The facts on Trident 'cuts': What the Lib Dems want is disarmament
New Trident is cheaper than cruise
Analysis So now we have what the Lib Dems insisted upon when they came into government: a detailed, costed review (pdf) of alternative plans for the UK nuclear deterrent apart from simply replacing it like for like.
The gold standard. And it turns out it's cheaper than silver or copper, too.
Basically, it's terrible news for those who want to try and achieve gradual UK unilateral disarmament by stealth, like the Lib Dems. What has happened is that all the plans that one might expect to be a lot cheaper than Trident have turned out to be horribly expensive, and the only logical choices are to replace Trident or disarm.
The possible plans which gradual-disarmament advocates have been advocating mostly involve getting rid of our current, proper ballistic missiles and replacing them with cruise missiles.
That could conceivably save a lot of money. The Tomahawk ship- or sub-launched cruise "missile" is very cheap compared to a proper ballistic missile, as it is just a robot aeroplane - rather than a suborbital space rocket. It was originally developed by the Americans to carry nuclear warheads, so it can definitely do that.
Unfortunately it's pretty simple to shoot down jet aeroplanes if you have any modern air defences. It's much, much harder to protect oneself against hypersonic ICBM warheads dropping out of space, which means that you only need one submarine-full of those to be pretty sure of tearing the guts out of pretty much any nation on Earth in one salvo. To achieve anything like the same deterrent effect with cruise-armed Astute boats, a large fleet of them would need to be at sea all the time - which would more than wipe out the savings made by having smaller boats and cheaper weapons. A small fleet of cruise-armed subs would be a good way down the road to disarmament, in fact, which is one reason the Lib Dems have been so keen on it.
The other plan, of having proper ICBMs but basing them on land, was never really a starter - it was pretty much disposed of years ago. People didn't go to the colossal expense of mounting space rockets on nuclear-powered submarines (so creating the most technologically advanced collections of machinery the human race has ever built, by a long chalk) just for fun. It was done to avoid the terrible dilemma of the early Cold War, where a nuclear-armed premier might be warned of an inbound ICBM strike and know that he or she must order a counter-launch within minutes or lose the ability to do so. The scope for accidental armageddon was huge, and nobody wants a return to those days.
Nobody wants a return to this sort of thing
With submarine-based ICBMs, things are much less fraught. A nation can wait and only hit back once it is sure what is taking place. Even once the country itself has been largely incinerated, its subs remain safe and ready to hit back. Bomber or fighter aircraft carrying nuclear cruise missiles (or even bombs) are much less desirable here as they are easily found and can't stay up for long - they are also unlikely to be able to reach an enemy. They too are more or less a matter of disarming.
So the right choice is ICBMs on submarines, no matter what bitterly frustrated wannabe strategic bomber chiefs may say - though needless to say, the idea of buying a small fleet of strategic nuclear bombers or fighters carrying shorter-ranging nuclear weapons has been seriously considered in the review of nuclear options published today. That's because the review was done in large part by the MoD, which is full of RAF officers who would love to see a modern day successor to the V-bombers of long ago, or a nuclear weapon for our future F-35 stealth fighters to carry.
Unfortunately, quite apart from the fact of cruise-based deterrents not being at all credible or capable, there is another huge problem for any such plan. That is, they aren't even cheap.
That's because the UK would need to develop from scratch a completely new warhead to go on the cruise missiles. This would take forever, in large part because of international testing bans meaning that unbelievably huge amounts of experimentation and computer modelling are required to tell whether a new nuke will actually go off. It simply can't be done in time before the Vanguard boats finally retire, no matter how we stretch them. This means that any such plan would also mean building two more Vanguard-type ballistic subs to carry us over until the new warhead is ready.
Left to right: New V-bombers, nukes on F-35, Astute subs, mix of Astute and proper ICBM subs, 4 proper ICBM subs, just 3 proper ICBM subs
In theory one might get a Tomahawk warhead from the Americans, but anti-nuclear campaigners have rather backed themselves into a corner on that one: they have spent so much time criticising the Trident missile and Polaris before it for being US made* that they can't credibly argue for sacrificing the rather more important British national ability to build and maintain our own bombs.
