Latest post on Left Futures

Conventional warheads on Trident actually might make sense

Trident II missile (US Defense Dept)Jeremy Corbyn’s suggestion that Britain could profitably employ Vanguard class submarines armed with Trident missiles, using conventional warheads, but with potential nuclear capability could make a great deal of military and political sense. The British state has a responsibility to protect the safety of citizens, deter and prevent attacks on British territory, and defend legitimate British interests at home and overseas, so there does need to be a debate about the weapons systems appropriate to those tasks, and one of the disappointing aspects of the debate over Trident has been the lack of substantive arguments from advocates of UK nuclear weapons of why they are the best option for meeting the state’s defence objectives.

The US Admiral Dennis Blair, a former head of Naval Intelligence and at one time Obama’s Director of Intelligence, once remarked that the chances of a nuclear war between China and the USA is between nil and zero.

In contrast, India faces a clear danger of nuclear war from Pakistan. Yet both China and India not only have an explicit “no first use” policy, but their nuclear arsenals are on de-alert status, whereby the warheads are not only not fitted to the delivery systems, but are stored separately. Israel goes one step further, and does not even have its nuclear weapons assembled, and has never conducted a test.

Ever since the USSR first tested a nuclear bomb in 1949 the world has faced the possibility of war between two nuclear armed powers. The stakes got higher once hydrogen bombs were invented, with their smaller size and apocalyptic destructive power. Whilst mutually assured destruction (MAD) might ensure that no rational government would use nuclear weapons, and they have not been used for 70 years, the danger has always been present that one side would develop a technical capability for a first strike that would disable the other side’s ability to respond, potentially forcing the side with weaker capability into the “use them or lose them” dilemma. Targeting the nuclear weapons of another power is referred to as “counterforce”, and the arms race over the last decades has been focused on escalating counterforce and measures to defend from counterforce, and ensure force survivability. This is the first strike scenario, and both the USA and Russia have felt themselves compelled towards a growing and increasingly diverse arsenal to target each other’s nuclear weapons, and develop new delivery methods that frustrate the oppositions counterforce, for example , increasing throw-weight and penetration, extending time to detection, and shortening time to target; meanwhile there has been an equivalent effort in defence, by hardening, dispersing or moving launch sites, and with ever more sophisticated readers for early detection and distinguishing between decoys and attacks.

Those weapons that survive counterforce are used for the second strike, or deterrent phase, which euphemistically targets “countervalue” – or civilian population centres.

One problem of such a second strike capability for the UK government is that clearly it is contrary to Protocol 1, Article 48, of the treaty signed by the UK in 1977, additional to the Geneva Conventions, and particularly article 51, which states

The civilian population as such, as well as individual civilians, shall not be the object of attack. Acts or threats of violence the primary purpose of which is to spread terror among the civilian population are prohibited.

But more practically, the UK’s nuclear capability is only credible as an adjunct to the larger nuclear capability of NATO, effectively that of the USA. To adopt the terminology of Admiral Blair, the risk of a countervalue first strike against the UK by a state actor is between nil and zero. (If a non state actor was in possession of nuclear weapons, then a nuclear response would have no target, and would therefore be no deterrent). Yet if the UK had no nuclear capability, it would not be a possible target for counterforce.

The unresolved issue therefore is whether a UK government would use its own nuclear weapons as a second strike response to a Russian counterforce strike against American targets, due to NATO obligations. Were they to do so, that UK government would be inviting a nuclear attack against UK civilian targets even though the UK had not suffered a nuclear attack.

Given that there is no credible nuclear threat to the UK, why does Britain maintain a continuous, sea based, on-alert nuclear capability, when India and China – for example – do not.

This raises a further complication of UK’s position. each Trident missile carries about 12 multiple, individual warheads (MIRVs) and would be a formidable second strike weapon. But it also has a dangerous first strike capability.

In the 1980s the INF treaty eliminated most STOF (short time of flight) weapons, because in a first strike scenario they reduce the thinking time of the defending party from minutes to seconds, thus greatly increasing the risks of accidental nuclear war. However, when used in Depressed Trajectory (DT) mode, Trident itself becomes a STOF weapon, and as a submarine launched system (SLBM) the point of origin would be unpredictable. A Trident missile has a 7 minute flight time, or shorter, to hit targets in Russia.

