Thursday, February 19, 2015

A good alternative to SSBNs...?

A new proposal has been put forwards as an alternative to the Successor SSBN programme which is due to produce 3 to 4 new submarines as replacement for the current Vanguard class, with entry in service beginning in 2028. The effort is known to the general public as "Trident replacement", but it is a very misleading name for the project, as what needs replacement is the submarine, not the Trident missile.

Successor - a quick summary 

The same Trident 2 D5 missiles currently in service will continue to be used at least out to 2042, so it is most definitely not a matter of replacing Trident. The warheads are also good out to 2032 at least, as they are subject to a life extension programme which brings them to MK4A standard. A decision on an eventual replacement is not expected to be required before the late 2030s, and it is to be assumed that, if possible at all, efforts to eventually replace the warhead and the Trident missiles themselves will be coordinated in the 2040s.

The four Vanguard submarines, on the other hand, can no longer be life extended safely and effectively. Their useful life has already been stretched and the first of the class is now due to soldier on until 2028, but it is assessed that extending further is not desirable.
Main Gate for the Successor programme, which will finally place a formal contract in place for the acquisition of 3 or four new generation submarines, is planned for early 2016, but design activities and procurement of key long lead items (included the new PWR3 reactor core and the special steel for the hulls) are already underway, with a spend ceiling of 3.3 billion pounds by 2016. As of december 2014, 1243 million pounds have already been committed. Notably, 206 million are for the upgrading and restructuring of the Barrow shipyard facilities which are key to the UK's ability to build submarines, and the usefulness of this investment goes beyond the Successor itself.
The new PWR3 reactor, more advanced than the current PWR2, builds on very significant amounts of technology shared by the United States. Its features include a far longer unrefueled service life (the american equivalent reactor project for their own new SSBNs aims for a 40 years unrefueled service life, versus a target of 25 years for the PWR2) in order to minimize in-service costs during the life of the vessel; and enhanced safety.

In October 2014, a notable long lead contract has been placed, with a 59 million dollar contract signed with General Dynamics Electric Boat for the production of the 12 Trident launch tubes for the first SSBN. The US Department of Defense, in the same contract, has ordered a first batch of 5 tubes for its own SSBN.
This unprecedented level of collaboration is part of the Common Missile Compartment initiative. The CMC is being designed in 4-tube modules which are then integrated into the submarine at build: 3 sections will form the british CMC compartment (12 tubes in total, down from 16 in the current Vanguard class), while the US SSBN will have four sections (16 tubes, down from 24 in the current Ohio class).
The first 4-tubes module should be assembled beginning in August 2016; the first launch tube is expected to be delivered for installation in the module during November the same year. The 1st Quad Pack module should be completed in April 2018, with deliveries of all the 17 tubes currently on order completed by November 2017.
Initially, it had been thought to "future proof" the tubes by producing them with a 97 inches diameter, but this idea was shelved to save money, and the diameter will stay at 87 inches: whatever missile eventually replaces Trident 2 D5 will have to share the same diameter.

Other design features of the british SSBNs aren't yet known in detail. A CGI image released by the MOD suggests that an X configuration for stern control surfaces is being planned, like in the US for the SSBN(X). Despite having less launch tubes, the new SSBN is expected to be as large as the Vanguard, and possibly slightly heavier. Growth is being contained, however, with the aim of reducing to a minimum the need for infrastructure changes in Faslane and Coulport. What is good for the Vanguards must be good for the Successor as well.
In a similarly pragmatic decision, according to 2013 data reports, the Successor will draw largely from the Astute class SSN, sharing the same sonar and combat system, the same torpedo tubes arrangement and the same mast sensors. A Common External Communications System is also being acquired, which will use the same launcher and Comms buoys for both Astute and Successor.
It has been suggested that much of the crew will be able to seamlessly transition from SSBN to Astute SSN at any time, due to the great commonality.

As part of budget cuts, the SDSR 2010 has mandated a new round of reductions in the number of warheads and operational, embarked missiles. Currently, the Vanguard class SSBNs deploy at sea with no more than 8 Trident missiles equipped, in total, with 40 warheads. Each Trident missile can be fitted with up to 12 warheads, so the current totals are far, far reduced from the original 16 missile / 192 warheads load envisaged for the Vanguard. The number of operational, availlable warheads has also been reduced, to a maximum of 120 (was 160 before the SDSR), our of a total of 160 (was 225 before SDSR). 

The Trident 2 D5 missiles are exactly the same used by the US Navy. Indeed, the UK has access to up to 58 such missiles (not clear if the few expended in trials over the years have been replaced or not), which are maintained as part of the US Navy's total. To safeguard the independence of employment of the deterrent, the nuclear payload is british.

For comparison purposes, France maintains a total of 300 nuclear warheads; three sets of 16 submarine-launched ballistic missiles for it's four SSBNs and 54 air-launched ASMP-A missiles.

