The nuclear deterrent and reasons for its replacement

Discussion in 'Royal Navy' started by jim30, Apr 6, 2013.

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    From Guns

    This post from jim30 is repeated from the current affairs section on nuclear deterrent. This thread is intended for debate on the RNs role as the main guardian of the nuclear deterrent. The thread will be robustly moderated to keep it on track and is to allow debate and discussion on the RNs role. If your post is deleted PM Guns for explanation.

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    This post is designed to provide a short guide to the components of the UK nuclear deterrent, and to explain what it consists of and why it is being replaced in the way that it is.

    Firstly the submarines themselves – There are four in service, and these need replacing in the 2025 timeframe as they will be too old to continue and be certain of availability to meet the needs of the deterrent patrol schedule. Due to the nature of their design, it is not possible to extend their service life beyond a fixed point without risking continuous deterrent cover. This is the primary requirement to replace.
    We need to start construction soon as the sole yard in the UK capable of nuclear submarine construction will complete work on its existing order book within the next 5-10 years. At this point without new orders skills will be lost and it will delay replacement on the existing class – placing deterrence at risk.

    Secondly you need to update the warheads to ensure they are safe when not required, and can deliver an instant dose of sunshine when needed. This is ridiculously complex and requires a range of rocket scientists who have more letters after their name than Jarrod's had lovers. This process is an ongoing one, but will take a lot of time and money to keep going. The problem is if you mothball it then suddenly restarting it proves problematic. Once the skills are lost then it becomes very difficult, if not impossible to replace them One thing AWE has done well recently is recruit young grads - the US hasn't and they have recently woken up to the fact their rocket scientists are very old and do you really want someone who can't remember what he had for breakfast fiddling about with a nuclear weapon?

    Thirdly, you need to maintain the delivery mechanism - this is about ensuring Trident is fit for purpose. Trident as the rocket will continue till the 2040s - we will then help develop and buy whatever the US goes for as a replacement system then. This needs perhaps the least amount of updating. The problem is that people think Trident, and assume we're buying new rockets too. It’s worth noting the new submarines are designed to carry both existing Trident and the likely next generation rocket too.

    Finally you need to maintain the security and assurance of the Nuclear Firing Chain. Essentially we need to invest in the command, control and communications networks necessary to ensure that we know where the bomber is, that we know where the threats to the bomber may be lurking and have adequate means to deal with them. We then need to have the ability to ensure that when the PM requests a nuclear strike and CDS orders it (important distinction there), that the Nuclear Firing Chain is able to communicate the message in appropriate length of time to the bomber who can in turn deliver the package. Again, this is expensive and ongoing and often forgotten about. One reason why we are investing in Hydrography, MCMV, ASW frigates and SSNs is in part to ensure the surety of the Nuclear Firing Chain.

    One other point - I will scream loudly the next time someone suggests 'why don't we just use cruise missiles'. The simple reason above all else is that there are no nuclear tipped TLAMs in use anymore and we'd have to develop a new miniaturised warhead to merge with the technology. We'd then need an entirely new set of warheads, C2 measures and also other requirements. The cost would be vastly more than just keeping Trident. The use of SSNs has often been mooted, but consistently rejected as being vastly more expensive, and far less reliable than an SSBN.

    The use of Land bases and Air bases have also been considered and rejected for a couple of reasons. Firstly, there are few places in the UK where you could safely put a silo and if you did, then it is a very large fixed target which is far easier to deny. The US and Russian missilefields are spread out over hundreds of square miles of land, with redundant silos to make it harder to work out where the Missiles are currently situated. The UK hasn’t got the space to do anything similar. This, plus the lack of a land based missile in production at present means we'd have to design a system from scratch to do the job. The design and construction costs, plus that of actually building the silos would be vast.
    An air based deterrent would require procuring a bomber capability that we don’t have, and an extensive new tanker fleet. This is additional to the procurement of a new weapon which can deliver a strategic warhead at a safe distance and still hit the target . One reason for the RAF getting out of the Strategic game was the lack of a long term long range missile system. We’d have to probably design one from scratch, and the cost would be vast. Also there are issues attached to the massive increase of airbases needed and the bigger vulnerability of the force. It’s also worth noting that the current UK boats reportedly deploy with up to 40 warheads onboard – this is no dissimilar to the RAF V Force capability of the early 1960s, which required multiple aircraft squadrons and a couple of dozen airbases available to disperse to if required. As of next year, the RAF will be operating fast jets from exactly three air bases.

