Jeffrey LewisTuppenny Trident?

In case you haven’t been watching, some very interesting fissures are now evident in the support for an independent British nuclear deterrent.  This is going to be very interesting.

There are two factors at play — the looming UK budget crisis and the possibility of an independent Scotland.  Together, these two factors may achieve something very interesting: an NPT nuclear weapons-state undergoing disarmament.

The first sign of serious strain is appearing among the Liberal Democrats, junior partners in the coalition government with the Tories.  This is an interesting split, worthy of some consideration.


In case you don’t follow UK politics all that closely — and I don’t really, so let’s see how many mistakes I make — the current UK Government is a coalition between the Conservatives (Tories) and the Liberal Democrats (liberals in the European sense of the word.)   Although the Tories strongly backed replacing the UK’s nuclear deterrent, the Liberal Democrats expressed concern about the measure on cost grounds, arguing that they would rule out “like for like” replacement and pursue unstated “alternatives.”

The Tories won the election, but were forced into coalition with the LibDems to form a government.  The positions of the two parties are mutually exclusive — The Tories support “like-for-like” Trident replacement, the LibDems oppose it.  What’s a coalition government to do?  Punt!  The UK government took the time-honored, if not particularly creative, route of commissioning an study of alternatives.   This will kill time until 2015, when the tough decisions are expected.


What is interesting is that there appears to be a split emerging within the LibDems.  The alternatives study appears set to recommend building three more Astute class attack submarines, and arming those with nuclear-armed Tomahawk missiles.  The approach, championed by Nick Harvey, the LibDem Minister for the Armed Forces (a strange UK job subordinate to the Minister of Defense), was leaked to the Sunday Times (subscription only), which gave it a rough reception.  Dubbing it Tuppenny Trident — roughly Dime-Store Deterrent — journo Mark Hookham suggested the system would be more vulnerable to anti-submarine warfare, easier to intercept with missile defenses and crisis unstable, since Russia might confuse the launch of a conventionally-armed cruise missile for something else.

I have different doubts about Tuppenny Trident — what a brutal sobriquet.  The UK would probably have to build a new warhead, precisely at the same time the United States was taking a wait-and-see approach to the W80. The nuclear-armed Tomahawk has undesirable guidance issues, as I have noted before, that could only be partially addressed with introduction of GPS-guidance, which in itself raises  serious concerns about GPS-spoofing. And then there is arms control — the United States and Russia have never been able to agree to a regime to deal with sea-launched cruise missiles. I disagree with many of the objections to Tuppeny Trident as outlined by Hookham — at 1500 nautical miles, Moscow is within range of UK home-waters.  Moreover, cruise missiles are harder, not easier, for missile defenses.  And it isn’t clear to me that Russia would even detect a SLCM launch. All of which means that Moscow might be very worried about UK nuclear-armed cruise missiles and, in response, might choose to invest heavily in new nuclear-armed sea-launched cruise missiles of its own.

I’ll read the study of alternatives carefully, of course, but my initial response is concern.


One may find nuclear deterrence unnecessary, but there was a good reason Britain chose Trident rather than the alternatives.  Which brings me to a very interesting paper — Dropping the Bomb: A Post-Trident Future — written by Toby Fenwick and published by CentreForum, a LibDem leaning think tank.  Fenwick reaches a very interesting conclusion — Trident is the very best nuclear deterrent for Britain, but the UK simply can’t afford Trident and a strong conventional military. Forced to chose, Fenwick thinks the choice is an obvious one:

There will undoubtedly be those who want to have Trident as well as the full spectrum conventional capability. Simply put, the current – and any likely future – MoD budget precludes this.

The old aphorism is that to govern is to choose – so let’s make informed, forward looking choices that will facilitate Britain playing her full and active international role. The world is a much better place with a fully engaged Britain than being “Switzerland with rockets”.  Many in the military privately agree.

Although the UK discusses the rationale for its nuclear weapons in very abstract terms, it seems to me the real reason is rather simple. US deterrent guarantees make redundant much of the deterrent value offered by Trident.  The hard case is scenario like the recent military operations against Libya, except in the case where Libya is nuclear-armed.  In this case, a non-nuclear UK might deterred from either supporting NATO operations or acting alone if NATO is uninterested.  But if Britain spends the money to replace Trident, it probably won’t be able to afford to project conventional power in the first place.  Were I British — oh, none of the jokes were work safe — I would be hard-pressed to conclude an independent nuclear deterrent was affordable.


What the budget crisis is starting, independence for Scotland may finish.  UK observers have long warned that an independent Scotland would be strongly anti-nuclear, sort of the New Zealand of the Northern Hemisphere. (With a lot more oil.) There are no good places, outside of Scotland, to base the nuclear deterrent.  I first observed this real possibility in a 2002 article entitled “The United Kingdom, Nuclear Weapons and the Scottish Question,” by Malcom Chalmers and William Walker.