Even with all these measures to contain costs and achieve maximum efficiency, the Successor programme remains expensive. The December 2014 update to Parliament assures that the programme for now promises to respect the original 11 to 14 billion pounds pricetag set in 2006. Adjusted for inflation, that means 14.21 to 18.09 billion pounds in 2014 money (Bank of England calculation). We will assume a price range between 15 and 20 billion pounds for four submarines as a measure of prudence. A price which, of course, many charge of being still too optimistic.

Centre Forum steps in

Toby Fenwick, former Treasury and DfiD civil servant as well as RAF Intelligence reservist between 1995 and 2009, has written a paper, published a few days ago by Centre Forum, to argue for the abandonement of the plan for a continuation of Trident and a cancellation of the SSBNs, in favor of an air-dropped nuclear deterrent which would cost less and deliver much greater conventional capabilities in exchange for a diminished nuclear arsenal.

The list of recommendations made by the document are the following:

It is evident at first read that the nuclear arsenal resulting would be much weaker than the currently planned one, but at the same time it is evident that the proposal would bring much enhanced conventional military capability in the air and at sea.

The proposal is to adopt the free-fall B61 nuclear bomb, which is deployed in Europe as part of the NATO Nuclear Sharing deterrence concept. The B61s are tactical, free fall bombs meant for supersonic carriage, and a part of the arsenal is made available to allies for employment on their own aircraft: for example, Germany and Italy have Tornado IDS squadrons with a nuclear strike role, and the F-16 is also used. Other B61s forward stored in Europe are available for use by USAFE aircraft.

The B61 exists in several different variants, but the US has launched a costly refurbishment programme which will leave only one type of weapon in operation, the B61-12. This is obtained employing the B61-4 variable yeld warhead and introducing a new tail kit which, while not adding actual precision guidance, dramatically improves accuracy on the target and gives a modest "stand-off" range in a high speed toss towards the target. Some 480 bombs in total will be refurbished, at a cost estimated between 10 and 12 billion dollars.
The B61-12 is to be integrated for internal carriage on the F-35A.

A B61-12 being tested in the wind tunnel

The proposal is to seek integration of the B61-12 on the F-35C as well, which is physically feasible since the weapon bays have the same size (not so with the shorter bays of the F-35B), so that RAF and Royal Navy can procure 138 F-35C, to be used as dual capable aircraft.

The document also contains indications on the expected price of the proposal, which to be workable requires considerable investment in conventional capabilities surrounding and enabling the deterrent.

It is to be appreciated that the document keeps track of the need for aircraft carrier embarkation and delivery in order to make the deterrent capable to strike back against any enemy, and that it consequently makes provvisions for enhancing the surface fleet to provide more appropriate escort, adding more Type 26 frigates and Hawkeye radar aircraft.

It is also good to see that the author did not ignore the need to provide Barrow with more SSNs to buy in order to keep the yard active and it's key skills alive: one of the roles of the Successor programme is also to bridge the gap between the construction of the Astutes and the future project for their replacement. Years and years of inactivity destroy the workforce and squander the precious skills required for building submarines. It is a lesson re-learned at the cost of much money and great delays to the Astute project: after years of inactivity, the design team ended up having to ask the americans for help in order to finalize the Astute's design. So, if SSBNs aren't built, SSNs must take their place, or the cost could well be the loss of the nation's ability to build any at a later date.

The passage to catapults for the carriers brings an evident boost to capability and is required since only the F-35C can hope to carry the B61-12 internally. The purchase of Hawkeye is key to giving the air wing  and the carrier itself the survivability they need.

The problem

A nuclear deterrent based on the B61-12 would be much less capable than Trident, this is definite. The key issue is not the power of the warhead, but the certainty that an enemy anywhere in the world can be reliably hit. Any possible existential enemy of the UK must be keenly aware that there is a credible deterrent which is unquestionably able to strike back and make him pay a price which cannot be possibly accepted.

The reach of the B61-12 is the main problem. The document says that F-35C launched from UK bases could strike 2500 nautical miles away with Voyager tankers support, and goes some way in explaining how, using british bases overseas and the carrier's air wing the reach can be made sufficient to strike virtually anywhere. There are obvious difficulties with such a scenario, and there is pretty much the admission that any delivery flight would be more or less a suicide.
Then again, if it ever came to flying a real nuclear bombing mission, coming back to base might not be an option anyway.
The key, as always, is not doing it for real, but showing in a convincing way that it could and would be done. The deterrent must be credible in the sense that an enemy must be convinced that cornering the UK would result in a devastating nuclear revenge which would make any conquest ultimately futile. The deterrent must represent an implied, unacceptable price to pay that forces an enemy to drop the idea of acting in the first place. If we get to the actual use of nuclear weapons, it means the deterrent has failed, even if it later succeeds in delivering nukes on enemy towns.