The UK’s insistence on having a permanent seaborne presence with armed, first strike capable weapons is therefore potentially a dangerous source of instability.

So what of Corbyn’s suggestion? It is worth understanding that within NATO a number of states which do not have nuclear weapons of their own have a nuclear capability of carrying US warheads in specially adapted aircraft, with specialist trained crews. It is therefore a credible position that the UK could maintain a delivery system potentially compatible with US warheads.

In addition, a number of states, such as Canada and Japan, possess fissile material, dual use nuclear or conventional delivery systems, and the technical capability to develop warheads. For one of the current nuclear armed states, like the UK, to step back from current and live capability to the status of only nuclear potentiality would still leave national defence options open for the future, while propelling major momentum towards non-proliferation. Indeed one of the biggest problems of the UK’s current stance is that if we believe that Britain (that anticipates no currently foreseeable, credible risk of attack) needs nuclear weapons, then states with clear and present threats surely have an even more compelling case.

However, whether or not Trident will have a nuclear warhead is not even a decision that needs to be made currently. The so-called “Main-Gate” decision to place orders for the Vanguard submarines is due for 2016, while the decision on the warheads is not scheduled until 2019. If a credible case can be made for Vanguard and Trident acquisition without committing to nuclear warheads, then the divisive issue of replacing the warheads is postponed because even those opposed to a new generation of British nuclear warheads could still support the building of the Vanguard submarines, thus also securing the associated jobs.

Indeed, the STOF and MIRV capability of Trident means that they are capable of defeating even highly effective air defence, and armed with conventional warheads they could be used in extreme circumstances for national defence, whereas with nuclear warheads they could never be used. As Ronald Reagan said “nuclear war can never be won, and must never be fought”

14 Comments

  1. John Penney says:

    The idea that there is any sort of sense in spending up to £100billion on a few super dooper submarines intended to be launch platforms for nuclear weapons – and then fitting high explosive warheads on them, defies belief !

    I’m all for Keynsian job creation programmes – but to use scarce financial and human skill resources on this scale to build these white elephant submarines – and presumably carry on with the two giant white elephant aircraft carriers too (the ones that can only launch the now widely acknowledged to be disastrously crap US built vertical take off version of the F35 fighter), is no more than a joke.

    The UK is desperately short of a wide range of basic naval vessels , and all sorts of pretty basic equipment for the army too. Redirected even a portion of the funding from the ludicrous Trident programme, and the completely useless mega carrier programme , could equip our armed forces adequately for real missions we might encounter in the future.

    As it is, Labour promising to continue with Trident ( a completely unusable weapons system), and the mega carrier programme (a completely crap project technically – and unusable without being totally integrated into a US carrier protection fleet), would show a craven kowtowing to the short term pressures and narrow horizons of a handful of trades unions . The skilled workers and financial and productive resources tied up with Trident, and the carriers need to be redeployed to more useful purposes (and some of these are actually still weapons systems – but more sensible ones – like fishery protection vessels).

    The daft idea Jeremy floated over the weekend is the worst of all possible worlds. The “Japanese option” doesn’t actually mean building submarines at vast cost which don’t have nukes on board. It just means we retain the technological knowhow to build such weapons systems in the unlikely event they are needed. And in any case – the cruise missiles many of our non-Trident submarines can launch from their torpedo tubes can carry small nuclear warheads. The knowledge that we could potentially fit nukes to these cruise missiles would be a perfectly adequate deterrent against some tenth rate power like… like who ? North Korea ? The idea we would ever go head to head with a major nuclear power like China or Russia is barmy.

    There is a powerful Left argument for abandoning Trident – its strategic folly, and its mega cost at a time that the NHS is facing collapse. Suggesting spending this cash, and skilled labour, on a daft submarine fleet without nuclear weapons, to pacify a few unions, is political nonsense.

    1. Peter Rowlands says:

      I often disagree with John Penney, but I think that he ia absolutely right here and in what he says in the subsequent debate with Andy Newman, albeit well informed on both sides.