What Chalmers and Walker meant then is captured by this contemporary statement by the Scottish National Party, which now holds a majority in the Scottish Parliament and is pressing for an independence vote:

Our opposition to the UK’s Trident nuclear missile system and its planned replacement remains resolute. There is no place for these immoral and unwanted weapons in Scotland and we will continue to relentlessly press the Westminster government to consign them to the dustbin of history.

The SNP has already made clear that it has no patience for the Tuppeny Trident either, trotting out an MP to say ‘A normal country with the power to decide its own defence and security policy would never be pushed into this crazy situation.”

If Scotland were to vote for independence, then ask the UK to withdraw its nuclear weapons, where would they go?

What Chalmers and Walker saw in 2002 was something profound that goes deeper than an accident of geography. In thinking about the prospects for disarmament in general, they observed that “the stability and continuity of the U.K. deterrent cannot be taken for granted, and that this stability and continuity may have to be rebuilt politically in significiant ways if the deterrent is to survive.”

They meant the case as a general caution — one day the Soviet Union seems invincible, the next it is gone — about assuming that nuclear weapons states would never disarm.  But the observation that support for maintaining a nuclear deterrent must be continual strikes me as one of the most important but overlooked aspects of nuclear weapons policy. Policy-makers, when it comes to nuclear weapons, often prefer to commit errors from not acting rather than be blamed for making a choice.  I find this is especially true when the conversation relates to forces and extended deterrence.  But not acting has costs, and in the UK case that cost has been the steady erosion of support for maintaining a nuclear deterrent.  The stability and continuity of the UK nuclear deterrent has not, to date, been rebuilt in politically significant ways.  As a result, modern concerns about the cost of replacing Trident or re-basing submarines after Scottish independence may simply be contemporary manifestations of the erosion of the support for possession of nuclear weapons.

Under such conditions, surprising outcomes are possible.  That’s why I find the emerging split within the LibDems so interesting.



  1. WFR (History)

    Convincing the British electorate that Britain cannot afford nuclear weapons but Iran apparently can, and that Britain can safely abandon such weapons just as Mr Ahmadinejad is allegedly acquiring them, would be quite a brave argument to advance in a party manifesto at the next general election. And, as a Brit, please understand what I mean by “brave”.

    • Jeffrey (History)

      Yes, I am familiar with Yes, Minister.

      The problem, of course, is that officialdom as had a decade to prepare to convince the British electorate that significant expenditures at a time of fiscal austerity, including the possibility of re-basing, are in the national interest.

      Instead, however, it’s been like that Bird and Fortune skit regarding the aircraft carrier.

    • Angus McLellan (History)

      Officialdom has had more than a decade. They dodged the bullet with the Chevaline upgrade and the decisions on Trident but that kind of luck can’t last. And Huw Strachan claimed in an interview last summer to have been asking Michael Quinlan “what about Scotland?” for many years. Quinlan retired in 1992 so again, more than a decade there. But it isn’t just Trident. The reality is that there are no public debates on defence in the UK any more.

    • kme (History)

      Is it really that hard to explain that the idea is not that Britain can’t afford the bomb, but that it can’t afford both a serious nuclear deterrent that can hold Moscow and a serious expeditionary military that can go on exciting jaunts in far-off countries with the Americans? And that Iran has neither a serious nuclear deterrent on a par with Trident, or a military that can project power externally? The comparison is meaningless.

      I mean, there’s always North Korea, but their people are eating grass, as the saying goes, so that’s not much help either.

  2. Jonathan (History)

    It’s possible we’ll see a UK abandon their nuclear deterrent, but as Cabinets and the Bomb ( shows, every previous government that’s had to face that decision decided to keep it.

    • Jeffrey (History)

      I doubt there would be a “brave” decision to stop Trident replacement, but I do wonder about external shocks that force the UK to take a “brave” decision to replace it, if that makes any sense.

  3. 3.1415 (History)

    Isn’t Britain already under Uncle Sam’s nuclear umbrella? What’s the point of having two umbrellas? It is not going to make the “special relationship” more reliable than the one-umbrella system that Germany enjoys. It is in the United States’ interest to make Britain more like Germany. Angela Merkel was very wise in refusing Sarkozy’s nuclear flirtation. Britain is one more France too many.

    • CastleBravo (History)

      A British deterrent makes the UK a player in NATO, regardless of the US deterrent emanating over the horizon.

    • John Schilling (History)

      Strictly speaking, the United States is under Britain’s nuclear umbrella as well, and both shielded by France. Think of it as a “political triad” – if an adversary somehow manages to determine or arrange that POTUS is absolutely unwilling to order a nuclear strike, they still have to deal with two other powers capable of ending their dreams of global domination with the push of a button.

      Granted, the idea of e.g. France risking its national existence to fight in defense of the United States might seem ludicrous, but A: there is historic precedent and B: anyone waging open war against the United States is a serious threat to France as well, which the French may pragnatically wish to deal with while the alliances are still in doubt rather than wait until France surely stands alone. At very least, the possibility complicates the adversary’s planning.