A number of B61-12s hitting major enemy towns and installations would represent a cost too high to be accepted, by anyone and in any circumstance, even if the target hit wasn't the enemy capital itself. On this i can agree.
Where the credibility gets shaky is in the delivery. A Voyager tanker can trail 4 fighter jets for 2800 miles in a transfer flight, but an actual stike mission, especially if a return to base is at least envisaged, is a whole different matter. Even bringing all 14 tankers in service (instead of just 8 + 1 transport only and 5 tankers "on demand" at 90 days notice) and fitting them with booms and receptacles so they can juggle fuel between themselves and work cooperatively, it remains dubious that it would be possible to trail a real strike package over the great distances likely to be involved. Particularly because, in order to deliver the strike with gravity-fall bombs with a stand-off reach of 40 kilometers in the very, very best case, you need a large attack squadron, knowing that many aircraft are likely not to make it to the target, even with the F-35's stealth.

Would it ever be possible to make this construct credible enough to serve its purpose? 

At one point the document talks about a snap launch of 72 aircraft in the space of little more than 2 minutes in answer to a detected nuclear attack. But it is clear to me that there could never be 72 aircraft at readiness, never mind at a 2 minutes readiness, not even if there was a significant "warning" period of worsening international situation beforehand. And moreover there would never be enough tankers to trail them to a distant target anyway.
Besides, if the vast majority of the improved tanker fleet and of the larger fighter jet fleet are tied into nuclear readiness, the potential advantage they bring in terms of conventional capabilities is lost because they aren't available for other missions. If the end result is having less tankers and less aircraft readily available for conventional operations, the whole idea is self-defeating.


The idea falls apart further when costing is examined with greater attention. The procurement of 100 "anglicized" B61-12 weapons might be simply impossible, at least in the terms envisaged in the document. The B61-12 is built by refurbishing existing bombs, and there is only a finite number of them.
It would of course be possible to purchase the new Tail Kit, which is a new production element, but all the rest, and not just the warhead, would likely have to be new. This calls into question the timings and costs estimated.

Moreover, the document assumes a 30% cost increase for the Successor programme based on the Astute's earlier mentioned troublesome birth. The assumption that costs will grow is admittedly pretty realistic, unfortunately, but i cannot help but question the method. It seems a bit unfair to inflate the cost by 30% right away, and base the comparison on this figure. A 15 to 20 billion programme cost is assumed in the document and then brought up to a 24.8 - 33.1 billion affair. Sincerely, i find this skews the discussion. Expecting cost growth and doubting of estimates is one thing, but this seems way excessive.

Again, the document assumes that building 5 more Astute SSNs will cost 5 billion pounds or less, while also enabling the adoption of the PWR3 reactor, or at least of part of its technological improvements. It seems to me like a shot in the dark. You can't assume unchanged or indeed diminished pricetags for an SSN if you also assume that you will change its very heart, the nuclear reactor. It would seem only fair and prudent to me to assume that trying to take in PWR3 tech would require quite some design work, and consequently costs.

The purchase of 138 F-35C is also described as a saving of over one billion. But this is sadly unjustified, simply because the UK does not have a budget for 138 F-35B as of now. Not even close. So, even assuming the F-35C as effectively cheaper to purchase and to operate, several billion pounds are missing from the count.

The purchase of 8 P-8 Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft for 700 million pounds also look like a miracle to me, considering that Australia is going to pay 3.6 billion USD (around 4 billion AUSD) for the same amount of the same aircraft (and the supporting elements and infrastructure, but it is not like you can leave those out of the picture). It is a mistake i've already seen in other occasions: you can't just take the unitary price tag from a US multi-year mega contract and expect your purchase to come at that same price. What about spare parts, training, support, infrastructure, and everything else?
I wait to see how much Japan will pay for the 4 E-2D Hawkeye it has ordered, but i sincerely believe 900 million pounds might well prove insufficient. 

Modifying the Voyager tankers with booms is something that could indeed be done in a few months per airframe, and probably with a modest investment. But adding in the receptacle might not be as simple, and the cost suggested, i fear, is likely again overoptimistic.

The C-2 Greyhound is no longer in production, and the surviving examples are high in demand in the US Navy. Moreover, even if some could be acquired, the US Navy has estimated that their useful life will expire by 2028. A refurbishment programme which would replace the wings, the engines and the avionics and make them more common to the E-2D has been proposed, but the US Navy has not been convinced and has instead decided to procure 44 MV-22 Osprey for the role.
The document also suggests converting the Greyhound to serve also as tankers to extend the range of the F-35C embarked squadrons, but this has never been done before. I would suggest that the US Navy would have already done it, if it was that straightforward.
The MV-22 will have a tanker kit by 2017, and the navy variant, HV-22, is likely to be fitted with external, conformal fuel tanks which would also increase available fuel to give away... but this is another story, and would have a whole different cost from what the document proposes with the C-2.

