WASHINGTON – A new U.K. government report finds some “credible” alternatives to replacing London’s four aging nuclear-armed submarines, but other options would cost even more than today’s plans.
The document released on Tuesday was three years in the making, reflecting a demand to study nuclear alternative postures made by Liberal Democrats when they formed their governing coalition with Conservatives in 2010.
Debate over the matter is nearing white-hot levels in Britain this week, with defense leaders insisting they will never trade away today’s U.K. nuclear security and critics charging that the nation must account for broader international and domestic realities.
The tenor of the report appears to reflect the upper hand of Conservatives, who have balked at the idea of abandoning the so-called “like-for-like” approach to replacing today’s Vanguard-class ballistic missile submarines with a new Successor class.
A leading alternative could be to field nuclear-tipped cruise missiles aboard aircraft, surface ships or submarines, but such an option could involve a lengthy developmental period and end up being more expensive, the report finds. That option could cost upwards of $6 billion more to buy and operate new systems.
Replacing Trident with four new vessels -- the like-for-like modernization approach -- is estimated at $30 billion in lifetime costs.
The only cheaper alternative weighed by the Trident Alternatives Review was a reduction to three new ballistic-missile submarines, shaving roughly $3 billion off of lifetime costs.
Looking beyond monetary considerations, the document also concludes that alternatives to the plans for new Trident D-5 armed submarines could take a toll on the nation’s security, dampening the ability to respond quickly to any surprise threats.
“None of these alternative systems and postures offers the same degree of resilience as the current posture of continuous at-sea deterrence, nor could they guarantee a prompt response in all circumstances,” according to the government report. “Whether the cruise-missile based systems amount to a credible alternative to Trident would depend on a political judgment on whether the U.K. was prepared to accept.”
The U.K. defense secretary, though, and several of his high-profile backers have warned against this and other alternatives for a more relaxed nuclear posture because they would not allow the constant maintenance of at least one nuclear-armed submarine at sea as an assured deterrent.
“The costs of delivering an alternative system could theoretically have been cheaper than procuring a like-for-like renewal of Trident,” according to the report. However, the government found that during transition to any alternative U.K. nuclear arsenal, a mix of new systems required for maintaining nuclear deterrence would significantly boost cost.
To bridge a gap in capability if new cruise missiles -- along with a new warhead to fit atop them -- were to be developed, the United Kingdom would still have to build two of the four planned Successor submarines, according to the report.
The combination of buying a new warhead and two submarines makes non-Trident alternatives “more expensive overall than a 3- or 4-boat Successor [submarine] fleet,” the report reads.
Critics are already crying foul. Some say the coalition report fails to assess realistic alternatives for a U.K. nuclear posture more appropriate for the post-Cold War era, at a time when overwhelming atomic threats are receding and Western nations are increasingly undertaking armed conflict in coalitions, rather than acting unilaterally.
“The limits of the review are clear,” Paul Ingram, executive director of the British American Security Information Council, told Global Security Newswire on Tuesday. “It interprets credibility strictly, and does not consider any options that do not have the capacity of reinstituting continuous at-sea deterrence at a moment's notice and maintain it for an extended period of time.”
As British lawmakers begin debate over the document, both detractors and supporters alike can be expected to use the findings to advance their own ends.
The Defense Ministry and its advocates “may seek to use the report in an attempt to close down the debate, claiming that its outcomes demonstrate a lack of cheaper, credible alternatives to the existing Trident program, and arguing that we should stop wasting valuable time and money by indecisiveness and simply get on with a like-for-like renewal,” Rebecca Cousins, a former U.K. diplomat now with Ingram’s organization in Washington, said in an online analysis. “Others, including the Liberal Democrats, will most likely seek to use it as a springboard to make progress on alternatives.”
She said “a handful of Conservatives” are expected to join Labor and Liberal Democrat members of Parliament in calling for an end to “like-for-like replacement on the basis that it is an expensive diversion from other real and pressing security concerns.”
British public opinion on the matter appears to be mixed, with surveys showing greater support for shrinking or eliminating the U.K. arsenal when the costs of keeping four nuclear-armed submarines are mentioned in polling questions.
Both Cousins and Ingram this week were critical of the government’s approach to the nuclear modernization question at a time of fiscal constraint.
“The U.K. has for some time believed it faces no strategic military threat from any state,” Cousins wrote in her Monday essay. “For the U.K. to invest over a third of its defense procurement budget over the coming decade to pay for the new submarines at a time of austerity seems both strategically and politically untenable.”
Ingram, e-mailing from London in response to questions, argued that the U.K. government update its approach to allied burden-sharing for the 21st century.
“Significant savings could be realized at a crucial time if Britain were to reduce its operations and orders for submarines, and thus be a more effective ally to the United States in the matters that really count -- intelligence and special forces,” he said.