      But that’s mostly Cold War thinking. Here and now, the United States benefits from having allies that can make more than just token contributions to America’s expeditionary wars, and it benefits politically from the perception that these allies are independent nations acting for their own reasons rather than American protectorates paying tribute in kind. A United Kingdom with both aircraft carriers and nuclear missiles is thus something the United States might wish to cultivate even to the extent of subsidizing some of the more expensive capabilities.

  4. Alan Tomlinson (History)

    I wonder to what extent the English government is concerned about the perception that they will be less important(i.e. impotent, if you will) to the US and to Europe if they lack a thermonuclear deterrent. Perception is of course a difficult thing to pin down, but it is not necessarily irrelevant.

    That said, the money for Trident is ultimately a huge waste of resources(for the US as well).


    Alan Tomlinson

  5. Paul R (History)

    Yes trident is USA, but they are turning away from Europe and themselves cannot and will not want to shoulder the costs and task of being the umbrella. Happy to sell but getting fed up with europe not pulling its weight.

    And hang on, didnt Osbourne move the trident costs to the mod, where as the mod didnt really pay before. So the tories have themselves to kick, moving the budget to a department that wont get any funding increase to match the move! I’m more of the left than right and feel not replacing trident is stupid, nuclear weapons give extra international credit to the uk. Russia wanting to modernise, china increase budgets, unstable pakistan, a future nuclear arms in the middle east. So more countries wanting and getting nuclear weapons and we want to get rid?

    The usa cant protect everyone. I also think we are looking at joint efforts with france, if sarkozy goes then thats a route gone.

    Sorry for spelling etc, on my tiny smart phone.

  6. Allen Thomson (History)

    Just a point of detail, but does the UK really have no alternative for basing Tridents (should it wish to keep them) than Faslane?

    • Jeffrey (History)

      You tell me.

      Apparently, the options are Milford Haven in Wales or Devonport.

    • Allen Thomson (History)

      I have to be sympathetic to Milford Haven, as we once had a place there. (The Milford Haven on Gwynn’s Island, VA, not Wales. But still.)

      However, again assuming that the UK wants to keep its Tridents and has trouble basing them domestically, how about leasing space at King’s Bay, GA? They already put in there for various services, do they not?

    • rwendland (History)

      Milford Haven is a major oil and LNG terminal. I’d have thought that could have serious disadvantages for nuclear operations. Are SSBNs supposed to keep clear of large LNG ships?

      Devonport is the refuelling and refitting base for the Vanguard SSBNs, so is already equipped to handle them. Seems the obvious non-Scottish base, even if slipping out of port is more easily monitored.

    • John Ainslie (History)

      I published a report last month explaining how none of the alternative sites in England, Wales, America or France are viable. If there are no nuclear weapons in Scotland then the UK will cease to have any nuclear forces.

    • Alex (History)

      Yes, the subs already put in to Devonport. The French manage to operate from Brest, so I don’t see any magic in Scotland. And if we can’t do ASW off Plymouth Hoe, well, our problems are worse than we thought.

      Be interested in Jeffrey’s views on Sir Humphrey’s post – if the US really goes for cuts and a minimal deterrent option, will you want to keep SSBNs and their infrastructure in both the Pacific and the Atlantic? Is Kings Bay guaranteed?

    • Jeffrey (History)

      Wow, that is a remarkably clever post.

      My short answer is that, yes, the two-ocean policy is impossible to sustain below ~10 SSBNs. The tilda, however, matters. Base closure in the United States is a very difficult thing and any Administration is likely to pry King’s Bay from the cold dead hands of two Georgia Senators.

      As I have noted in other posts, there are no reliable methodologies (at least that I have seen) to estimate savings from base closure, not least because the compensation payments and clean-up costs can be extravagant.

      I believe that reductions in force structure that result in the probable elimination of a base are extraordinarily unlikely, especially for the SSBN leg. My view is that a UK policy maker willing to take his (or her) chances with Falsane shouldn’t worry about King’s Bay.

    • rwendland (History)

      John Ainslie, that’s an excellent report that you have authored on exactly this sub-topic.

      To update my comment above from this report:

      On Milford Haven, in 1963 “The MOD concluded that Polaris [at East of Shore Point and Newton Noyes] and the refinery were incompatible, on safety grounds.” Now that Milford Haven also has two LNG terminals handling “30% of the UK’s gas supply” and “two oil refineries and a large tank farm which can store oil and gas, which handle 25% of Britain’s petrol and diesel” Milford Haven seems very likely a non-runner.

      On Devonport, there seems very little prospect of finding a safe site now in this well developed area for a nuclear warhead depot. Locating the nuclear warhead depot at Falmouth, 2+ hours sail away, might be possible, but is likely to cause huge public upset because of the natural beauty of the area and impact on tourism.

      It rather looks like the only other feasible options following independence would be a deal with Scotland, France or US, or possibly using support ships as the US did for Polaris.

    • Toby Fenwick (History)

      Just to follow up John Ainsile’s interesting article- I agree with his assessment that if Trident is moved from Faslane, then it will be expensive. Very expensive, in fact. But if the government decides to retain/replace Trident after a putative Scottish independence, then they’ll have to spend whatever it costs to replicate the facilities at Faslane and Coulport.