  2. Andy Newman says:

    to use scarce financial and human skill resources on this scale to build these white elephant submarines

    The skills and engineering and manufacturing capability would be lost of they are not used. If the skills and capacity base is maintained then ir remains available for future projects.

    Developing weapons systems just to ensure that a technology gap does not open is a well understood phenomenon, for example China’s development of the neutron bomb, which was then deliberately never weaponised nor deployed.

    The early part of the 20th century saw a great powers arms race over battleships, which were a weapon system that proved itself to have almost no military value, despite their popularity with jingoist journalists, politicians and small boys everywhere. Nevertheless, those states which developed and maintained the capability for battleship construction were the the states which developed the highly effective weapons system of aircraft carriers.

    The idea we would ever go head to head with a major nuclear power like China or Russia is barmy.

    China’s nuclear capablity is on a par with the UK’s. We have 180 warheads, and Trident renewal is designed to reduce that to 160.
    China has less than 300. What is more, China has a long established “no first use” policy. There is no prospect of Britain ever having a nuclear war with China.

    You are of course right that the UK could never survive a nuclear war with Russia, but then neither could the USA.

  3. Andy Newman says:

    And in any case – the cruise missiles many of our non-Trident submarines can launch from their torpedo tubes can carry small nuclear warheads. The knowledge that we could potentially fit nukes to these cruise missiles would be a perfectly adequate deterrent

    No, they don’t have that capability. The RN has Tomahawk Land Attack Cruise Missile (TLAM) cruise missiles that are not nuclear capable. It is not clear that the UK has the capability to convert them.

    The Tomahawk is a relatively established weapons system, that originally had a separate variant, the TLAM-N

    The U.S. Navy originally planned to buy 758 TLAM-N missiles, but only procured 367 which were decommissioned in President George Bush in 1991.

    The US Nuclear Posture Review (2010) moved to eliminate the TLAM-N altogether, so you are suggesting that we seek to acquire a discontinued weapons system from the USA?

    The main point is that the TLAM-N is regarded as a non-strategic, ie, they are tactical nuclear weapons.

    Your suggestion would be a significantly more belligerent posture than the UK has ever previously taken, of possessing nuclear weapons that could be deployed tactically in battlefield situations. This would I believe by a clear breach of the UK’s obligations under the NPT treaties we have signed, and would also be contrary to the 2007 parliamentary decision (included in the vote to renew Trident) to further the cause of non-proliferation.

    This would put the UK at the very forefront of those dangerous actors seeking to lower the threshold at which nuclear weapons could be used.

  4. John Penney says:

    You are having to twist the logic to breaking point with this stuff, Andy ! The only point that matters of curse is that , to suck up to a couple of craft unions, you want to continue to build fully nuke missile capable submarines, that could be armed in no time at all to take the Trident missiles as originally intended after a change in government – and you are cheekily trying to suggest I am the one lowering the threshold for nuclear war ! Brass neck time.

    Your entire “tactical” and “strategic” designation distinction of nuclear weapons is a Cold war era , bipolar conflict War Gaming con, Andy. The fact is that as soon as a major power lobs a nuke of any sort , either “battlefield tactical” or “strategic” at a major power adversary – its all out thermonuclear war. Though this is not the same when deterring a minor rogue state with only a few weapons available of course – the only realistic reason for the UK having any small stock of “deterrent” nukes . You are just playing the armchair cold war general game with your Cold War bogus distinctions.

    Actually, I’m not really that keen to make the effort to convert our existing submarine launched cruise missiles to a nuke warhead capability – and you certainly have no idea whether that is possible or not.
    But given that nuclear weapons have existed for decades that can fit into artillery shells (or apparently a small suitcase, or land mine casings) it is not credible that the UK cruise missile stock couldn’t be retrofitted by our scientists with a small nuclear warhead. Anyway the whole point of ” nuclear deterrence” is a huge bluff – for a weapon that can never be used – so merely stating in the press that the UK has engineered a nuclear warhead for its cruise missiles is perfectly adequate to provide “deterrence” to a “rogue state” with a tiny arsenal !

