Henry Forth writes from London: In Whitehall, London’s street of government, serious consideration will be given at two meetings planned this week for the idea that the UK will not replace its four Vanguard submarines. They carry American Trident II D-5 ballistic missiles armed with British thermo-nuclear warheads carried in these four Vanguard submarines on patrol since December 1994.
If that comes to pass, David Cameron could become the man who will take Britain out of the nuclear weapons club. A rubbish thought? Not if you believe the Whitehall mandarins who are beginning to think the unthinkable – the UK announcing that its whole defence policy ambitions are to be changed completely.
But at the moment things are actually going the other way.
The Defence Ministry, as it has confirmed this week, has a budget of £700 million for 130 people working in the office full time on developing what it is known in the defence world as Successor. This is the future SSBN (Sub Surface Ballistic Nuclear) submarine to follow on to Vanguard, the Trident system.
The chosen contractor, BAE Systems, has 1100 working full time and Babcocks, another 100. Over the road at the Cabinet Office, there is a team doing an independent think job on Successor and the Treasury is working on new costings that make alarm-bell reading. For example, the official figure for Successor is about £20 billion. The Treasury reckons if the in-service time is written in to those figures then the MOD is running at only 20 per cent of the realistic cost. That would put the true Successor project as at least £100 billion.
Exactly how the new ballistic nuclear weapon project should come together does not, in theory, have to be what’s called a like-for-like replacement – that is, a super update of what the UK already has – the Vanguard.
There are at least four theoretical possibilities for the next generation SSBN.
Option One is obvious: don’t go for like-for-like but try a different nuclear weapons programme. For example, why not go back to the idea of bombers carrying nuclear warheads or even deployed missiles. For practical reasons this should not be considered for long.
Option Two has many champions: the Royal Navy still keeps submarines but not the “big bomber” Vanguard type. A submarine fleet could be based on the Astute-class and carry conventional as well as nuclear warheads during the period known as transition to war.
Options Three and Four are connected. The Vanguard/Trident boats are operationally CASD – Continuous At Sea Deployment. This does not mean all four are at sea all the time. Perhaps only one boat is deployed. The others are either in long term refit – up to two years – or running down from a long sea going operation or working up to being the next boat to go. So Option Three would be the like-for-like option. Option Four would mean that the Navy would go to Option Three only in time of tension.
What will happen? Well, the very name Successor says Vanguard will be replaced and all political parties have voted for this. Tory, Labour and even LibDem part agreement has meant Successor was on stream, until now.
Historically, each time Britain’s sea-borne nuclear weapon system has come up, the outcome although at times controversial, has never been in real question. Britain leases the missiles from the United States but builds the warheads they carry. The first system was Polaris, the second (brought on by Labour) was the Polaris update, Chevaline and then the latest weapon, Trident. Each system has been dependent on the US who supplies the rocketry and has strict control over maintenance and much of the technology associated with Trident – as it did with the earlier systems based on Polaris.
The politicians went through the political motions, but once Britain had become a member of the nuclear weapons club, no one seriously believed the UK would drop out. One argument was that to give up nuclear weapons would alter the UK membership of the UN Security Council; the five permanent members Russia, China, France, the US and the UK are all nuclear weapons countries.
But this is Cold War thinking. This is the stuff of 4-minute warnings, When The Wind Blows, the Quinlan doctrine of British nuclear weapon justification and most of all perhaps, the Armageddon concept of Bob McNamara’s Mutual Assured Destruction. Then is then. Now is what is next? That is the truly undebated question that starts with the preface: whom do you aim nuclear warheads at? The irony is that since the Cold War ended theoretically in 1991, the possibility of nuclear release in conflict is greater especially with the possibility of the emergence of North Korea and Iran as nuclear weapons powers.
But the role of British nuclear weapon defence and its place in future foreign policy has indeed changed.
For the first time since the 1980s when Lord Heseltine, then as Michael Heseltine the then British defence secretary, voiced the thought that if Britain did not have nuclear weapons it would not acquire them, there is a growing and influential school of thought that says one question not asked in the Successor calculation is this: should the UK not change policy and get rid of its nuclear capability rather than look to change the way it deploys it?
That message is reaching Downing Street, which is why there are those who sensibly wonder at the historical consequence of David Cameron leading the UK out of the two most powerful clubs in the world: the EU and the Nuclear Weapons Club. Curiously, it could be that if he were looking for votes, it’s the second that would get them more assuredly than the first.