  7. joshua (History)

    Julang went ashore. Could Trident?

    • rwendland (History)

      Placing Trident ashore was considered as Option 3 of Annex B of the 2006 White Paper. This implies it is technically feasible with an “adapted Trident D5 missile”. But it gets discounted on vulnerability to pre-emptive attacks, difficulty in locating in the high population density UK, political difficulty (protests I think they mean), and cost.

      One wonders if the three alternative options in that paper were chosen to fail, as none of them is cheaper than Trident SSBN. Cruise missiles from submarines is not one of the costed alternatives considered – it is written off in 5.4 with “Any programme to develop and manufacture a new cruise missile would cost far more than retaining the Trident D5 missile. … in terms of both cost and capability, retaining the Trident D5 missile is by far the best approach.”

      My pet cheap option is keeping the Vanguard SSBNs as limited mobility, or even anchored, surface launch platform long enough to get back into step with the US submarine replacement cycle. I have not seen this discussed as an option anywhere, so do not know if this is technically feasible. If practical, it wins on cost and reducing capability in line with the spirit of the NPT.

      Surface launch of Trident looks feasible as it was offered in the land option. Reading between the lines it seems the major Vanguard lifetime problem is related to the nuclear power plant. So downgrading to a surface platform seems a possible option – the subs already have diesel get-me-home on the surface capability.

      This is the 2006 white paper:

      “The Future of the United Kingdom’s Nuclear Deterrent” – Cm 6994

    • Seb (History)

      It’s not clear that we would need to develop a cruise missile.

      MDBA has already developed a 1000km class version of the Storm shadow to be used from their baracuda submarines. Is there any reason this couldn’t be fired from an Astute? Might it even be possible to simpyl use the warheads from the UK’s tridents?

  8. Nick Ritchie (History)

    The financial argument plays two ways. First MoD opportunity costs: Osborne was quite clear that the cost of Trident replacement will come from MoD’s hide and, unlike the early 1980s when we procured the current Trident system, there’s no chance of MoD negotiating a budget increase to compensate. In fact, MoD has had to cut its cloth by 7.5% as part of the ‘age of austerity’ coalition budget plus an additional 7-8% to rein in an overheated future equipment budget over the current decade. Swinging cuts in personnel and capability have been the result…but Trident replacement remains untouched in the special ‘white elephant’ room in MoD’s bunker. Second, irrespective of whether we can as a nation can ‘afford’ it (we’re still AAA rated and can flog a few more gilts if we need to and pass the nuclear debt to the next generation) the public mood reflects Cameron’s own austerity narrative: belt-tightening, condemnation of wasteful public expenditure (fuelled by the MPs expenses scandal), squeezing the most out of limited budgets, etc. Polls over the past few years come out roughly 50:50 on whether the UK should stay in the nuclear business, when asked again with the cost disclosed respondents’ opinion shifts to about 70:30 in favour getting rid.

    The UK can and should explore reduced readiness options: ending the current ‘continuous-at-sea deterrence’ posture, examining the potential for flexible dual-capable submarines modelled on the US SSGN flotilla, looking at what a virtual nuclear deterrent along Michael Mazarr’s lines might look like in practice for the UK. In short rethinking what ‘minimum’ deterrence means in policy and practice as a self-styled ‘progressive’ nuclear weapon State.

    And as for moving Trident out of Scotland: no chance; modern nuclear health and safety legislation and British nimbyism (not in my backyard) rule out pretty much anywhere… except King’s Bay.

    • Allen Thomson (History)

      > except King’s Bay

      Hmm. Just musing, but there’s been discussion of the US moving all its SSBN force to Bangor, WA. But that would leave the Atlantic unpatrolled, which would, for reasons that escape me at the moment, be awful. So the USN leaves Kings Bay and hands the keys to the Royal Navy, with the understanding that the USN will be Submarine Deterrent West and the RN Submarine Deterrent East. Suitable diplomatic and security arrangements are made to honor the NPT to a plausible degree. Georgia senators remain happy because the base remains open.

      P.S.: Thanks to John Ainslie for his very informative paper.

  9. Seb (History)

    What about cooperation with the French? Re cruise missiles, surely we would go SCALP (navalised storm shadow), didn’t the French already do work on this?

    • Jeffrey (History)

      The UK is so small that a limited deterrent based on aircraft-delivered STORM SHADOW cruise missiles would be extraordinarily vulnerable. Cheap, though.

    • Seb (History)

      Not air launched, sub launched in this case: MDBA was working on (for the French) … actually, I just wiki’d it: they call it the Missile de Croisière Naval.

      It’s a long range variant of the storm shadow to be launched from surface vessels and submarines through 533mm tubes. First naval test was in 2011, so it’s something that we could probably buy fairly off the shelf, though there is the issue of a new warhead to go on it, but again, this might be an option for working with the French on given that whole new defence pact business.

      Still beyond that, if the US navy were to cut their Ohio Fleet or the Scots declare independence, why not simply throw in our lot with the French SLBM fleet?