    I find your statement about the UK historically having no “battlefield nuclear capability” a mystery. We used to have free-fall nuclear bombs , and the navy used to even have nuclear depth charges. Those looked pretty “battlefield tactical” to me.

    But this is all armchair general posturing from the “Boys Own book of nuclear weapons and Cold war “MAD” strategy” , Andy. What you are suggesting , at a time when the NHS is collapsing, and we need to invest in millions of new and refurbished council houses, and a wide range of key “green” infrastructure projects, is that the UK squanders £Billions , and ties up some of our most skilled workers, producing a completely worthless Cold War era weapons system.

    Your entire cynical tactical motive for doing this is to kowtow to a few key craft unions – who should instead be actively researching more socially useful high tech projects for the redeployment of these workers for the wider public good – rather than demanding the building of new weapons of mass destruction – for their own narrow sectional interests.

    The “building of submarines with no Nuke warheads” ruse, is of course no real contribution to nuclear disarmament . A new Tory , or more right wing Labour led, government, could quickly fit the designated nuke warheads . By advocating the building of the submarine delivery system for Trident , with the ludicrous proviso that this wouldn’t carry nuke warheads (for now), but would “safeguard our UK engineering prowess” you are simply providing a cynical cover for the military industrial complex and the continuation of the UK as a potential contributor to the end of life on earth .

  5. Andy Newman says:

    Actually, I’m not really that keen to make the effort to convert our existing submarine launched cruise missiles to a nuke warhead capability – and you certainly have no idea whether that is possible or not.

    The conversion is about range and accuracy, the TLAM-N has a 2500 km range and estimated accuracy of is estimated to have an accuracy of 80 m CEP. It has a different navigational and targeting system.

    The TLAM’s in possession of the Royal Navy have a significantly shorter range than that,of about 1600 km.

    it is not credible that the UK cruise missile stock couldn’t be retrofitted by our scientists with a small nuclear warhead.

    As a Heath Robinson lash-up maybe.

    But the reason that there is no current cruise missile variant in production that is nuclear capable is that the land based variants were considered too great a danger for precipitating a nuclear war due to their STOF capablity, so they were banned under the INF treaty, at which points the BGM-109G Gryphon cruise missiles were decommissioned and destroyed, and the seaborne TLAM-N were withdrawn from service.

    So your technical lash up would put the UK in defiance of a successful agreed treaty for multilateral disarmament.

    I find your statement about the UK historically having no “battlefield nuclear capability” a mystery. We used to have free-fall nuclear bombs , and the navy used to even have nuclear depth charges. Those looked pretty “battlefield tactical” to me.

    What I actually said was

    Your suggestion would be a significantly more belligerent posture than the UK has ever previously taken, of possessing nuclear weapons that could be deployed tactically in battlefield situations.

    My point is actually correct, that while the UK did indeed have sub-strategic weapons in the past, for us to now engage in a banned class of delivery system would be an unprecedentedly belligerent stance, and not one that the UK has ever taken, as we would be in defiance of treaty obligations.

    When the UK previously possessed nuclear depth charges and tactical weapons delivered by, for example, Vulcan this was before the de-escalation of tension and withdrawal of the STOF missiles in the INF treaties. The UK’s posture was consistent with overall NATO strategy of the time, and I believe that for example the removal of the class of nuclear depth charge was a multilateral step.

    The “building of submarines with no Nuke warheads” ruse, is of course no real contribution to nuclear disarmament . A new Tory , or more right wing Labour led, government, could quickly fit the designated nuke warheads .

    It is called politics, my friend. Firstly, once an in principle position was made to have no warheads, no continuous at sea, on alert patrols, etc, then that position would have the advantage of inertia, and while it could be reversed, the ball would be in the court of those seeking to reverse the decision. Secondly, having no active warheads would put the UK in a much stronger position regarding non-proliferations. Thirdly, the political conjuncture is not necessarily favourable on the issue, and one thing we have learned from Chavez is that a battle postponed can be a battle won.

    But most significantly, this could maintain the unity of the labour movement, as those who believe we need nuclear warheads can vote in favour of the main gate decision, those who wish the Uk to renounce nuclear weapons can vote in favour of the main gate decision; the divisive issue is postponed until the UK needs to make a firm decision over the warheads. but the momentum would be with the disarmers.

