How does a middle power remain relevant? One of the most important aspects of global power in the post World War II period is the possession of nuclear weapons. Although only two nations on Earth – the US and Russia – possess nuclear arsenals capable of practically annihilating the planet, the nuclear arsenals of the UK, France and China are large enough to deter any potential adversary from daring to attack it with nuclear weapons itself. Such an exchange between the US and Russia was known as MAD: mutally assured destruction. Although a country like Britain could not conceivably assure the destruction of a country as vast as Russia or China, it could indeed wipe out most of their large cities and lay waste to a significant part of the country’s economic and military infrastructure…
…with just one submarine.
We’ve all heard of Trident but few people really understand the way it works. The Trident is a US-designed submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) that is carried on the US Ohio-class subs as well as the UK Vanguard-class. Each sub carries various silos (16 on the Vanguard, 24 on the Ohio) that launch the missiles while submerged. The missiles the rise out into orbit like a rocket to the moon, at which point the tip of the missile opens and lets out a number of independently-targeted warheads (known as MIRVs) fall back to Earth. There are 8 British-designed MIRVs on each Trident carried on the Vanguard subs (the US Tridents carry up to 12) which means that each Vanguard sub armed with a full complement of 16 Tridents can theoretically destroy 128 targets from practically anywhere in the world.
A frightening price tag
Unfortunately this kind of destruction comes at a cost. It is estimated that a replacement for Trident (which in reality means replacing the ageing Vanguard-class subs, rather than the missiles themselves) will cost the UK government an estimated £100bn although it should be noted that this the program’s lifetime cost up to 2062, not a lump sum. This frighteningly huge number is often quoted by politicians and NGOs opposed to such wasteful spending in a time of austerity. A scary aspect of this budgetary dilemma is that this Trident replacement cost is already based on the minimum necessary to keep the system operating as a credible deterrent at all times. A country generally requires four submarines to ensure that one of them is always on patrol: reducing this number to three means that there will be periods when there are no subs out in the water which an enemy could take advantage of.
A proposed alternative is to launch nuclear-armed cruise missiles on smaller, cheaper submarines (like the Astute-class of hunter-killer subs) but these would have limited range (the US-designed Tomahawk missile that is in use with the Royal Navy has a range of no more than 2,500 km), and they can be shot down with greater ease than a ballistic missile. Some have argued that the submarines should be scrapped altogether and keep nuclear weapons on aircraft instead. This would be far cheaper, as nuclear-armed cruise missiles can be installed at much lower cost on most existing aircraft like the Typhoon or Tornado. However there is always the risk that the aircraft can be intercepted on their way to their targets, or that their bases could be crippled in a first strike. It should also be said that neither the Typhoon nor the Tornado are long-range strategic bombers (only the US and Russia have these) and would find it very difficult and risky to undertake deep-strike missions into the Russian heartland. Reaching China is simply out of the question.
In other words, a fleet of four ballistic missile submarines is the only minimal credible way in which a country can guarantee a second strike against any enemy, since it can fire from almost anywhere in the world and the odds of the enemy finding that one sub before it fires its deadly payload is close to zero.
The nightmare scenario
If this all sounds like Cold Warrior paranoia, well, it is and it isn’t. As outlandish as the idea that Britain could be attacked by a nuclear power like Russia or China may seem, maybe the following nightmare scenario might make you think twice. Imagine for a moment that the current discord between the West and Russia escalates. Perhaps the economic crisis in Russia deepens and Vladimir Putin sees the only way to drum up popular support is to find a way in which he can challenge NATO without risking full retaliation given that Russia’s non-nuclear forces are weaker. Given this military disparity, Russia may instead attack a smaller NATO country, and possibly with nuclear weapons (let’s not forget that it has considered using them against Ukraine), if this were a country that could not reply in kind.
The twisted logic is simple: would the US risk annihilation in a full nuclear exchange with Russia over a NATO ally like Estonia or Poland? This question has long worried NATO policymakers because the answer is probably no. Obviously an attack against the US would be responded to in equal or greater measure. But it may well be that the US (or any other NATO nuclear ally) would choose not to respond to the nuking of Tallinn or Warsaw with some nuking of its own. And knowing this actually makes Russia more likely to attempt such a move. As it stands, Britain and France could not be subject to this kind of aggression since they too could lob a few nukes in Russia’s direction. But how could a nuke-less Britain fare? Would the US risk its own existence for its trans-Atlantic ally if Sheffield (and only Sheffield) got nuked*? I should add that this is not my own paranoid nightmare scenario but one brought up by Andrei Piontkovsky, formerly of the Strategic Studies Center in Moscow.
Now even with Trident there’s a little caveat: although it is not public, it is strongly suspected that there are strings attached to the use of Trident given that it is a US-designed nuclear delivery system. It is widely believed that the US would not allow Britain to use them independently of some wider NATO or coalition action. This would not have been an issue back in the Cold War since any nuclear exchange with the USSR would have likely involved the US anyway. But the nightmare scenario above is exactly a case in which Britain’s independent use of Trident could be put in question although I find it hard to believe the US would not permit their use in self-defense at least (again, the details on this conditionality is clearly secret and it could well be that there aren’t as many strings attached as some fear).
Welfare or defense?
Ultimately though, the question boils done to recognizing what are the UK’s needs as a nation and a society, and prioritizing limited resources towards addressing those needs. With this perspective, one finds it hard to justify the £100bn lifetime cost of Trident which alone absorbs one-tenth of the defense budget, more than any other weapon system. That this money could be better spent on education, on the NHS, or on science and technology is undeniable. Unfortunately as I described above, there is simply no alternative for the UK to have a credible round-the-clock nuclear deterrent. The UK is also unique among the world’s nuclear powers in the high level of public opposition to its deterrent: France has a similarly sized fleet of four missile submarines although it developed its own SLBMs rather than accept the conditionality attached to a US missile system (which was offered at one point). This was even more costly than Britain’s choice of adopting Trident. But rarely is the expense questioned because of the French view that national security and nuclear capability are inseparable concepts.
Whether because of insularity, enlightenment or naivety, in Britain that is not the case. Which makes the question of whether Trident is worth it difficult to answer. A £100 budgetary sinkhole or the nation’s ultimate guarantee of survival? Perhaps both.
My choice of Sheffield as a hypothetical city facing nuclear annihilation is not a random one: it is the location of a 1984 BBC film called Threads about a nuclear war between NATO and the Warsaw Pact. Suffice to say I saw this movie as a small child and found it terrifying, and probably triggered my obsessive interest with Cold War and nuclear warfare to this day. It is now considered one of the most realistic depictions of a nuclear attack and its aftermath (both immediate and long-term).