      1. It would let us use Brest and remove the issue of King’s Bay in the case that the Scots decide to divorce (though as a Brit who knows a fair few SNP voters, I think this is unlikely to happen for various reasons, it’s more about securing greater devolution), however what that means for NATO’s air defences is another interesting question as I believe they intend to go neutral.

      2. If we are in any case serious about sharing carriers (which are primarily for expeditionary wars, most likely of choice, and far more politically contentious) then

      3. If we are in any case serious about sharing carriers (which are primarily for expeditionary wars, most likely of choice, and therefore far more politically contentious) then given the proximity of the countries, is there really any question about joint patrols? Indeed, we patrol so closely we can apparently accidentally run into each other.

      Incidentally, what, exactly, is the deal with Diego Garcia in all of this? The original lease was for a $14bn discount on polaris SLBMs, but while the leas is up in 2016 and the US retains an option for a 20 year extension through 2036, was that paid for in the original lease terms?

      I imagine that might go a considerable way to defraying the costs of renewing Trident or buying into the Force de Frappe?

    • Seb (History)

      Excuse the bad formatting, strike 2, relabel point 3 as being point 2, Digeo garcia is 3.

    • Seb (History)

      Actually, the more I read, the more I think that if we did go for a tuppeny-trident, the MdCN would seem by far the more obvious choice than a tomahawk.

      Particularly as the French are likely in the same situation as we are and may harbour similar thoughts.

      RE designing a new warhead, isn’t an essential part of what goes on a AWE essentially endlessly redesigning paper warheads and digital physics packages just to maintain the capability to do so… in that sense what is the actual marginal cost of really designing a new warhead?

      Could the W76 clone physics package be re-used? That I would have thought would be the show stopper… does either the UK or France maintain the facilities to build a new physics package?

      This certainly seems an option that would be best explored in conjunction with the French. Entente de Frappe?

  10. Alex (History)

    crisis unstable, since Russia might confuse the launch of a conventionally-armed cruise missile for something else.

    What would possess us to launch cruise missiles into Russia if we weren’t desperate and willing to go nuclear? The Russians are seriously worried about precision-guided conventional weapons as a threat to their nuclear forces and their command and control – we’ve discussed it right here. As a result, launching cruise missiles into the Russian heartland would itself be unacceptably dangerous for anyone who isn’t a suicide bomber.

    Also, why would we want to do that? What’s the scenario in which we need to fire TLAMs into deep Russia, but we’re not in an all-out war?

    • Jeffrey (History)

      I can imagine two relevant scenarios — one in which there is a political crisis with Russia that involves military action against a third country (the Kosovo case) where a TLAM aimed at one location is mistaken by the Russians as something aimed at them. A second scenario involves NATO mounting a conventional defense of an ally again Russian invasion (the Georgia case) with the use of TLAMs that then escalates.

      As I said, I am not convinced the Russians even _see_ such a launch to misinterpret, but the scenarios don’t seem implausible.

  11. Toby (History)

    I wrote the paper, and am grateful to Jeffrey for this post, and to all of you for your interest in it.

    On alternative basing for Trident – as I understand it, the proposal is for Devonport (Plymouth) if there is the need to pull out of Faslane/Coulport.

    On land basing, the issue is the same as for the abortive BLUE STREAK IRBM basing study of the late 50s – the UK is too small, and the number of places with favourable geology for building the silos is tiny. Amusingly, one of them is the North Downs, just to the south of London in the Tory heartland – somehow I can’t see this being a very popular choice!

    Two persistent myths cloud much discourse on UK nuclear weapons. The first is that if the UK gets rid of its nuclear weapons, it will lose the Permanent Seat on the Security Council. This is simply wrong – removing the UK would require changing the UN Charter, and to change the UN Charter requires the agreement of the Security Council. This means that the UK has to agree to its own removal – which it will not do, so it won’t happen.

    The second myth – so pervasive that I understood it was the case when I was in the Treasury’s defence team (though not the equipment desk officer) – is that there has been separate ring-fenced cash for the UK nuclear weapons programme from some central slush-fund. This isn’t true – and hasn’t been true since at least 1980.

    One reason this myth is so pervasive is that Tony Blair in the 2006 White Paper that rwendland linked to used the phrase to the effect that “renewing Trident will not come at the expense of the UK’s conventional forces”. Not unreasonably, this was interpreted to mean that there would be additional cash to pay for Trident replacement, but – note the weasel words here – because no level of UK conventional forces was ever stated, there was no protection to the existing force levels.

    Thanks again for your interest.


  12. krepon (History)

    Rebecca Johnson’s name is missing in this conversation. She has been questioning the Trident program for some time.

  13. George William Herbert (History)

    Of course, most of the “huge difficulty” is in finding safe locations for large, class 1.3 solid rocket motors designed for a maximum range maximum payload heavily MIRVed 3-stage SLBM. As the various Trident safety reviews showed, replacing propellant with 1.1 (non-bulk-detonatable) is a significant advantage for several reasons, as is a two-stage clear deck variant.

