the UK. If Moscow took an especial dislike to the UK could we rely on Germany or Poland to allow the UK to base nuclear armed aircraft in their country which would likely see them become a target in any nuclear exchange? Would they even allow those aircraft to fly over their territory and refuel in the air for the same reason of attracting Moscow’s attention? Probably not.
Submarines have almost three quarters of the world’s oceans to hide in and for every advance in detecting them the submarine designers come up with yet another ingenious solution to conceal them. They can fire their missiles from thousands of miles away and constantly remind an enemy that any attack on the UK would result in massive devastation to their own country. In short it would be impossible for either side to win. The fact of the matter is that Britain needs its own nuclear submarines not to remain a source of influence in the world since the will to fire first simply doesn’t exist in this country anymore but to simply guarantee its own survival should it find itself isolated and alone in the face of a hostile aggressor. NATO, the special relationship with the United States, the European Union and even the United Nations all exist in reality on sheets of paper. The situation can literally change overnight and in the face of an increasingly frightened and hostile world can we afford to give up the trump card that has quietly kept us free from the threat of military invasion for four decades? Definitely not.