The British Nuclear Deterrent
Financial Times, January 9, 2013
Edited by Andy Ross
Between now and 2016, Britain must decide whether to replace the four
Trident submarines. The capital cost of replacing them will be £25 billion.
The construction program will consume at least a third of the defense
equipment budget after 2020.
Since 1994, Britain’s nuclear weapons
have been carried by four Vanguard class submarines, at least one of which
is always on patrol in the North Atlantic. Each boat carries 16 Trident II
missiles and is capable of delivering nuclear warheads at a range of more
than 11 000 km.
British defense orthodoxy is that the Trident system
is the ultimate insurance that the UK cannot be overrun or blackmailed by a
foreign power because it could destroy any foe.
factor in the debate is money. The number of regular soldiers in the British
Army has been cut to 82 000, the lowest level since the Napoleonic wars. The
Royal Navy will have no aircraft carriers or fixed-wing aircraft for the
next six years at least.
The British Isles are too small to host
land-based nuclear missiles, which could be destroyed in a single nuclear
strike. A cheaper system based on the new Astute submarines could use
nuclear-tipped cruise missiles. But this would mean designing new missiles
A more radical idea is for the UK to pool its nuclear
weapons system with France. Some politicians have wondered whether the UK
and France could share a single deterrent. But their respective systems are
independent of each other.
1 Nuclear weapons will be redundant in an age of
covert warfare. If a country does not know who attacked it, a deterrent has
no clear value.
2 The UK should rely on
the US strategic nuclear umbrella. It could then afford the conventional
military hardware that NATO really needs.
Replacement of Trident will leave the UK with a posture that is strong on
strategic nuclear capability but weak on conventional capability.
Former defense secretary Michael Portillo: "In my view, thinking has not
caught up with the fall of the Berlin Wall."
AR I think Portillo is right. The Trident
investment is political, and UK-US politics now says spend rather on things
like drones and cyberwar.