U.K. Independent Panel: Retain Trident Subs, But Explore Delay Options

British Navy personnel stand atop a Trident nuclear-armed submarine, HMS Victorious, on patrol off the west coast of Scotland in April 2013. An independent U.K. panel on Tuesday said the nation might opt to put off a decision on how to modernize the fleet.
National Journal
Elaine M. Grossman
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Elaine M. Grossman
July 1, 2014, 9:59 a.m.

An in­de­pend­ent Brit­ish pan­el led by former de­fense and for­eign-af­fairs lead­ers from each of the na­tion’s three ma­jor polit­ic­al parties agrees in a new re­port that the United King­dom should keep its ar­sen­al of nuc­le­ar-armed Tri­dent sub­mar­ines, but con­sider post­pon­ing a 2016 de­cision on mod­ern­iz­a­tion op­tions.

The so-called Tri­dent Com­mis­sion’s bot­tom-line re­com­mend­a­tion was to stick with what Bri­tain’s got — at least for now — as a mat­ter of ex­ist­en­tial im­port­ance.

“We need to pay close at­ten­tion to the rel­ev­ance of pos­sible emer­ging threats and to our na­tion­al ca­pa­city to meet them in an ef­fect­ive man­ner,” the com­mis­sion re­port states. It ar­gues that the “cru­cial con­sid­er­a­tion” in de­cid­ing wheth­er to seek al­tern­at­ives to the U.K. nuc­le­ar pos­ture must re­main de­fense of the is­land na­tion it­self.

“If there is more than a neg­li­gible chance that the pos­ses­sion of nuc­le­ar weapons might play a de­cis­ive fu­ture role in the de­fense of the United King­dom and its al­lies, in pre­vent­ing nuc­le­ar black­mail, or in af­fect­ing the wider se­cur­ity con­text with­in which the U.K. sits, then they should be re­tained,” the com­mis­sion­ers de­clared.

The 43-page pa­per re­leased Tues­day was more than three years in the mak­ing, re­flect­ing the con­sensus of — and some dif­fer­ences between — its eight polit­ic­ally di­verse mem­bers. Co-chairs are Des Browne, also known as Lord Browne of Ladyton and a former Labor sec­ret­ary of state for de­fense; Sir Mal­colm Ri­f­kind, a former Con­ser­vat­ive de­fense and for­eign sec­ret­ary; and Sir Men­zies Camp­bell, a former Lib­er­al Demo­crat lead­er and shad­ow for­eign sec­ret­ary.

The pan­el re­view was sponsored by the Brit­ish Amer­ic­an Se­cur­ity In­form­a­tion Coun­cil, or BA­SIC, an or­gan­iz­a­tion ded­ic­ated to nuc­le­ar dis­arm­a­ment. The group said it as­sisted in draft­ing the doc­u­ment as a means to stim­u­late pub­lic de­bate but did not en­dorse Tri­dent Com­mis­sion find­ings.

For its part, the com­mis­sion ap­peared to find com­mon ground largely in the status quo, in which the na­tion’s de­fense min­istry is mov­ing to re­place today’s four Van­guard-class bal­list­ic-mis­sile sub­mar­ines — its en­tire nuc­le­ar ar­sen­al — with “like-for-like” Suc­cessor-class ves­sels. The pan­el­ists ex­pressed skep­ti­cism about cost or se­cur­ity ad­vant­ages to be gained from shift­ing to al­tern­at­ive nuc­le­ar plat­forms, such as cruise mis­siles.

But they also said Lon­don could take new ac­tions to dis­cour­age glob­al nuc­le­ar pro­lif­er­a­tion and move to­ward dis­arm­a­ment.

The com­mis­sion ad­vised that the de­fense min­istry “study the steps down the nuc­le­ar lad­der more thor­oughly,” pos­sibly to in­clude “fur­ther re­duc­tions in war­heads or changes in pos­ture and de­clar­at­ory policy.”

Bri­tain should con­sider, the pan­el­ists said, re­lax­ing its policy of keep­ing at least one bal­list­ic-mis­sile sub­mar­ine on patrol at all times — dubbed a con­tinu­ous at-sea de­terrent, or “CASD.” However, they were di­vided over wheth­er such a step could be con­tem­plated in­de­pend­ently or should in­stead be pur­sued “mul­ti­lat­er­ally with oth­er nuc­le­ar weapon states.”