I think there is too much optimism regarding infrastructure as well, since counting on old 1969-era structures dating back to the V force seems a bit risky to me, but i'm not able to make an estimate myself.
What looks clear to me is that there is no real consideration given to the greater manpower and annual budgets which would be required by having far more squadrons of jets than planned, more tankers in continous service, more SSNs and more frigates. Even assuming that current SSBN-related personnel can cover completely or almost completely the crewing needs of 5 new SSNs, i think a lot is missing from the picture.


The boost to the conventional forces that an air deterrent would bring is certainly tempting. If the costing was realistic and actually feasible, i would sincerely be tempted to support a proposal like this. The credibility of the deterrent would be menaced, but i think it could be made to stay at a reasonable and thus acceptable level: i would like to think, after all, that no country in the world would consider "a few nuked cities" as an acceptable price to pay in any scenario. My way of thinking suggests to me that the demonstrated ability to deliver nuclear strikes at range, even with difficulties and limitations (it would never be the same as a 10.000 miles Trident missile launched literally out of the blue, where you can't touch it beforehand) would be enough, if balanced by such a healthy increase of conventional firepower as a byproduct.

The problem is that to stay credible, the air deterrent would tie down almost entirely those additional F-35C squadrons and, critically, the Voyager tankers. To deploy them on conventional operations will dramatically reduce the capability of the deterrent, and to keep them at nuclear QRA means badly hurting conventional capabilities. 
And moreover, the cost estimates seem to be wide off the mark, making the whole thing unachievable in the shape and budget proposed.

In the end, the SSBN once more remains as the most cost-effective and most credible deterrent solution.


  1. Thank you Gabriele for articulating so succinctly. The Centre Forum was clearly nonsense, but "that's clearly nonsense" is a less convincing argument.

    Your counter-argument boils down to:
    * The costings are all wrong (and this is supposed to be about creating a cheaper credible alternative)
    * It isn't credible
    * And providing nuclear deterence would become the entire raison d'etre of the entirety of HM Armed Forces - or at least the RN and RAF

    Other thoughts will no doubt occur, but here's another one: If the Voyager force is going to be entirely dedicated to supporting the deterent it isn't available for other tasks - such as supporting QRA. So you'd presumably need additional tanking assets for that. Or does paper's scenario presume we won't bother defending our airspace anymore?

    1. I think there is just overoptimism about what can be done with 14 tankers. This plan would stretch resources thin in new ways. The end result would be that only a very handful of aircraft would actually be in QRA (Nuclear), and they would be too few to be credible.

  2. The UK will not step down from a top tier submarine based nuclear deterrent, the political class value the P5 position and influence too much,
    the Successor class will go ahead.
    On the point about five more Astutes being built to replace the 3-4 SSBNs, the guy is in cloud cuckoo land, no UK Gov will increase the fleet submarine floatilla now it has been cut to seven boats, so Barrow would be in the same situation as it was back in the '90s with no orders.

    The only people who will support this proposal are those who are already opposed to Trident anyway, just like the Lib Dem paper on adapting the Astutes for the deterrent role, these silly papers are soon forgotten and nothing comes of them.
    There has already been substanial investment in the Successor class, and the investment in Faslane will now go ahead.


  3. Agree Waylander, Politically just not going to happen. Or at least not by any sensible party.

    Militarily, I just can’t believe this is even being suggested. Does nobody remember the evolution of the cold war? Does the phrase “first strike” mean nothing to these people?

    The potential for ISBM strikes on known fixed assets AND carrier battle groups simultaneously is very real. It’s just not going to fly.

    But your costing and infrastructure analysis is pretty brilliant. Seems to sink it from just about every aspect.

    I hadn’t thought about it, but you’re totally right. ANY nuclear assets are going to have to be totally dedicated to the roll to provide a 24\7 365 deterrent, even if we drop the 365 requirement, we can’t risk the assets in a conventional war, because if we lose then we lose our ultimate response. So we are only in the Vanguard situation anyway, but the advantage of Vanguards (besides not making all British soil a direct target) is that it doesn’t require a huge protective force and support assets once “on duty”.

    Nice balanced piece on a contentious issue.


  4. "In the end, the SSBN once more remains as the most cost-effective and most credible deterrent solution"

    I Completely agree with your conclusion.
    Not only is an SSBN orders of magnitude more capable, I would argue the costs are not much different.

    The author proposes 16 new programmes to replace a single SSBN program. That will bring 16 lots of risk, delays and overspending as is common with any high end military development, never mind a nuclear one. There is no way 16 projects could be managed more effectively than one.

    Once the proposed system is in place it will bring a completely new work structure into play, which will require new training and will take a long time to settle down and work efficiently.

