Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Britain's nuclear deterrent - time to let it go?

Britain is one of the countries that maintains a nuclear deterrent at present. Since the RAF's final withdrawal of air launched nuclear weapons in 1998, it is wholly composed of four Vanguard class submarines, built between 1993 and 1999, at least one of which remains at sea at all times. (Having four maintains redundancy for maintenance etc.) On board those submarines are up to 16 Trident II D5 intercontinental ballistic missiles carrying multiple independent warheads.

When Tony Blair looked likely to become Prime Minister of the United Kingdom there was a certain anticipation of a move to scrap Trident before the 2018 missile life expiry and 2020 submarine life expiry (if not refitted) given his past as a CND supporter. Not only has he maintained the deterrent force but has proposed to extend its life to 2040 by joining the US D5 Life Extension Programme. This I find surprising and probably unwise.

In the past I could see reasons why foreign policy options might cause nuclear deterrence to be play a role. In Britain's case, the advantages for scrapping the Trident system at end of life but also moving to a fully non-nuclear stance might outweigh the perceived disadvantages and lead to resolution of potentially tricky economic and political issues at home, eliminating a naval expense which forms little part of Britain's pressing military taskings, as forming the basis for a new view of the term "world power" if the first permanent member of the UN Security Council voluntarily renounced the nuclear option.

First - this is going to cost 20 billion pounds sterling (given usual overruns in projects of this type, not least the original procurement of Trident-Vanguard, we can assume that's for starters) at a time when the Royal Navy in common with the other Services is being bean-counted into oblivion despite huge increases in recent conventional taskings associated with Lebanon, Yugoslavia, Iraq, Afghanistan and Sierra Leone. The replacement of the Invincible carriers and the VC-10 and Tristar air transport fleets as well as stopping the rundown of the surface fleet will provide necessary assets to peacekeeping operations - all that will be needed then is the political nous to stay out of non-UN backed operations which is beyond the military's control as a creature of a democratic state.

Second - The Vanguard class does not fire tactical weapons in support of conventional operations as the existing Swiftsure, Trafalgar and forthcoming Astute classes do, thus they have played no role in operations such as Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq where Tomahawk conventional missiles were fired. Refitting Trident for conventional operations to justify an continued role for the Vanguards would lead to confrontation with Russia who want to know how they are expected to react to an ICBM launch if they can't be sure it doesn't have a nuclear payload - an objection similar to that levelled at proposals to fit nuclear weapons to Tomahawks to merge the deterrent and tactical forces that way. Refitting Vanguards to an Tomahawk/special operations role is possible as with the US Ohio-SSGNs but given the likely cost procuring more Astutes is likely to be a better long term solution.

Third - the fact that the Vanguards are based at Faslane in Scotland will provide a thorny issue in a future independence referendum and could lead to proposals such as a Guantanamo Bay arrangement which even if successfully negotiated as part of a secession arrangement will lead to friction and possibly organised resistance.

Fourth - instead of being afraid of losing their UNSC seat by leaving the nuclear club, the British could show a lead in doing so and pressurise the French via the European Union to do likewise. The European Union in return could reduce their efforts to take over the British (and French) seats until all the Permanent Members agree to a new structure which recognises all continents and major states properly and which improves the governance of the Council especially in matters of vetoes.

It's curious that Blair is committing to this given his "lame duck" status and the lengthy commitment renewing Trident will entail. What does Gordon Brown think? Blair can follow his original political conviction, refocus military spending, avoid confrontation with nationalists who use Faslane as a wedge issue and be a world leader in disarmament - following his present course will sink money to the bottom of the ocean for little return.
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