  6. Andy Newman says:

    this is all armchair general posturing from the “Boys Own book of nuclear weapons and Cold war “MAD” strategy”

    As Sir William Butler wrote in his biography of General Gordon The nation that will insist upon drawing a broad line of demarcation between the fighting man and the thinking man is liable to find it fighting done by fools, and its thinking by cowards”

    The only way to hold the military to account politically is to seek to understand it.

  7. stewart says:

    i would suggest this to corbyn,nuke,subs without nukes is crazy.so why dont we think outside the box and come to compromise,lets have the nuke sub without nukes on board to keep employment,i agree with that,but why not in the time of war lease a few nukes out of the yanks 10,000 stockpile to threaten those countrys who threaten us with nukes as a deterrent,think how much money we could save with my proposal and get corbyn out of this trap the torys has set him.what do you think jeremy about my idea.my get you out of this hole mate.

  8. David Ellis says:

    There are no depths to which Andy Newman will not sink which hopefully is the fate of this stupid idea.

  9. Wolf Baginski says:

    The history of the RN’s Astute class submarines is a strong argument for continuing to build nuclear submarines, and the Vanguard class is one way of doing that. Obviously, we could build more Astute class submarines instead, or a new class of SSN.

    It seems more than a bit stupid to have Trident missiles with an HE warhead, but the idea does lead to question of what nuclear weapons are really for.

    At least we don’t have a psychopath such as Ian Duncan-Smith being followed around by a guy with a suitcase full of launch codes. Ever wondered why he scared the Tories enough for them to kick him out of the leadership before an election?

  10. Laurie Rhodes says:

    Trident missiles (which is the whole point of the Vanguard-class fleet & its replacement) can be fitted with a conventional payload although the big problem highlighted with this approach is the risk of misinterpretation by a foreign power that a nuclear attack has been launched. In that sense, it’s more dangerous than leaving the existing missiles intact.

    Until now, the debate scheduled for 2016 was over the number of replacement submarines to be commissioned. That question has been completely dropped from discussion as headlines are “accidentally” constructed suggesting Labour is mooting submarines “without missiles” or missiles “without warheads”. The existing warheads for the Trident missiles are not due for replacement until the 2030’s so their existence doesn’t factor as part of the debate over replacing the aging fleet. Labour is also committed to ensuring the existing high-tech manufacturing element of the defence programme are not obliterated.

    Trident is a trap. The nuclear deterrent, as with the success of the free-market, are long repeated mantras that are now deeply rooted in “common sense” while passionately rejected by a large number of Labour activists. With rational discussion the flaws with both ideas can be demonstrated but any chance of such an open public debate must be almost non-existent. Keynes once said our challenge is to replace common sense with good sense… something much easier said than done.

    At this point in time, unilateral nuclear disarmament is neither Labour policy, accepted by the public or scheduled for debate in Commons. It would be a principled position for Labour to take but will be another long grind to win over public opinion in the face of a hostile establishment.

    The discussion that will occur in Commons is if Britain would commission three or four new submarines. I would have thought the better attack for the party is questioning how many capital cities Britain must be able to nuke simultaneously and if four submarines really makes sense in light of the other problems facing the nation?

  11. Andy Newman says:

    Trident missiles (which is the whole point of the Vanguard-class fleet & its replacement) can be fitted with a conventional payload although the big problem highlighted with this approach is the risk of misinterpretation by a foreign power that a nuclear attack has been launched. In that sense, it’s more dangerous than leaving the existing missiles intact.

    Exactly the same problem used to exist with Tomahawk cruise missiles, which had an extended range variant the TLAM-N for carrying nuclear missiles, but most variants were conventionally armed.

    It is even more the case with aircraft, for example the current nuke carrying aircraft of choice in NATO is a specially adapted variant of the general purpose F35.

  12. Glasgow Working Class says:

    Goodness me Andy Newman posts on other blogs without the wee clock and being censored. Help ma boab.

  13. Glasgow Working Class says:

    Newman is not a friendly.

© 2020 Left Futures | Powered by WordPress | theme originated from PrimePress by Ravi Varma