Saturday, 18 February 2012

Calling time on Trident? The possible impact of US nuclear weapon reductions on the UK.

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.


  1. Not forgetting the support operations in scotland and how much it would cost to move. However I would like to know more about the future cooperation with france, I'm sure not long ago the uk and france were talking about cooperation on weapons.

  2. losing everything but subs i get, losing everything but subs *and* half the subs?
    I see more ssbn/ssgn in the future, not less.
    Putting all their eggs in one basket, i just dont see it.
    Even if they do, france manages a native industry, dont see why we couldnt.

    Scary, and worth thinking about, but the scotland issue seems much more likely

    my shot in the dark?
    Two fleets of 12, capable of concurrent bn/gn carries (maybe not used that way), no air or land nukes

  3. Extremely unlikely that the Trident replacement will be cancelled. A reduced US nuclear force will result in the elimination of land and air platforms, whereas the SSBN fleet will emerge largely intact but with fewer missiles/ warheads (in any event it will be a lot more than 400). Paradoxically, the SSBNs will become more rather than less important.

  4. Is now the time for the UK to turn it's back on the MAD approach of Trident and swap for tactical nuclear weapons instead? A cruise missile approach that could be lauched from a SSN, T45 or strike aircraft could actually improve the UK's capabilities - more platforms and more than one basket to put your eggs in...

  5. Having just read the Harold Brown paper from the last time the Americans considered really big nuclear reductions, what say you to the notion that going to a minimal (200-250 SLBMs) US deterrent would mean spreading them around on more subs and certainly staying two-ocean?

    If there is still a European deterrent mission, 200 rockets with whatever serviceability factor doesn't leave much for a commitment to NATO, and that Centreforum paper is quite touching in its faith in the Americans.

    Come to think of it, a "minimal submarine" might well be something like "Stretched Astute".

  6. while Humphreys logic is entirely reasonable, there are solutions, firstly the French who develop and maintain their own SLBM's and are going to bit our hand off if we offer to go halfsies on the cost - and secondly, its probably not beyond the wit of UK industry to design, build and maintain what would be a straight replica of the current Trident missile.

    expensive certainly, but certainly doable.

    personally, i'm not keen on other delivery systems - firstly theres the vunerability and actual capability of such systems - and as importantly the concern that if we develop a nuclear armed cruise missile (for instance), whether air, surface or sub launched, whenever we launch a conventional cruise missile in any conflict, our enemy will be in the position of knowing that its possible that theres a nuclear warheard heading his way - and he may well react to that in the same way that we, or any other nuclear power would - by launching his own nuclear weapons at us in retaliation.

    so we save X billion by replacing trident with a nuclear cruise missile, only to spend Y trillions re-building our country from the glowing car park its become...

  7. While the author is salivating at the prospect of the US becoming a has-been like the UK, the reality is that it's not going to happen.

    Obama may want it. But neither the US people nor the US Congress will allow it.

  8. I think the commentator above may have misunderstood the tone of the piece. This is not about the US becoming a has been (which would be a very bad thing), but a look at the impact of defence cuts on the US budget and what this means for the UK.
    The current programmed set of defence cuts in the US currently stand at the entire UK defence budget each year for the next 10 years. This author knows many US military personnel who are very candid in their view that the times are rapidly changing, and that the US can no longer afford to be the sole superpower, and that a multi-polar world is an inevitability.

  9. Just one thing. What does this do to the notion of flexible response. If air launched cruise missiles with Nuclear warheads are ditched off the bomber force, you lose your ability to have a recall able nuclear asset if stepping back from the brink. Once submarines launch thier missiles they are launched....can't see the yanks self destructing them once whoever sees them coming. PRC and Russia must surely retain a capacity in that area. Also the one basket issue. If there are fewer SSBNs with fewer warheads, and they become the sole platform for delivery doesn't that mean more Russian and PLA-N SSNs....Thanks.

  10. P.s. god forbid we ever get into that situation, but it is (?) still valid.

  11. Anonymous - you raise a key point, which I tried to hint at in the article. Overloading in one area encourages construction of countermeasures, and this could be counterproductive.
    Its worth noting that the UK has long since moved away from Flexible response, as it now only has a deterrent based purely on Trident.