The Con­ser­vat­ive Party that leads the U.K. gov­ern­ing co­ali­tion today sees the con­tinu­ous patrols as ne­ces­sary for ef­fect­ively pre­vent­ing or re­spond­ing to the gravest se­cur­ity threats. But Lib­er­al Demo­crats, the gov­ern­ing ju­ni­or part­ner, have said a less strin­gent ap­proach could of­fer se­cur­ity and cost be­ne­fits.

Without nam­ing which com­mis­sion­ers took par­tic­u­lar views, the re­port notes that some mem­bers “be­lieve that CASD should be main­tained for the fore­see­able fu­ture and that we must wait for im­prove­ment in the se­cur­ity en­vir­on­ment” be­fore any re­lax­a­tion in con­tinu­ous nuc­le­ar patrols. Mean­time, oth­er com­mis­sion­ers see no “cur­rent or near fore­see­able stra­tegic mil­it­ary threat to the U.K. and its vi­tal in­terests” that could not be handled by peri­od­ic sub­mar­ine op­er­a­tions, with an op­tion to ramp up patrols in the event of crisis.

Browne, the former Labor de­fense sec­ret­ary among the pan­el co-chairs, ar­tic­u­lated the lat­ter ar­gu­ment in a Feb­ru­ary phone in­ter­view.

“I think there are ques­tions to be raised as to wheth­er, in the mod­ern world, there is a jus­ti­fic­a­tion for us to have [sub­mar­ines] able, con­tinu­ously at sea with nuc­le­ar weapons on board, 24 hours a day, sev­en days a week, in the ab­sence of any threat,” he told Glob­al Se­cur­ity News­wire. “We are in an al­li­ance [with nuc­le­ar-armed Wash­ing­ton and Par­is] in which at any giv­en time, we have six boats at sea “¦ [and] all on the basis, de­pend­ing on who you be­lieve, that if we [Bri­tain] stop do­ing this [CASD], we will lose the abil­ity to do it forever, which I think is un­likely.”

His Tory party co-chair, Ri­f­kind, voiced an op­pos­ing view last fall.

“I think we should con­tin­ue with con­tinu­ous at-sea de­terrence, [or] CASD,” he said in a Lon­don in­ter­view in late Septem­ber. “We have as a mat­ter of policy over the last 25 years re­duced our nuc­le­ar weapons to the ab­so­lute min­im­um re­quired. “¦ If we were mov­ing away from CASD, by defin­i­tion that means that for sig­ni­fic­ant peri­ods of time, there would be no ef­fect­ive de­terrent in the event of a sud­den emer­gency.”

Sir Nick Har­vey, a Lib­er­al Demo­crat in the U.K. Par­lia­ment who kicked off a ma­jor gov­ern­ment study of Tri­dent-mod­ern­iz­a­tion al­tern­at­ives in 2011 when he was min­is­ter of state for the armed forces, told GSN last year that Bri­tain’s sub­mar­ine-based nuc­le­ar force could re­main a strong de­terrent even if kept in port for long stretches. Ex­er­cises at sea could be done reg­u­larly without war­heads on board, he ar­gued.

“I’m not say­ing we should get rid of our nuc­le­ar cap­ab­il­ity,” he said in a late-Septem­ber Skype in­ter­view from his dis­trict of­fice in North Devon. “I’m say­ing we should sus­tain the sub­mar­ine as a plat­form; the mis­sile as a de­liv­ery sys­tem; the war­head tech­no­logy; and, the highly skilled, highly ex­er­cised crew. And we should ad­opt a pos­ture [in] which would be able to put it all to­geth­er and rearm it at short no­tice, in case the se­cur­ity as­sess­ment should change.”

Among the Tri­dent ex­perts re­port­ing this week, “some com­mis­sion­ers feared the de­ploy­ment of four new sub­mar­ines on con­tinu­ous patrol would be an in­crease in “¦ cap­ab­il­ity and could un­der­mine our dip­lo­mat­ic strategy,” ac­cord­ing to a sep­ar­ate “guide” that the BA­SIC or­gan­iz­a­tion is­sued along­side the re­port. “The new sub­mar­ines have much-im­proved re­act­or designs and great­er re­li­ab­il­ity and longev­ity of com­pon­ents al­low­ing for longer re­duced main­ten­ance peri­ods.”