    It wouldn’t even be an all new missile, though one would have to requalify the variant motors and configuration in detail, so it’s not free by any means.

    Once one does that, all the onshore missile motor energy related safety concerns shrink by 2x or 3x on radius, which simplifies the problem immensely.

    So perhaps the UK solution is a new base (wherever) and Trident S6 – S for Safety – a two stage 1.1 propellant clear deck D5, with only a couple of warheads per missile…

    • John Schilling (History)

      That is an appealing solution, but there’s no way the British can afford it unless the United States Navy is also using “Trident S6”. Remember, the Tridents they can barely afford now are leased from a common pool.

      Which probably it should be, but that’s not going to happen soon. Bringing us back to the question of what the Brits can do to hang on until the USN implements its next-generation (or next-half-generation) system.

      Since you’re the naval architect here, just how much room is there for cheap life extension on an SSBN with various trades against operability? Does, for example, doing most of your patrolling in UK waters with the engines barely ticking over (or even bottomed in the Irish Sea) buy anything useful?

    • rwendland (History)

      John, from what I’ve read it seems probable the nuclear power plant is the major life limitation factor for the Vanguard SSBNs. I doubt that “with the engines barely ticking over” helps that much – mostly SSBNs patrol at low speed anyway. The MOD have not explained this in detail, and its a while since I read the select committee transcripts that allude to the issues, so this is a bit speculative, but I’ll have a stab at explaining what I know. The very fine papers linked to above do not seem to cover this.

      First the lesser issue. Hunter-killer HMS Tireless developed a serious fault at sea in the primary circuit of her PWR1 nuclear reactor in 2000. The MOD gave the boat poor advice, and the reactor was restarted leading to an intolerable leak within a few hours – had it not been shut down again by the boat’s officers a catastrophic failure might have followed. It turned out to be a fault in a welded pintle tee-junction on the main coolant circuit in a very radioactive location. Thermal fatigue and a poorly finished internal surface of the pipe weld seem to be the cause. Two classes of boats needed difficult remedial actions. I speculate that this problem may have some impact on the lifetime of the PWR2 (a development of the PWR1) in Vanguards as well.

      Secondly and more seriously, the Head of the Defence Nuclear Safety Regulator produced a pretty horrible report in 2009 on safety issues of the PWR2 power plant in Vanguards and Astutes, concluding “it may be possible to demonstrate that adequate control of depth [after reactor shutdown] can be achieved by improvements to a PWR2 submarine, but the necessary safety performance in response to a LOCA is likely to be delivered only through a PWR3 submarine.” Thus I suspect the RN would like to move SSBNs onto to a new reactor, rather than have a life-extension. The MOD announced in 2011 that the US design had been selected as the basis for the PWR3 for successor SSBN, rather than further developing the PWR2, at a cost of about £3 billion.

      The Head of the Defence Nuclear Safety Regulator report is very interesting, as the MOD accidentally released an unredacted version (a pdf fubar!), and cryptome have helpfully produced a version highlighting the originally redacted parts in red!

      One major issue is would the Safety Regulator accept more Astute class subs (adapted or not) being ordered as an alternative nuclear weapon platform, without changing the reactor to a PWR3, which would add enormously to costs. The idea of selling Astutes to Canada or Australia without a reactor change seems optimistic.

      A few tasty quotes to tempt ACW-folks into reading the whole doc are:

      “Control of submarine depth … UK practice in current class submarines is to accept a much lower reliability from the main propulsion system [than US practice], and to back this up with a very low power (but high reliability) emergency propulsion system. This system will not provide sufficient dynamic lift, so safety is achieved by procedural controls constraining the combinations of speed and depth, backed up by use of ballast systems (but this may not be effective under all circumstances).”

      “Loss of (reactor) Coolant Accident (LOCA) … UK submarines compare poorly with [civil and US submarine] benchmarks, with the ability to tolerate only a structural failure equivalent to a 15mm diameter hole, and an assessed higher likelihood of this occurring due to the materials used, the complexity of systems and the number of welds. It is assessed that in the current UK PWR2 plant the initiating structural failure causing a LOCA is twice as likely to occur as in equivalent civil and submarine reactor good practice.

      Furthermore the current PWR2 emergency core cooling system does not inject coolant to the reactor pressure vessel head, and is highly dependent on manual procedural control.”

      “For current classes of submarine, including the ASTUTE Class under construction, there is a limit to what improvements are reasonably practicable to implement, although the regulators will continue to press for incremental improvements where these are practicable, and the associated increase in cost or schedule risk is not grossly disproportionate. The regulators will review continued operation of these classes of submarine on this basis.”

      “while a PWR2 Adapt Astute submarine may demonstrate relevant good practice for control of depth, in response to the vulnerability to a LOCA an unmodified PWR2 is unacceptable and only the PWR3 Derived Submarine is likely to demonstrate relevant good practice.”

    • George William Herbert (History)

      I’m not up on the details of the UK SSBN reactors, other than what I just read above, which is … disturbing … as someone with a degree in the field.

