Trident Alternatives Review complicates defence investment prospects

Trident Alternatives Review complicates defence investment prospects

On July 13th HM Government released a report, the “Trident Alternatives Review”, assessing the future of Britain’s nuclear deterrent. While the “concept phase” for a replacement for Trident, the current British programme for development, procurement and operation of nuclear weapons, has been ongoing since 2007, disagreements within the coalition government have led to a delay of the final decision on any replacement system until 2016. That decision will have significant consequences for investment, trade and development in British defence industries.

The Conservative party insists that the only acceptable replacement for Trident is a like-for-like system that would maintain the current policy of “continuous at sea deterrence” (CASD)—or maintaining a nuclear-armed submarine on patrol at all times. This requires a minimum of four submarines, with one at sea on operational patrol, one docked and ready to deploy at short notice in the event of an incident to the primary patrol ship and two docked for refit or deployment on training maneuvers.

However, the Liberal Democrats argue that given the reduced international tensions and current economic climate, submarine or air-based options, cheaper in the long-term, should be considered. Such options include cutting the submarine fleet to three or two submarines and ending CASD, or replacing the current Trident II D-5 missile system entirely with a sea- or air-delivered cruise missile system.

The Trident Alternatives Review does not make comfortable reading for supporters of phasing out Trident in favour of a cruise missile system. The final costs of the cruise missile system (with a standard 50 percent confidence estimate) range in cost as listed below:

  • £24 billion for an air-launched stealth cruise missile system based on six generic large aircraft
  • £25 billion for an air-launched supersonic cruise missile system based on 36 Lockheed Martin F35-B Short Takeoff/Vertical Landing fighters
  • £25 billion for a combination of a sea-launched stealth cruise missile system based on three Astute-class SSNs and a Trident II D-5 platform based on two replacements for the Vanguard-class SSBNs
  • £28 billion for a sea-launched stealthy cruise missile system based on five Astute-class SSNs

This contrasts to Trident-based solutions:

  • £20 billion for a Trident II D-5 platform based on four replacements for the Vanguard-class SSBNs (the proposal favoured by the Conservatives)
  • £18 billion for a Trident II D-5 platform based on three replacements for the Vanguard-class SSBNs (the proposal favoured by the Liberal Democrats)

Other alternatives, such a gravity bomb system or a ground-launched ICBM system, were discounted in the review due to their unacceptable costs and their vulnerability in comparison to ballistic-missile submarines and cruise missile based systems.

The greater price in the short term for any cruise missile system can be explained by two factors. First, the cost of developing and manufacturing an alternative warhead based on the already in-service Trident II D-5 is approximately £4 billion. To develop and manufacture an entirely new missile and warhead for any cruise missile system would cost more than double, at £8-10 billion. Second, to maintain Britain’s nuclear deterrent past the life cycle of the current Vanguard-class SSBNs would require two replacements for the Vanguard-class SSBN to be ordered to provide a “stop-gap”, while any cruise missile system was developed and rolled out for deployment.

Any cruise missile based system would also face issues with deployment. Due to the shorter range of any cruise missile based system, the obstacles in terms of third-party agreements for forward basing (for air-launched options) or operating in territorial waters (for sea-launched options) would increase the operational complexity of the system by orders of magnitude. This could potentially endanger Britain’s credibility to deter any aggressor unilaterally in all possible circumstances.

While the report comes out hard against any cruise missile based system, the argument between CASD and an alternative nuclear posture is far less clear-cut. The review analyses several non-CASD nuclear postures:

  • Maintaining a “Normally-CASD” submarine fleet, but accepting an increased risk in incidents or mishaps that could interrupt CASD for short periods.
  • Building a “CASD-capable” submarine fleet which could maintain CASD for a significant (but not indefinite) period during times of increased tension.
  • Building the replacement for the Vanguard-class SSBN as a “dual-role” submarine, which would have a reduced ballistic missile capacity (four tubes compared to twelve), but which could undertake both conventional and nuclear deterrence duties.
  • Abandoning regular deployment completely, while maintaining an effective deterrent capacity that could be deployed at short notice.

Any reduced readiness posture would leave Britain more vulnerable to a surprise nuclear attack (the “bolt from the blue” so feared by Cold War nuclear strategists), but if the British government is confident that such an attack is  unlikely, an alternative nuclear posture to CASD would be both viable and would allow for a reduction in Britain’s SSBN fleet.

The Trident Alternatives Review will not lay the issue of the future of Britain’s nuclear deterrent to rest. Both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats have already cherry-picked the sections of the review that support their position, and the review itself does not make any specific recommendations. The Scottish independence referendum in 2014 may also throw a spanner in the works as the Scottish National Party have long expressed their intent to close down the SSBN base in Faslane in the event of a “yes” vote.

Moving the nuclear submarine base to any other port would almost certainly add tens of years and billions of pounds to the time and cost of replacing Britain’s nuclear deterrent and perhaps put a cruise missile system back on the table. Ultimately, the real value of the Trident Alternatives Review may be to highlight just how difficult the road ahead will be. Investors and contractors in the defence industry should follow these developments closely.

Categories: Europe, Security

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