To provide a po­ten­tial open­ing for “cost, tech­no­logy and dip­lo­mat­ic” ad­vant­ages, the pan­el­ists asked wheth­er a delay might be pos­sible — “without sig­ni­fic­antly en­dan­ger­ing na­tion­al se­cur­ity” — in the so-called “Main Gate” U.K. gov­ern­ment de­cision in 2016 on wheth­er to pro­ceed with re­pla­cing the Van­guard sub­mar­ines with newly built Suc­cessor ves­sels.

“We re­com­mend the gov­ern­ment as­sess the key in­flu­en­cing factors, and the costs and be­ne­fits of re­lated op­tions, and pub­licly re­port their tech­nic­al as­sess­ment in ad­vance” of the de­term­in­a­tion in two years, the re­port reads.

“The re­cent de­cision this year to re­fuel the ex­ist­ing Van­guards may [ex­tend] their ex­pec­ted life by sev­er­al years, al­low­ing fur­ther delay with min­im­al risk to patrolling cap­ab­il­it­ies,” ac­cord­ing to the BA­SIC guide ac­com­pa­ny­ing the main re­port.

In their doc­u­ment, the Tri­dent com­mis­sion­ers ap­peared to agree more when it came to oth­er ideas for ad­van­cing non­pro­lif­er­a­tion and dis­arm­a­ment.

The U.K. gov­ern­ment, the doc­u­ment says, should ex­plore “fur­ther trans­par­ency and veri­fic­a­tion meas­ures, treaty-based com­mit­ments to con­trol and re­duce stocks of fis­sile ma­ter­i­als and their means of pro­duc­tion, and re­frain­ing from cer­tain forms of de­vel­op­ment or mod­ern­iz­a­tion.”

Paul In­gram, BA­SIC’s ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or, said in a phone in­ter­view from Lon­don late last week that he would urge Lon­don to take a bolder lead­er­ship role in spur­ring nuc­le­ar dis­arm­a­ment and non­pro­lif­er­a­tion than the Tri­dent Com­mis­sion ul­ti­mately em­braced.

“In the end, it comes down to a cal­cu­la­tion which in­volves the value of nuc­le­ar weapons in na­tion­al se­cur­ity strategy against the con­tri­bu­tions of strength­en­ing glob­al non­pro­lif­er­a­tion norms,” he said. As a mem­ber of the per­man­ent five mem­bers of the U.N. Se­cur­ity Coun­cil, “Bri­tain does have a lead­er­ship role which it can­not wash its hands of. And that role is about cre­at­ing the con­di­tions for glob­al co­oper­a­tion and in­ter­na­tion­al re­gimes that lock us in­to a more stable re­la­tion­ship.”

Browne ar­gued in the in­ter­view earli­er this year that it is “in­dis­put­able” that “we are not even at the be­gin­ning of deal­ing with the com­plex­it­ies of the chal­lenges and threats that our use and de­vel­op­ment of tech­no­logy is gen­er­at­ing.”

In today’s se­cur­ity en­vir­on­ment, “we need to think long and hard as to why we would com­mit fu­ture gen­er­a­tions to re­ly­ing upon a stra­tegic de­fense sys­tem that served us well in a bi­polar — sort of bi­cen­tric — world, as op­posed to the kind of mul­ti­centric world that we live in, with all the soph­ist­ic­a­tion of these threats” and oth­er glob­al chal­lenges, he said.

In­gram said his or­gan­iz­a­tion has not yet spelled out its own re­com­men­ded al­tern­at­ives to mov­ing for­ward with re­pla­cing all four of the U.K. Tri­dent sub­mar­ines and main­tain­ing the 24/7 sea patrols. Rather, the group seeks to spark pub­lic in­terest and de­bate that could lead to a broad­er ex­plor­a­tion of nuc­le­ar-pos­ture al­tern­at­ives, he said.

“[These] ques­tions are un­com­fort­able for all of us, no mat­ter where we lie in the de­bate,” In­gram said. “And they ought to be [un­com­fort­able], be­cause these are nasty weapons that we don’t want in the hands of every­body — and, if you ask some of us, in the hands of any­body.”

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