      That type of internal corrosion / vulnerability won’t be helped much by running longer at lower power.

      US subs, on the other hand, probably can make that tradeoff more reasonably. Our reactors seem to last a good long while and have margins. If it’s core life that’s the limiting factor, then running them at a lower fractional power on the average will extend that life roughly proportionally.

    • rwendland (History)

      NB I should add a credit to John Ainslie who has commented above. He uncovered the Head of the Defence Nuclear Safety Regulator’s report I quote from above, through a FOI request. I’ve only just discovered it was John that did this.

    • John Schilling (History)

      If the PWR2 is as troublesome as indicated, the Royal Navy is going to have to replace their Astutes as well as their Vanguards – and as I understand it, the only reactors they have in service or in the pipeline are SSBN-sized.

      This makes a dual-capable submarine seem like an interesting concept. The Astutes are almost big enough to fit Trident, so make their replacement a bit bigger and give it half a dozen or so tubes. Per Ohio-class experience, these can carry Trident D-5 or S-6, a seven-pack of Storm Shadows, or equipment for an embarked SBS troop. Thus, no need for irreversible choices between nuclear deterrent and conventional expeditionary warfighting, and greater overall flexibility.

      Were I doing this I would also look into supplementary land-based Tridents and air-launched Storm Shadows, for additional flexibility at limited marginal cost (might not work as well in practice as in theory, but worth looking at).

      As I am merely observing, I predict that the UK will implement modest PWR-2 upgrades and procedural changes and proclaim, “We have rendered Vanguard and Astute safe and reliable until well after the retirement of any of us making this decision”.

    • Allen Thomson (History)

      > This system will not provide sufficient dynamic lift, so safety is achieved by procedural controls constraining the combinations of speed and depth, backed up by use of ballast systems (but this may not be effective under all circumstances).”

      Hmm. It was my impression, very possibly wrong, that US submarines typically maintain slight positive buoyancy — precisely for safety reasons — and keep themselves at depth by putting an appropriate down-angle on the diving planes.(*) Does the UK not do that?

      (*) Totally off-thread, back in the days when non-acoustic submarine detection was a hot topic, this practice was the subject of some uneasy speculation. It turns out that upward momentum imparted to the boat by positive buoyancy winds up being shed by the planes in the form of an upward-migrating counter-rotating vortex pair. That might not be good if the vortex pair approached the surface.

    • Allen Thomson (History)
    • rwendland (History)

      Allen, re sufficient dynamic lift. The Nuclear Safety Regulator is probably discussing worst case scenario at an emergency reactor shutdown. Maybe the RN do maintain slight positive buoyancy in normal operation, but maybe the regulator is considering battle conditions when dynamic lift would vary both ways. This isn’t clear from the report.

    • rwendland (History)

      John, re having to replace Astute because of PWR2 issues.

      I think that is overstating the problem. Despite the PWR2 issues, a) it is still probably better that PWR1 which is still in service with RN SSNs, b) the regulator says LOCA is only twice as likely as on modern US boats, while poor, within the overall risk profile this presumably is not a showstopper. With the incremental improvements to PWR2 the regulator is demanding, I doubt that the RN will withdraw before normal EOL, though it might I suppose impinge on life extension possibilities.

      It seems that the safety “as low as is reasonably practical” (ALARP) principle from british law leads to different standards being applied to new designs, and existing vessels.

      New designs must conform to relevant good practice, regardless of cost. So because the US currently has better submarine reactor safety than us, they set “relevant good practice” which we must follow.

      For existing boats “improvements [that] are reasonably practicable to implement” must be carried out to follow ALARP, though that does not need to go to a point where “increase in cost or schedule risk is grossly disproportionate”. So this calls for incremental improvements where these are practicable, but not impractical changes like replacing the reactor.

      Essentially its a system that brings continuous improvement over time, without impinging too much on adequate current vessels.

      To quote the report more fully:

      “The regulators’ clear expectation is that any new plant must conform to relevant good practice, or demonstrate a comparable level of risk, without any reference to cost benefit analysis[4]. There are, however, societal expectations which change over time and standards are likely to increase. Thus in the future relevant good practice may well improve to include today’s best practice. The requirement therefore is to conform to relevant good practice, but also to examine best practice and where reasonably practicable, to adopt it.

      [4] HSE advice, based on case law, is clear on this point, that this requirement is not influenced by cost.”

      “For current classes of submarine, including the ASTUTE Class under construction, there is a limit to what improvements are reasonably practicable to implement, although the regulators will continue to press for incremental improvements where these are practicable, and the associated increase in cost or schedule risk is not grossly disproportionate. The regulators will review continued operation of these classes of submarine on this basis.”

  14. Moe_DeLaun (History)

    I like the “parked Vanguard” concept; it’s a better use of the huge investment to turn a sub into a stealthy floating TEL. A visible presence in the home littorals would also raise public awareness of the sub force, a good thing in tight times.

    I’m also interested in what you can do with reconfigured ballistic missiles. A “Safety Trident” with an ASBM “semi-ballistic” flight profile could replace Britain’s lost long-range strike capability. (Hmmm — such a weapon would complicate the Falklnads issue enormously.)

