DN - Defence Notes

Trident review suggests alternatives unlikely

16th July 2013 - 04:07 GMT | by Tim Fish in London


The long-awaited review into possible alternatives to the UK’s nuclear deterrent has failed to find any cost effective replacements.

The review analysed whether a new system based on nuclear-tipped cruise missiles or aircraft-delivered bombs would be a value for money option. They would replace the existing four Vanguard-class ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) that house the Trident D5 nuclear missiles instead of building new Successor SSBNs at a cost of almost £20 billion.

It assessed four main alternatives based on either: six large aircraft; 36 Joint Strike Fighters; five vertical launch nuclear-powered attack submarine (SSNs) known as ‘hunter-killer’ submarines; or three vertical launch SSNs and two Successor SSBNs.

The review excluded hand-held devices; space-based systems; short-range delivery vehicles; unmanned air systems; helicopters and dirigibles; and ballistic missiles fitted to large aircraft or ships due to legal constraints, an inability to meet range requirements, or a lack of a technical feasibility.

However, the review was quick to state that any alternative option to the SSBNs, which provide a continuous-at-sea-deterrent (CASD) nuclear protection coverage would be a downgrade in capability.

‘None of these alternative systems and postures offers the same degree of resilience as the current posture of Continuous at Sea Deterrence, nor could they guarantee a prompt response in all circumstances,’ the review concluded.

From this basis, any alternative would have to be recognised as less effective and taken into account when looking at cost comparisons. Furthermore the choice of an alternative would ultimately depend on a political decision whether a part-time deterrent at a lower readiness level than CASD would be acceptable or reliable.

It is not simply a matter of choosing a new deterrent system – the costs of production and the timescales are also serious obstacles. The review said that to design, develop and build a new warhead and integrate it into a new delivery system be ‘the critical challenge’ in any alternative pursued.

Developing the warhead alone could take at least 17 years to build the first production unit and the review assessed that in the case of integrating it on a cruise missile-based deterrent, even if a programme started promptly in 2016, it could take a total of 24 years to be completed.

However, two of the four existing SSBNs are due to leave service by 2040, therefore the review introduced into its cost calculations the construction of two Successor SSBNs to plug the gap until the new system can take over.

The procurement of these two new boats at a cost of £10 billion made the cost of any other alternative more expensive than the four Successor SSBNs currently planned.

However, even if the additional SSBNs were excluded, the review said that the cheapest option would only save about £5 billion. The cost of developing a new platform; warhead; missile; and infrastructure would negate most of the savings and the review assessed that it would cost about £8-10 billion for a new cruise missile or bomb compared to £4 billion for a new Trident warhead.

The review also highlighted other knock-on effects. To remove four SSBNs from the submarine production line would put the UK’s SSN submarine manufacturing capability at risk. A break in the design and manufacturing of submarines means it would cost more to re-start building SSNs for the Royal Navy again at a later date due to the skills and manufacturing capability lost.

Therefore, additional SSNs would have to be ordered to keep the SSN production going and these costs would have to be factored in if an alternative to an SSBN-based deterrent is considered.

The whole point of a deterrent is to make enemies believe that you have weapons available to launch in retaliation to a potential attack. This is what the CASD posture achieves.

An alternative system will have a lower readiness posture and reduced effectiveness that will be known to an enemy. If this is politically acceptable because there are no threats that are foreseen in the future at all then the cost considerations of the alternative options come into play.

Those that have argued against a continuation of the SSBNs and Trident but still want a nuclear deterrent have largely done so on the grounds of cost. However, the review’s analysis shows that because the existing deterrent is ‘finely tuned’ to operate Trident and four SSBNs, little money could be saved or costs would increase.

Nevertheless, if a less effective deterrent has a reduced ability to deter then it raises the question of whether a nuclear deterrent is worthwhile at all.

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