There has been a raft of coverage recently about the range of budget proposals to significantly reduce the United States nuclear weapon holdings, one option of which may see a reduction to around 400 warheads. This in itself is a newsworthy item, in that it demonstrates how significantly the nuclear stockpile has been drawn down since the 1990s, that a 400 warhead limit can now seriously be considered as a feasible target. Whilst this author strongly suspects that the actual intended target is more likely higher than this, and that the 400 figure has been drawn up in order to make the higher figure appear a compromise which actually delivers the preferred option, it is worth considering for a moment the implications for this.
The first point to note is that these figures demonstrate the sheer scale of cuts that the US is looking to impose on its armed forces in the post Iraq, last days of Afghanistan era. Humphrey strongly believes that many people have yet to grasp the sheer size and enormity of the cuts that the US military are facing. It would not be hyperbole to describe this decade as the United States ‘East of Suez moment’, the period at which all global empires are forced to no longer assume global presence as a default option, and instead start to recall the legions to focus on just one or two areas of the globe.
Already it is clear that the US is likely to massively reduce the footprint in Europe, and that instead future scarce resources will be focused elsewhere – most likely the Asia Pacific region. While some may see this as an overdue move, akin to the UK withdrawing the Army from Germany, it is a watershed moment as it marks the end of US pretensions of global power and the ability to fight wars on multiple continents at a time and place of its choosing. The future US military is being restructured in a similar way to the UK military of the late 1960s was – a focus on one primary theatre of operations, with limited detachments beyond to other areas of interest.
Within this, the reduction in strategic nuclear forces is hugely significant. At present, the US nuclear ‘triad’ of land, air and sea based assets reportedly contains around 2200 warheads, of which 550 are land based, 500 air based, and the balance assigned to the Trident force at sea. A reduction of this size essentially removes the requirement for two thirds of the triad, which could generate enormous savings by decommissioning the missile fields in the mid-west, and decertifying the nuclear capable aircraft from nuclear operations. Maintaining aircraft in a nuclear role is an expensive and time consuming business, and it is likely that if a reduction to 400 warheads were considered, then chopping the air launched capability would be an easy way to remove aircraft fleets, support infrastructure and also missile fields with little impact on the wider defence budget. It is likely that any future nuclear force will be based heavily (and possibly exclusively) on a maritime strategy, which relies currently on 14 SSBNs, which collectively are assigned a total of up to 1152 warheads and 288 delivery vehicles (Trident missiles).
The current US deterrent fleet is built around the 14 Ohio class SSBNs, which have been in service since the early 1980s, carrying a maximum of 24 Trident missiles, and a theoretical maximum of 192 warheads per boat under current treaty limits. The boats operate on both Atlantic and Pacific coasts. In reality, it is likely that each boat will deploy with a different payload and warhead configuration to prevent a potential opponent being able to second guess US deterrence plans. The SSBN is widely seen as the most invulnerable of all deterrent functions, being almost impossible to detect (a classic example being the collision between a UK and French SSBN where the two vessels reportedly did not detect each other during the collision, each suspecting that they had collided with shipping containers). This means that any seagoing deterrent is likely to be able to ride out a first strike, and provide an assured 2nd strike capability against an adversary. Ultimately, the ability to destroy an opponent, even after they have conducted a surprise decapitation strike against you, is what makes sea based deterrents so effective – if you can’t track them, then you have no means of being able to stop them.
A future fleet in which the US is reduced to 400 warheads is likely to be vastly smaller in size than it is now. In future, two single Ohio’s could put to sea carrying the entire US deterrent force. While it is unlikely in the extreme that this would occur, in these cash strapped times, a reduced nuclear force would seem to make reductions in SSBN numbers a hugely tempting cost savings measure. While we are into guesswork territory here, Humphrey would make the following assumptions that a future US maritime based deterrent would need no more than 8-9 boats, allowing for 3 in refit, 3 working up and 3 at sea in a patrol. These boats would likely carry a reduced payload (potentially 100 warheads each), and allow some warheads for use as spares. This means the US deterrent requirement massively falls to just three on call vessels at best.
At present these vessels are split roughly evenly between the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, but it is possible that in cost conscious times, the logic of running two separate SSBN operations will be questioned. A fleet of only 8-9 SSBNs does not really require two entirely separate shore base and support networks, and this is an area where major savings could be made – and this is where the UK problems start.