  15. Jim Pragnell (History)

    It is easy to get sucked into the detail but the big picture remains, does the UK need a so called independent nuclear deterrent? Is the looming UK budget crisis and possibility of an independent Scotland an opportunity to get rid of this unwanted and immoral weapon (to quote the SNP)? Tony Blair said in his book that the expense of upgrading Trident is huge and its utility in a post Cold War world is less in terms of deterrence and non-existant in terms of military use. However, he couldn’t imagine standing up in the House of Commons and saying I’ve decided to scrap it.

    And that encapsulates the real problem; the cowardice of our MPs and officials to face up to reality. The cost will be more than huge if the cost overruns on other MOD procurement programmes are anything to go by. And why should we stump up such huge sums when money is tight on a weapon that cannot even be used?

    I would mothball Trident until the time comes when it can be included in a multilateral disarmament negotiation. We could show other nuclear weapons states (and Iran) that nuclear weapons need no longer be the status symbols of power.

  16. Mark Lincoln (History)

    The British nuclear deterrent, which dominated defence spending in the 1950s and ’60s, has come up hard against the conservative reality of 21st century Britain.

    What need of a nuclear deterrent does a has-been and declining power have?

    Is the prestige worth the cost?

  17. mike (History)

    On the question of US nuclear umbrella – just how certain can the UK be that this is an absolute? Does the US mount a nuclear retalitory strike on behalf of the UK for one 100KT bomb? two? Will it matter who the perp is?

    While such scenarios may be hard to imagine today, I think you can put yourself in 1980, 1990 and 2000 and ask whether what you thought the world would look like 10 years hence was far tamer than the actual reality. Complete removal of the deterrent by the UK would be making a serious projection (or gamble depending on view point) on what the world will be like 10, 20 and more years down the road.

  18. Bob (History)

    As a former maintainer of some of Britain’s submarines, this doesn’t look to complicated.

    As Devonport there are the necessary support facilities for V-Class boats. To have all of them based there would suggest having two dry docks suitable for these machines as a good idea (whenever you have dry docks full is when someone gives a pressure ridge under the ice a good whack and needs the scratches fixed).

    There are two other dry docks like the one already converted for SSBNs now there. One even already had a limited conversion for SSN. When I say converted, I mean made resistant to sudden flooding in an earthquake, with lifting equipment that won’t fall in to the dock, and with a robust earthquake/fire/exploding frigate proof supporting structure, and with nuclear-safety grade power supplies and cooling water provision.

    Converting one of these two docks would be expensive, but then this is an expensive business….

    With regard to space at Devonport, moving the SSBN there would take the number of boats based there back to what it was in the ’80s, so this wouldn’t be new. If there was a shortage of space, it would be much cheaper to move the surface units based there, either to Portsmouth or if they want to be based somewhere without a huge amount of commercial traffic, they could try Portland or Falmouth, both historic Navy towns.

    Far more difficult to replicate than Faslane is Coulport. Given the size of the dockyard in Plymouth, it would actually be possible be meet the MoDs seperation standard on the same site. There is far less Navy than there was even 20 years ago, and half to the dockyard site is virtually entirely disused.

    The redevelopment of some of that site would be expensive, but it must be cheaper than building it on an entirely new site and adding new overhead cost for security, emergency response etc.

    I see this has mostly been ruled out on grounds of public opposition, which I don’t actually think is very likely. The dockyard remains the cities biggest employer, and the increase in refuelling work there in the ’90s had strong local support and was championed by the local press. I would actually see little local opposition to the government choosing to spend a couple of billion on the site.

    So, it is fundamentally doable. Just a question of spending the money.

    As an easier alternative, what about a good British fudge? A solution similar to the Sovereign Base Areas in Cyprus would seem to fit the bill.

  19. A Reader (History)

    In line with Bob’s comments above, does the site need to be in the UK? How about the Falklands…

    • Jeffrey (History)


    • Seb (History)

      It’s worth proposing it just to see the reaction…

    • rwendland (History)

      Treaty of Tlatelolco.

      In the Falklands war, certain vessels had to stay outside territorial waters because of the, ahem, WE.177s they wern’t able to unload.

    • Bob (History)

      Just to clarify, amusing as the concept of relocating the boats to the Falkland Islands is, I was actually proposing detaching a few square miles of Scotland into some strange political status (similar to the Base Areas in Cyprus), so any future government of Scotland can say they’ve met their commitment and the rest of whatever it would be called (The Kingdoms that are united are England and Scotland, Wales has a prince and Northern Island as a political entity came into being after such silliness had gone out of fashion), doesn’t have to move anything.

      This could be a temporary measure, which would thus preserve the British tradition of not quite solving problems.

      But since we’re on the subject of island basing, floating facilities in Diego Garcia get my vote. It’s a big lagoon and we wouldn’t need much space. And if anyone from CND found a way to get there to protest I’d make them a cup of tea for the effort.

    • Jeffrey (History)