    One very final point - I will also scream very loudly if someone tells me that we cannot fire without US permission. As I (and others) have hinted at in the past here - the system can work and will work without the US. I have yet to meet anyone who has worked on and briefed on how the NFC really works who would post such garbage. Those who suggest we cannot fire it are not properly briefed and do not know what they are talking about.
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  2. Interesting and informative post, thanks.
  3. Good post. Thanks particularly for the last paragraph, as I was having this argument just a few days ago with a colleague.
  4. Not entirely factual regarding the multiple airbases bit. Having deployed with the 70s V force to numerous landing strips around the world with the mighty Vulcan it is quite surprising how little kit other than fuel stocks was needed to project instant sunshine.
  5. But how many of those strips would be available today, especially to an aircraft carrying Nukes?
  6. Grumpy - its not so much the kit thats the issue, its the dispersal to avoid the force being taken out in one attack. The plans for the V Force revolved around its dispersal in the UK to over 24 airbases in the event of a problem. Most of them have since been closed.
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  7. And further to existing, how many of those strips relied on either colonial territory we no longer possess or the territory of nations no longer friendly to us?

    Sent via Heliograph from the Jebel Birkenhead
  8. don't think that we'd be better off with the RAF being responsible for the Strategic Deterrent do you? If you're going to do it, and that's the real debate, there's only one way to do it. The one we currently use.
  9. Yeah, if you have 24 Nuclear Capable air bases then that is sorted with 24 tactical nukes in a simultaneous strike. The Oceans however...
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  10. No the RN do a fab job, however, the V force never needed much once the beast was tooled up apart from some fuel, basic spares and a runway that could take it.
  11. Where does the figure of 24 Nuclear Capable air bases come from?
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  12. seaweed

    seaweed LE Book Reviewer

    As ACAB correctly observes, any land-based alternative positively invites a pre-emptive strike. The key to this sort of deterrence is the impossibility of this, secured by having the active component anywhere in the 2/3 of the world's surface that is covered by sea. Also, dispersal outside the UK would be rather a clear statement of intent, and dispersal within the UK only works out to the range of the aircraft and its weapon and maybe the twenty-four tankers needed to give one solitary aircraft a longer reach. Once it and its tankers have started going chug chug chug on their mission, again the invitation to an ICBM strike is written in rather large letters.

    A further point against asinine ideas that we should chop to a cruise-based alternative, quite apart from those made at the start of this thread, is that ever thereafter any incoming cruise might be assumed to be nuclear-tipped and thus positively attract a nuclear response even though the cruise is not so armed.

    Oh dear, we have been around fatuous ideas about alternatives so many times on ARRSE, and over the last fifty years in the public domain as well, and the answer always comes back to the SSBN.

    Bumping into that Frog one (with all that other sea available) told me two things - these boats are incredibly silent, and we don't share any positional details, nice as that might be for deconfliction.
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  13. IIRC, it was guesstimated back at the height of the Cold War, that 200 decent sized airbursts on a grid would effectively wipe out the UK as a functioning entity.

    It was one of the key arguments against Cruise in the UK at the time. all the Soviets had to do was overlay a 20 mile grid centred over the storage bunkers, drop a 1Mt SS-20 airburst on each intersection, and they would get the lot as they dispersed.
  14. Quoting myself from here:

    There is a real danger here of getting confusing apples, oranges, and other fruits.

    A Typhoon/Rafale/JSF launched cruise missile would not be cheap to develop, nor would it be particularly cheap to design and integrate a warhead - which the UK and France would have to do separately due to things such as the Non Proliferation Treaty and the UK/US Mutual Defence Treaty. Then you have the problem of ambiguity - is launching a conventional cruise missile would look like launching a nuclear one. Additionally many areas of the world are so called nuclear weapon free zones, deploying submarines or aircraft to those parts of the would become problematic and incompatible with a likely policy to neither confirm or deny the presence of nuclear weapons aboard a vessel or at an airbase. Remember how RN and USN ships were unable to visit ports in New Zealand. Now imagine the UK being told that nations are unwilling to allow the deployment of a squadron of jets for the same reason? Similar factors would also apply to SSNs. Look at the trouble the Falklands task group took in 1982 to remove WE177 weapons from frigates and destroyers likely to be in the firing line and in the area covered by such a treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons.

    We need to consider what, instead of who, that we want to deter. If we want to deter a strategic attack against the UK (and allies) then the key factor is survivability. Survivability could be further sub divided into two different aspects.