    The authors argument that his solution would provide more conventional capability is also flawed. Any new conventional capability would spend its time protecting the new nuclear capability thus you have no extra capability to play with.

    I would also argue any nuclear state worth their salt would first target a ballistic missile at our carrier fleet, rendering us without a deterrent and open to attack. Its just a terrible idea.

    SSBN are the most credeble, safest, simplest and cost effective way to protect the nation from nuclear blackmail and attack.

    1. The carrier can be hit by an ICBM only if berthed. There really isn't a way to target one out at sea. But the other points you make are more or less valid. There is much that i like in the proposal, but it wouldn't quite work out, unfortunately.

    2. Out of interest what what safeguards a carrier group from nuclear attack? I would have thought if you knew the rough position and heading of a carrier its possible to strike close enough to render it in operable.

      regardless of nuclear, with Chinese developing anti ship ballistic missiles as well as Indians and Russians developing hyper sonic cruise missiles, a carrier is simply to vulnerable to trust your only nuclear deterrent with.

  5. Bonkers.

    Only SSBN with SLBM is a guaranteed deterrent.

  6. This comment has been removed by the author.

  7. Part I

    The starting point was to offer minimum deterrence, as defined by the JIC’s Duff-Mason criteria of 1978 and 1982 – the latter the depths of the Cold War. As Trident offers gold-plated overmatch of these criteria, any system which sets out to meet them will by definition be of lower capability. This is an intentional step down the nuclear ladder, as well as offering very significant cost savings.
    You initial criticism is about the credibility of the deterrent. It is important not to confuse a high level of confidence on the part of the attacker that the raid will succeed with the minimum for deterrence that the defender has a low level of confidence that they can stop it succeeding. The latter is the pre-requisite for deterrence, and again, overmatch on Trident’s scale comes at (very high) cost.
    You also need to look at the picture in the context of alliance capabilities; if we get to the stage that the UK is standing alone and taking on the Russians, Pakistan or North Korea by ourselves, then it is reasonable to argue that quite a lot of other things have gone wrong for an extended period of time. It is important to remember that even the 2010 SDSR had to concede that nuclear war was a second tier threat – behind, incidentally, many that have capabilities that we’re not properly meeting.
    On the B61-12, it would be a contravention of the NPT for the UK to receive B61-4 warheads. Instead, the UK will build its own to US plans, and use US non-nuclear components, which is why we’ve conservatively budgeted the warheads at twice the US unit cost. We should expect the delivered price to be rather lower.
    On Successor costings, inflation from the “£15-20bn in 2005/6 prices” that is so beloved of the MoD is now £20.1 - 26.8bn assuming that (i) this estimate was correct and (ii) there are no cost increases. I’ve specifically used a range of savings in the paper, and whilst it is normal for folk to focus on the top end, even at the bottom end (£24.8bn total, £21.5bn unspent) the figures are vast. You’ll also note that £24.8bn lies within the MoD’s own range of costs, even though you and I agree that increases are virtually inevitable. Astute may have been a troubled programme, but it remains the best – and very salutary – guide to procurement performance.
    The UK is programmed to buy 138 JSFs. I agree that this is probably unaffordable with Trident in the budget (another reason to find a cheaper option), but at some point you have to trust what the MoD’s plans are. 138 jets (itself a cut) provides a reasonably sized FJ front line with the Typhoon force. The whole point of dual capable assets is that they aren’t dedicated to a single mission (unlike Trident), and except in times of serious international tension (e.g. Cuban missile crisis), there would likely be few (potentially none) standing nuclear QRA. How many Italian Tornados are standing nuclear QRA at Ghedi?
    On E-2D and P-8A, check the references. The numbers cover the capital cost of the aircraft (as the paper makes clear) and comes from the US Navy at Farnborough or the SARs. Are they wrong? On C-2, we were told the USN are planning another recapitalisation, involving deep overhauls / new build, and it is new build that we’re targeting. C-2s are relatively cheap – and far more capable than MV-22s in speed/range. Tanking the C-2s is not technically complicated – ask Marshalls about KC-130Ks – and the reason that the USN have not elected to do it after the retirement of the S-3s in the tanking role is reportedly more to do with keeping embarked FJ numbers up than the most cost-effective solution.

  8. Part II

    On the tankers, I concur that the PFI deal is absurd, and that all 14 Voyagers (along with A400Ms in the tactical / FI tanking role) should be in RAF service. As the cost of buying out the contract is not in the public domain, we couldn’t include it, though it would be near the top of any list for the additional savings.
    In a resource constrained world, it is not enough to simply say “Britain must have the best” – you need to demonstrate that (i) the UK can pay for it and (ii) that it is the best use for the marginal pound. Simply put, it is all about choices – if it has been correctly observed that “to govern is to choose” then Nigel Lawson’s famous rejoinder “that not to choose is not to govern” also applies.
    As there will be no increase in the UK defence budget – indeed, cuts are far more likely – then you need to be clear about what you’re prepared to cut from the conventional forces to pay for Trident. Alternatively, a dual use proposal like mine maximises the UK’s conventional capability whilst retaining a minimum nuclear deterrent.

