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
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.”

What We're Following See More »
When It Comes to Mining Asteroids, Technology Is Only the First Problem
1 days ago

Foreign Policy takes a look at the future of mining the estimated "100,000 near-Earth objects—including asteroids and comets—in the neighborhood of our planet. Some of these NEOs, as they’re called, are small. Others are substantial and potentially packed full of water and various important minerals, such as nickel, cobalt, and iron. One day, advocates believe, those objects will be tapped by variations on the equipment used in the coal mines of Kentucky or in the diamond mines of Africa. And for immense gain: According to industry experts, the contents of a single asteroid could be worth trillions of dollars." But the technology to get us there is only the first step. Experts say "a multinational body might emerge" to manage rights to NEOs, as well as a body of law, including an international court.

Obama Reflects on His Economic Record
1 days ago

Not to be outdone by Jeffrey Goldberg's recent piece in The Atlantic about President Obama's foreign policy, the New York Times Magazine checks in with a longread on the president's economic legacy. In it, Obama is cognizant that the economic reality--73 straight months of growth--isn't matched by public perceptions. Some of that, he says, is due to a constant drumbeat from the right that "that denies any progress." But he also accepts some blame himself. “I mean, the truth of the matter is that if we had been able to more effectively communicate all the steps we had taken to the swing voter,” he said, “then we might have maintained a majority in the House or the Senate.”

Reagan Families, Allies Lash Out at Will Ferrell
1 days ago

Ronald Reagan's children and political allies took to the media and Twitter this week to chide funnyman Will Ferrell for his plans to play a dementia-addled Reagan in his second term in a new comedy entitled Reagan. In an open letter, Reagan's daughter Patti Davis tells Ferrell, who's also a producer on the movie, “Perhaps for your comedy you would like to visit some dementia facilities. I have—I didn’t find anything comedic there, and my hope would be that if you’re a decent human being, you wouldn’t either.” Michael Reagan, the president's son, tweeted, "What an Outrag....Alzheimers is not joke...It kills..You should be ashamed all of you." And former Rep. Joe Walsh called it an example of "Hollywood taking a shot at conservatives again."

Clinton No Longer Running Primary Ads
1 days ago

In a sign that she’s ready to put a longer-than-ex­pec­ted primary battle be­hind her, former Sec­ret­ary of State Hil­lary Clin­ton (D) is no longer go­ing on the air in up­com­ing primary states. “Team Clin­ton hasn’t spent a single cent in … Cali­for­nia, In­di­ana, Ken­tucky, Ore­gon and West Vir­gin­ia, while” Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-VT) “cam­paign has spent a little more than $1 mil­lion in those same states.” Meanwhile, Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Sanders’ "lone back­er in the Sen­ate, said the can­did­ate should end his pres­id­en­tial cam­paign if he’s los­ing to Hil­lary Clin­ton after the primary sea­son con­cludes in June, break­ing sharply with the can­did­ate who is vow­ing to take his in­sur­gent bid to the party con­ven­tion in Phil­adelphia.”

Movie Based on ‘Clinton Cash’ to Debut at Cannes
1 days ago

The team behind the bestselling "Clinton Cash"—author Peter Schweizer and Breitbart's Stephen Bannon—is turning the book into a movie that will have its U.S. premiere just before the Democratic National Convention this summer. The film will get its global debut "next month in Cannes, France, during the Cannes Film Festival. (The movie is not a part of the festival, but will be shown at a screening arranged for distributors)." Bloomberg has a trailer up, pointing out that it's "less Ken Burns than Jerry Bruckheimer, featuring blood-drenched money, radical madrassas, and ominous footage of the Clintons."