The UK’s main issue in all of this would appear to be the fact that as a co-operator of the Trident D5 missile, it is reliant on a large number of US facilities to maintain the missile pool, of which the UK currently has around 50 missiles. Despite many dire warnings, all of which seem to emanate from people who, by all accounts, have never actually been indoctrinated into the highly secretive world of SSBN operations, that the UK cannot fire missiles without US approval, and which remains utter rubbish, the fact remains that the UK is reliant on the US support for Trident. Under the current arrangements, the UK and US have a common pool of missiles, of which the UK has paid for ownership of 58 in total (making the total Trident fleet some 350 delivery vehicles strong), and these missiles are shared between the two nations.
If the USN were to reduce its Trident operations, and if it were to focus resources on the most likely nuclear threat, then it may well be the case that the Pacific is the future operating area for the SSBN fleet, at the cost of reducing the Atlantic. Despite the inevitable congressional battles that would be fought, Humphrey doubts that any real consideration will be given to UK concerns about Trident, as the ultimate decision rests with US lawmakers, who naturally put the interests of their own ahead of others. It is easy to imagine the shutting down of the Atlantic SSBN operations and loss of all the facilities to which the UK currently participates.
The implications of this are severe – the UK works closely with the USN on many aspects of nuclear issues. This is a relationship built during the cold war, and expanded on over the post cold war years of operations around the globe. One reason that it works so well is that both navies are able to work in a seamless manner, integrating effectively with each other when required. The reality is though that the wider political context of the UK/US relationship is changing – the cold war years of close co-operation against the USSR, particularly by people who had fought on the same team in WW2 are now gone. The UK has political cachet in Washington because of efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, but this will diminish over time, and become a fuzzy warm memory. In the post 2015 environment, the combination of a recuperating UK military, and a US military focused predominantly on the Far East means that the UK is likely to have ever less influence in Washington compared to before. While there may be close co-operation at the professional level, the political links will weaken, and it will be hard to persuade lawmakers to look after the UKs interests in this area.
The loss of the Atlantic facilities could have a major effect on the UK ability to support and service trident missiles, possibly to the point of making the deterrent uneconomical to run – particularly if it meant conducting routine cruises to the Asia Pacific region with SSBNs to load / offload missiles. Similarly, it would add a heavy burden to the SSN and escort forces which escort the SSBN, and provide maritime support to it – the UK would struggle to ensure that an SSBN transiting to the pacific would be adequately protected.
In the medium term, the reduction in SSBN numbers will increase the burden on the costs of replacing the USN SSBN force, both the new missile compartments, and also the new missiles. The unit costs will rise as a result, which may place higher than anticipated budget costs on the UK to continue to participate in the SSBN programme. There is no guarantee that the shared missile compartments which both SSBN classes currently use will continue to be affordable to the UK if the USN reduces its SSBN programme.
Paradoxically, a shift purely to the Atlantic, or a continued operation with reduced assets in the Atlantic would make the ASW risk increase proportionately. Any potential adversary would know that investment in first class SSN and ASW capability could, with a large outlay and a significant amount of luck, present the opportunity to track an SSBN and potentially take it out in wartime. The massively reduced SSBN fleet would mean the loss of a single hull would have far more of an impact now than before, potentially eliminating 30-50% of the US deterrent forces. Ironically such a move may make nuclear conflict more likely, as no US leader is likely to view the loss of half their nuclear deterrent as a good thing, and in the early stages of a conflict, this could lead to a reduced nuclear threshold, with leadership pushed into a ‘use it or lose it’ mentality.
The impact on the UK could be that increased investment in SSNs by other nations could put the UKs own deterrent and ASW forces under greater pressure, as they seek to protect SSBNs from increased interest from nations hostile to UK / US interests. The result could place real pressure on already overstretched hulls.
The logical follow through from this is that if the USN reduces its warhead force to the size suggested, then potentially it could jeopardise the short and long term sustainability and viability of the UK nuclear deterrent. Such a move will occur regardless of UK views and that in the medium term; the continued viability not only of the UK future SSBN programme, but more fundamentally the entire nuclear programme may be called into question. Unless the UK is willing to fund a greater share of the joint nuclear burden, it may well soon be approaching the point where time is called on Trident.