    (Oh, and no Trident missiles have a 10,000 mile range. Did you mean kilometres? If so, it’s circa 11,300 with a minimum payload.)

    1. The capital cost of P-8 might or might not be realistic. But it is not representative of what an actual purchase would cost.
      The C-2 recapitalisation was proposed, but the US Navy was not convinced, and in february they have officialized their plan to move to replace C-2 with the HV-22, with first deliveries in 2018.
      The UK's "138 F-35" figure is junk, and everyone has known it for a long while. Currently the talk is for 48, even those not yet firmly ordered, and any additional purchase is a big maybe at best. It has to be considered in producing cost figures, otherwise the resulting number is off by billions.

      The B61-12 costing is again almost certainly way off the mark. The US are reusing existing warheads, new tail kits and refurbishing existing non-nuclear components. You are likely going to be able to buy only the tail kit, and the cost of designing all the rest will be far higher. One only needs to look at the costs involved with existing nuclear warheads to see that making a new one will cost a lot more than a few million pounds.
      Finally, how can the deterrent matter if there are little to no aircraft on QRA duty? Where does credibility go if there is no actual capability to quickly respond?

      At that point it makes more sense not to bother at all. and try to remedy to the political cost by truly, vastly expanding conventional capability, accepting a nuclear umbrella made up by France's and USA's own deterrents. The B61s of the nuclear sharing are an answer to the non-strategic nuclear arsenal, mostly of Russia, for obvious reasons. To uplift them from "tactical" to "strategic" status is already a jump back in time and in credibility which no other nuclear country is willing to take. If you also are unable to have a proper QRA(N), it really loses its credibility, and little point remains in it.

    2. Gabriele,

      We're going to disagree, but that's fine. We've run the figures by experts here in London in and out of government and they're comfortable with them. I'm very clear that we're talking about capital costs here, and I've been pretty deep into the MPA programme (you'll see the interim report here: and it would obviously involve larger costs for the whole capability.

      On QRA, QRA(N) was never held by large numbers of aircraft in times of limited tension. Again, how many ItAF Tornados are bombed up with QRA crews at Ghedi right now? The point that made QRA credible was practice, practice, practice, no-notice tests and a scalability factor in times of tension. The same will be true in future.

      The point you need to be able to answer - and so far haven't - is the opportunity cost one. If you go with Trident, it will eat 25 -33% (Malcolm Chalmers thinks as high as 35% in some years) of the MoD's procurement budget from 2018-32 for a highly specialised, enormously capable, single-role asset that meets what is at best a Tier 2 threat to the UK. Unless you can find a lot more money (I certainly can't see where it comes from) this will inevitable come at the expense of the conventional forces.

      So, what is the smallest conventional front line that you'd be prepared to accept in order to be able to afford Trident?

    3. It is a shot in the dark, with all the numbers being thrown around with little to no factual basis and not a definition of what budget the MOD is to have in the future. If it gets really bad, i would suggest dropping out of the deterrent altogether and pay the political price for once. Decisions have to be made? Then make them and take responsibility. Successive governments so far have made a lot of choices while denying the responsibility and downplaying the effect. An expensive deterrent which works will always be better than a less-but-still-very expensive one which doesn't really convince.

    4. Fair enough. The question is at what point does this crossover occur? Have you read Malcolm's paper:

      And if you want the absolute cheapest B61 option (nb, this isn't it, it is designed to maximise the conventional force enhancements for the RN under the nuclear rubric), then you can do it for <£5bn using F-35As and allowing the SSN industrial base to either fold or to buy it back for c. £5bn separately. The RN would suffer further, of course.

      The key here is that the choices are going to be (VERY) hard. It is inconceivable that funding will increase, so if nothing else, Trident needs to be included in the SDSR and allowed to compete against other priorities.... after all, if it is *that* important, it will make the grade.

      Personally, I don't think that it will.

      Interestingly, presumably neither do the Trident advocates who want it outside the SDSR: surely the only reason for doing this is if you don't believe that it makes the grade and you want to have it regardless.

  9. 'Cept Toby, your proposal isn't "dual use".

    For a deterent to be credible it has to be permanent and dedicated.

    If, for instance, Argentina cut up rough in the South Atlantic again, would we be able to send a carrier complete with a full loadout of B-61s?

    If "yes" then you're risking losing them to a lucky shot. The thought, quite frankly, doesn't bear thinking about from any perspective.

    If "no", bingo, unilateral nuclear disarmament.

