Monday, 15 April 2013

April 2013 Notes: Strategic Deterrent Debate

Reason for writing: A recent Article by Nick Ritchie of New York University

Context: The Nuclear deterrent is an issue which is important from multiple angles, in light of recent North Korean actions its more solid role of deterrent is at the for… but what is often forgotten are its other benefits, it drives forward research in many areas of technology which are significant to UK industry (Communications, rocket design, guidance, submarine building, nuclear reactors, advanced computers and other high end tech), it provides a status level; most importantly it provides a constant touch stone in our security – a base level from which we cannot drop only ‘punch’ above. 
This article is seeking to make the case for a different system of deterrent as stepping stone to disarmament, in many ways its rather similar to the policy that seems to have been adopted on voting systems; keep slowly pushing others in elsewhere and eventually the dreaded First-Past-The-Post which the British people seem to like and want will get forced out through embarrassment.

A small Sample of Britain’s Strategic Interests… our territories and exclusive economic zones around the world


Key Words/Phrases:

·         Multiple Independently Targetable Re-Entry Vehicle (MIRV): these are what are actually important, each missile carries several of these, each with their own nuclear device.

·         Trident: the current missile system used by Britain & the United States, can carry 12 MIRVs, but in British use only carries 5 – in accordance with the limit imposed by the START treaties. It has a range of about 7,000 miles meaning it can hit pretty much anywhere from anywhere; especially when compared with the Tomahawk cruise missile (the longest ranged one currently in service) which has a range of only 1,000 miles.

·         Vanguard class: the current serving generation of Britain’s nuclear deterrent submarines, excellent vessels but like the  Resolution class before them they are now approaching they end of their service lives and hence we are now facing this debate, as its them which are due to be replaced… not the missiles they carry.

·         NATO: North Atlantic Treaty Organisation – Britain’s principle strategic alliance,

·         CATOBAR: Catapult Assisted Take Off/Barrier Assisted Recovery, the most expensive system of carrier flight deck to procure, but because of this has the widest range of aircraft types available to operate from it  -  actually it works out cheaper in the long term as the aircraft are cheaper and more capable.

·         VSTOL: Vertical/Short Take Off and Landing, the cheapest system of carrier flight deck, but requires the most expensive aircraft… the Royal Navy (RN) was the first navy to employ this to provide its fixed wing airpower, but that was out of necessity when the first Queen Elizabeth class was cancelled (CVA-01 was due to have been called after the Queen) and all it managed to get built were the ‘Through-Deck Cruisers’ of the Invincible class.

·         F-35 Lightning II (Joint Strike Fighter): produced in multiple variants, B for VSTOL and C for CATOBAR, this is the new stealth jet strike/fighter (what used to be called a Fighter Bomber…i.e. could fight its way to the target, drop its bombs and fight its way back) coming into service with the RN for the Fleet Air Arm to fly of the carriers.

·         Eurofighter Typhoon: Principle aircraft belonging to the Royal Air Force at the moment, a Cold War inspired Dog-Fighter that was used in conjunction with Tornadoes over Libya to do some limited bombing… although it was the much more venerable Tornadoes which had to aim the weapons.

·         X-47: The currently under development, but conducting carrier deck operations and flying, Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle, the X-47 is the future of stealth strike & reconnaissance, there is no coincidence that it looks like a mini B-2 bomber.

An artist’s impression of the X-47 in flight…
It on the deck of the USS Truman

Key Points:

1.      This article focuses heavily on Russia as our strategic enemy, when in reality Iran, North Korea and the nations we are not even contemplating now could be the risk we are facing over the twenty-thirty year service life of the Nuclear Deterrent

2.      The author talks about all the systems as if they are equal, or just as good as each other… they are not:

a.      Cruise Missiles launched from Submarines – far shorter in range, meaning the sub has to actually get quite close to the enemy shore line… furthermore cruise missiles as was proved by the Iraqi’s, Libyans, Serbians and others, can be shot down

b.      Aircraft Dropped Bombs – again limited by the range of aircraft and where you have bases… currently Britain could if this was its system, with Eurofighters bomb the h*ll out of Northern France, Norway, Denmark, Netherlands and a bit of Germany – that hardly qualifies as a deterrent in any real way.

                                                               i.      There is a sub clause to this, and that is the RN’s new Aircraft Carriers, the Queen Elizabeth’s, now if they were built as CATOBAR carriers, and a third was built, and the Fleet Air Arm were given F-35C’s alongside some Strike UCAVs (like the X-47) a sort of capability would emerge… it would be global in reach, but it would still have limits like those of cruise missiles from subs, the aircraft could be shot down – or the cruise missiles they launch could be… so it would not be a certain system.

                                                             ii.      Some will bring up the concept of air to air refuelling… the trouble is this is even more problematic as it’s a difficult manoeuvre at the best of times, but would even a friendly country allow Britain to overfly them, conduct a refuelling over their people’s heads, whilst carrying nuclear weapons… would even Britain’s greatest friends agree to such a thing – it’s doubtful to say the least.

c.       Space Based Weapons: against the law and would not be independent as Britain does not currently have the ability to launch anything into space by its own volition  

d.      (For Comparison) Trident: has a range of 6,000nautical miles (which if put in context, Cape Town is 5,203nmi from London, Manaus Brazil is 4,462nmi, and Sydney is 9,173nmi- these are just though to give examples of distance), it is bl**dy difficult to nigh on impossible to shoot down an incoming MIRV travelling at around 7 x the speed of sound at our current levels of technology[1].

3.      The real argument here is its either to have Trident or not have a deterrent after all have a half way system is worse than not having one at all, because the risk is run that when it’s brought online it will make the situation worse; so it places the leadership in a bind, bring it on line and risk escalating the situation – don’t bring it on line and don’t have the tool you need to prevent escalation…

4.      The RN doesn’t actually get any benefits from operating the current system, in fact it’s a drain on resources… these systems are purely strategic in nature yet now they come from the MOD’s main budget rather than a special one as they used to pre-labour.

Points of Interest:

1.      So far since the Lib-Dems have been in government as part of the Coalition they have sought and paid for with Taxpayers money for three different studies of the nuclear deterrent, each one has come back after great expense backing the Trident system

2.      What no-one seems to be considering with the deterrent is that actually we would be better off building 5 subs than 4, after all with the slot in system BAE is developing the same tubes used for Trident could have a dozen cruise missiles slotted in… and 5 subs would mean we would be able to guarantee have a deterrent at sea (whilst administratively speaking only having three boats in the role) and usually have a boat rolled as an SSGN (cruise missile sub) available to support other operations British forces could be tasked with.

(thanks to the Daily Mail and MOD for this photo)


When I first saw this article I thought well it’s from New York there is a hope that there will be some rational thought in it… but unfortunately not. I am a believer in the value of the nuclear deterrent, I will freely hold my hand up to that… but I am not a blind adherent. I realise it is expensive, it is resource consuming and it is in many ways a very blunt tool. However, I am not persuaded that if that money was not used for the deterrent it would be spend upon conventional forces, neither am I so na├»ve to that a weapon as powerful as a nuclear device can ever be anything but a blunt tool.

Britain is economically powerful enough that without nuclear weapons it would still have some relevance, but with the pressures of the welfare state (amongst other expenses) growing every year; Defence Spending has been cut again and again, and without this level of capability provided by the Deterrent it might well be very hard, if not impossible, to maintain the status we have become accustomed too, a status which helps with trade, with tourism, with safety of our citizens when they travel abroad – things that do not come up in a debate of the strategic deterrent, but which nevertheless are impacted upon by it.

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