    1. Surviving a first strike. The bomber (a loose term since it could include cruise missile carriers) sat on the ground is very vulnerable, as is the ICBM in the silo, or the SSBN in port. Bombers can be launched, but realistically how many could be kept ready to scramble at a few minutes notice? Likewise ICBM silos can be targeted by accurate missiles with large warheads, and the UK simply lacks to area to spread missiles out in order to prevent multiple missiles being targeted with a single warhead. The SSBN tied up alongside is even more vulnerable - an SSBN cannot put to sea at a moments notice, move into deep water and submerge in the warning time. Additionally how feasible would it be to have a fully armed boat alongside.

    Deploying the SSBN in a crisis would be potentially destabilising, and prone to misinterpretation. CASD provides a survivable and dependable platform. SSBNs are of course equipped with various sonar to allow them to detect and avoid other vessels, as well as torpedoes and countermeasures to defend themselves. The continual deployment provides to crews with a predictable rhythm.

    Scrapping CASD would be incompatible with SSBN based deterrence.

    2. Surviving the enemy defences. Now the ballistic missile has the edge here as defences against ballistic missiles are not something we need to worry about - much. However, cruise missiles are vulnerable to air defences due to their nature. Remember rogue regimes frequently have very capable integrated air defence systems - look at how much effort was put into defeating Saddam's air defences in 1990/1991.

    Both parts of survivability point towards a SSBN - few things are as survivable as a deployed submarine hiding, and few things as unstoppable as a long range ballistic missile.

    In 1995 BBC2 showed a programme called The Moscow Criterion about the secret (sic) history of Britain’s nuclear weapons, presented by Mark Urban. I would be interested to see it again, but I do not think it is on YouTube. Anyway, he charted the development of the UK deterrent. Initially the V Bomber force intended high altitude penetration of Soviet airspace, but as Soviet fighters and SAMs improved they changed to planning for low altitude operations, hence the change of aircraft painted white to the grey and green scheme. Then the plans changed from using only free fall weapons to carrying the Blue Steel stand off weapon. However, a mass scramble presented problems, so a missile was desired, as the UK was within a few minutes flying time of an incoming strike. But our own land based missile, Blue Streak, was expensive, liquid fuelled and therefore unable to respond instantly, and its deployment would have been problematic.

    Back to the V Force. It was intended to put the Skybolt air launched ballistic missile, but that was cancelled. When that got canned the UK was offered Polaris. However, as soon as Polaris was in RN service, the Soviets started building an ABM system around Moscow, and to avoid upsetting the French at the time of UK entry into the Common Market (sic) turned down the US offer of Poseidon with its MIRVs, and instead upgraded Polaris ourselves. The upgrade, called Chevaline, was late, over budget, and reduced the missiles range considerably, which reduced the SSBNs survivability (the Wikipedia page has a map which shows how the area in which a Polaris SSBN could patrol, and how this was reduced by the upgrade).When the US started developing Trident, the then Prime Minister went to see if the US was willing to let us have it. They were. Thatcher then opted for the current D5 version of Trident.

    With the end of the Cold War, we no longer faced an overwhelming threat from Soviet armoured forces. Trident can perform a sub-strategic (sic) role by virtue of its long range, clever warheads with (allegedly) various yield options, including very low ones, and the improvement in our ability to communicate with submarines due to advances in digital signal processing (which depends on high speed computing, which depends on semiconductor technologies) in recent decades.

    On YouTube you can find an old US documentary from the 70s called First Strike. It is interesting to watch in hindsight - at the time it must have been "sh!t your pants" viewing.

    The recent House of Lords debate showed some worrying assumptions being made, including the idea that we no longer have to worry about other nations, or that deterrence is not possible in a post Cold War world. Yet it is well known that Saddam Hussein had large stocks of chemical and Biological weapons in 1991, but chose not to use them. Why not - after all he had used them against Iran and against the Kurds. A 1996 programme on the Gulf War gave a possible answer - both Israel and the US were capable of nuclear retaliation.

    Additionally, there was pie in the sky talk of a nuclear weapon free world. Nice idea, but what happens when a rogue regime develops them and there is no counter to the threat they pose. What if Saddam had a few nuclear weapons in 1991, and threatened to use them against the Saudi oilfields and there was nobody to counter him?

    Therefore someone has to have a deterrent. But who? Perhaps the US? But Russia would not accept that, so will want the capability too. China would want to be able to counter both. With increased tensions between the US and Russia there would be a danger that Europe could be the subject of efforts to divide the Western allies in a crisis, or for a US/Russian spat to occur in someone else's home - ours. Therefore there is a need for UK and French deterrents to contribute to security an stability, as well as increasing the uncertainty in the mind of the aggressor.
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