    1. Actually, Richard, it does't need to be full time, nor does it need to be dedicated.

      And why would we take B61s to the South Atlantic for CORPORATE II? In CORPORATE, the NDBs were off loaded, if you recall.

      Or were you proposing dropping them on Argentina? This would fundamentally change UK defence policy which has for 30+ years been clear that the UK would never use nuclear weapons against a non-nuclear state. (The fact this would also be a violation of the Treaty of Tlatelolco rather pales into insignificance in the face of this.)

    2. I think the point is, if we are off in the South Atlantic recovering the Falkands with our 'dual use' assets we are not going to be able to put up a credible detterant at the same time. You may think it an unlikely scenario, but it is not one I would like to take a risk on.

  10. Toby, your point about Italian Tornados sort of makes the point. They don't have a nuclear deterant and no one considers Italy to be a nuclear power. It's simply not a deterant.

  11. Given the feedback here I can see that the Centre Forum proposal lacks accuracy in costings and also application (particularly the tankers). However the POINT that it raises - ie that with a relatively declining defence budget (and that is the reality we must work with), to spend so much on a single use deterrent is getting the point of ridculous. Here is an alternative for consideration - purchase 5-9 more Astutes (or improved Astutes with PWR3) and develop 150 warheads for use on top of Tomahawks and their eventual successor.
    That would result in a dual use SSN fleet of 12-16 boats which, at all times MAY be armed with nuclear weapons and in time of tensions could be armed with 10-20 warheads per boat.... Again certainly not as credible as 4 SSBNs, but then this would give us a superb SSN fleet for conventional use AND a credible deterrent should the need arise....

    1. Don't think a modified Tomahawk will ever be an option again. Can't compromise your main tactical cruise missile (and the main one of the US Navy, especially) by introducing the uncertainty of whether it is a conventional or nuclear launch.

    2. Gabriele - I can see how this might be an issue but I am really not certain how else we can save our conventional forces from the expenditure of Successor & the rest of the future deterrent, without moving to an option akin to this.
      A compromise (and a descalation for most of time, although an escalation at times of tension) would be to store the nuclear armed missiles a long way away from the boats (Aldermastern?) and only actual load them at times of tension. At all other times they would be stored in England (a bonus for UK relations!) and subject to international review.

    3. I always "um and ah" over this. If you are engaging a non-nuclear enemy, the UK is a signatory to the treaty saying we will never nuke a non-nuclear adversary. Even if the enemy doubts our intentions, it doesn't matter if they are uncertain as to whether re the conventional or nuclear missile, as they can't launch a nuclear response. They might have a twitchy nuclear-armed ally, but any such ally will not risk a nuclear exchange until they are super-sure our attack on their ally is nuclear.

      I can see the argument that if you are engaging a Chinese carrier battle-group and you have nuke-tipped Tomahawks, the moment you fire a conventional one, you run the risk of the enemy reacting by dialling up an SSBN strike.

      OTOH, if things have got that serious that we are engaging a Chinese carrier group, they might still go nuclear if you waste their Carrier group conventionally, anyway. Once you engage China, NK etc, you are already in the realms of nuclear roulette.

      Furthermore, I don't understand the fuss over nuke-tipped Tomahawks, when the US etc has the B-61s. According to the same logic, a conventional B-52 or Tornado strike runs the risk of the enemy over-reacting in anticipation of a nuclear hit, just as much as a ship carrying a mixture of conventional and nuke-tipped Tomahawks.

      I firmly believe nukes should be at the strategic and not tactical level, but if the argument against nuke-tipped Tomahawks is sound, why haven't things like the B-61 been withdrawn?


    4. To clarify, meant "B-61 capable conventional B-52 or Tornado strike" (or F-16 or whatever else can carry them).

    5. A competent nation, such as Russia, can be expected to shoot down inbound cruise missiles.

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  13. Toby - you completely misunderstood the point I was making (as pointed out by Anon) and enhanced it. Yes they were offloaded, into the magazines of an RFA headed in the opposite direction.

    And can you please explain how a part-time deterent deters?

  14. Surely the point of a continuous at sea deterrent is that it's always working - that no-one, friend or enemy, can determine a change in UK defence posture. They just know that at all times there is a SSBN running silent and deep and ready to lay waste to any nation state that orders a nuclear strike on the UK.

    Moving to an air based dual use platform that is not 24/365 dedicated means that essentially the UK will be observed escalating the nuclear posture in time of crisis. Is that a good idea?

    First strike on UK airfields and no stability of second strike? Not a good idea.

    Carrier borne nuclear strike - then offload nuclear weapons during Corporate II - no nuclear deterrent.

    The UK needs to get MPA to protect the approaches to Faslane but attempting to run a nuclear strike capability from a small land mass like the UK is far from optimal.

    Did the author of the paper look at this from a game-theoretic approach and look at concepts such as stability of second strike, escalation and so on?

  15. What about a missile like FastHawk? or something similar? Hypersonic, Stealthy and with decent legs that can be fired from an SSN and can offer us a credible deterrent. With the advent of anti-ballistic missile defence systems like the S-500 is fast and stealthy the best option going forward? Lot of talk about the future of stealth being more about speed rather than reducing RCS, why not go down the same route.

  16. As Gabriel points out, the Trident replacement is about subs not about missiles. In my view there is really only two alternatives to the current plans in the shorter term.

    1) Lease 2-3 US SSBNs. Additionally these could be based out of the US saving costs for UK maintenance facilities. It would also keep the Scots happy.
    2) Design an extended Astute design to accommodate a single 4 tube CMC. This would then be the base common design for a follow on SSNs / SSBNs. The CMC could also house vertically launched Tomahawks SSGN style.

    I actually prefer option 2 as it would keep the UK SSN capability and assuming that 5 could be built it would improve conventional forces also. Nuclear destruction power could be maintained by putting more warheads per missile. Any savings should be spent on BMD T45s (or similar).

    Longer term I would like the UK to go for a Cruise Missile solution as over the next 20 years Ballistic Missiles will become more vulnerable to countermeasures.

    I see the argument about possible adversaries getting concerned that a cruise missile strike could be nuclear when its not, but we have that today with French / US / Russian cruise missiles and bombs .


    1. 1) Not practical. USN has NO spare boomers to lease.
      2) Where does your nuclear capable cruise missile from? What about the warhead carried by the cruise missile? Lastly, cruise missile is more vulnerable to intercept then ballistic missile.

  17. Where as it'd be nice to have more Astute boats and T26's, I don't think anything can really replace the trident-style system.

    There is little point in the suggested alternative. It's easily countered and relies on the incompetence of our enemies to work.

    Quite honestly I have no idea where this 30 million figure comes from for 4 submarines. If they're re-using astute systems and re-using the missiles, where on earth is that extra cost coming from? I don't think anyone expects it to be cheap but 30bn is an outrageous figure and one I cannot understand for what seems to be such straight forward endeavour. In many ways the trident replacement resembles the Type-26 project. A new hull with a relative side-step in capability. Indeed the main disparity in the projects is their relative cost.

    Either way, it's not something the UK can afford to loose and as a result we must take the brunt of the cost and move on.

    In an ideal world, we'd see the suggested boost in conventional force as well as trident. It seems to me that the RN is a few ships and boats away from being what I'd consider effective. The price / performance aspect of a little more investment is quite frustrating. 1 x Type-45, 2 x Astute, 14 x Type 26 on top of the current fleet and suddenly you have a navy to be proud of. Instead it sits just below the line in numbers and is crippled as a result.

    Luckily the T-26 looks to be an absolute cracker of a ship, which is enough to put a smile back on my face. At least until they announce how many they're building ;)

    Thanks for the article Gabriele. I come here quite often and I enjoy your work.

  18. There are numerous practical problems with an air-based nuclear deterrent.

    Supposing the aircraft were stationed at overseas British bases, then I assume that if an aggressor nation were capable of launching a full scale nuclear attack or invasion against Britain, then they would also be more than capable of destroying a small, static military base, in somewhere like Cyprus or Gibraltar.

    If the aircraft were carrier-based, then that means that a CBG would have to always be in the vicinity of the hostile country. I'm doubtful that the RN will be able to always have at least one carrier at high readiness, let alone always having one off the coast of every country that might feasibly attack Britain. That's all very well if we have prior knowledge of the attack, but it would not constitute a continuous nuclear deterrent. Of course this would also be a huge drain on the RN's conventional carrier capabilities, if they are expected to be dual purpose. And again, a carrier is effectively a static target for the enemy. You also have to remember that many regions, countries and ports have a ban on nuclear weapons.

    Something else that occurs to me is the human element of the nuclear deterrent. The current system is deliberately designed so that the Vanguard crew are not aware of the location of their target. Is it plausible that a pilot would be prepared to single-handedly drop a nuclear bomb on a city, killing millions of men, women and children? That's assuming of course that the aircraft manage to get anywhere near their target before being shot down.

  19. I am not a military expert but am well able to make decisions. If I were also a megalomaniac dictator, I would not take the risk of triggering a Trident response, but I would against this proposal if my military experts had a plan to overcome it. So it HORRIFIES me!

    Either we have a proper, credible deterrent or not at all.

  20. Aside from the nuke and delivery system, to what degree does UK nuclear command and control depends on US providing early warning? UK has no space based missile warning assets, nor does she has ground based long range radars. Then how does she knows when/if she is under attack from a hostile nation?

    1. Fylingdales is part of the US warning net, but is and remains british first of all. Ground based early warning is covered. Space based surveillance via US.


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