Nobody - not even the Libs - is willing to say 'unilateral disarmament' to British voters. But it's what they're offering
So cruise, bombers or anything else other than new Trident can be forgotten about - they will cost a lot more than replacing Trident, and won't be nearly as good.
There is also very little point talking about a nuclear deterrent provided for us wholly or partly by other nations, perhaps allies like the USA or France. Both these nations are our friends, but it would not be reasonable to expect either to risk total destruction to avenge a nuclear-shattered Britain. If an aggressor nation still had missiles left after striking us, as it very probably would, that is precisely what they would be facing.
A great piece of kit - but not for carrying nukes with
There was a reason, after all, that NATO maintained a large "forward defence" tank army and associated air forces in Germany in the old days, facing the vast Soviet tank armies poised on the other side of the Iron Curtain. Had the NATO troops not been there, the Soviets might very well have been tempted to snatch everything up to the French border in a sudden armoured blitzkrieg - reasonably enough suspecting that Britain, France and the USA would not trigger nuclear Armageddon merely to save Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands and the rest.
In other words, it was openly acknowledged that the nuclear weapons of the UK, USA and France did not provide a defence for their NATO allies. When it comes to nukes, there are no allies; you need your own button for it to be any use.
So what are the Lib Dems going to propose at the next election?
In essence all they can propose, other than replacing Trident or simply disarming, is getting three or even two new ballistic subs rather than four. The savings under this plan will be utterly paltry, something less than £50m a year over the life of the new subs. For perspective this is about one thousandth of the MoD budget, or between one and two ten-thousandths of the welfare budget.
The fact is, that for a major economy like the UK (still either the sixth or seventh largest in the world, no matter how we may be feeling) the cost of a minimalist but highly effective nuclear force like Trident just isn't significant. To us, it's pennies.
So the Lib Dem plan offers no savings worth having, and it is basically disarmament anyway. It will mean lengthy (and inevitably publicly known) spells of not being able to launch a nuclear strike. An enemy wishing to hit us has only to wait for his moment - we might as well not be armed at all.
Given that there are no perceptible savings to be had, only somebody who basically wants to see unilateral disarmament by the UK - out of an overriding hatred of nuclear weapons, greater than his or her desire for British security and prestige - would vote for that plan.
Such people have always turned out to be in a very small minority among UK voters in the past - the Labour party found disarmament to be electoral suicide long ago, and abandoned it as an overt policy despite the fact that many of its activists and MPs make no secret of their continued desire for it.
Even the Lib Dems, the party of the single issue fanatics, don't dare to say straight out what they actually want. But the facts speak for themselves. There's no money to be saved here by fiddling with the deterrent - you can vote for disarmament (Lib Dem) or not (one of the other parties). Simple.
As BBC defence correspondent Jonathan Beale tells us today:
"There will be clear blue water between the two parties [Lib Dem and Tory] before the next election".
It's quite true - though probably not in the way that the leaders of the Lib Dems might wish. It's become even clearer than it already was that a vote for them is a vote for unilateral disarmament by the UK.
In a world which has gained two new nuclear-armed nations (India and Pakistan) since the end of the Cold War, with North Korea on the verge of joining the club too and Iran working hard towards it, that's unlikely to be a big vote-winner in 2015. ®
*You will also hear the unilateral disarmament lobby say that Trident - while admittedly under British operational control - is dependent on US satellites to work. What they mean is that a Trident warhead on its own is only accurate to within a mile or so, and that as a result it can wipe out a city but not something difficult like a hardened missile silo or deep bunker. With access to a satellite navigation system like the US GPS, it can strike much closer to the aim point and so eliminate targets of this sort.
That might matter to the US or Russia in an exchange of thousands of warheads targeted mainly in "counter force" style against enemy missiles. Britain by contrast needs only the ability to gut a country, and smashing a couple of dozen cities - which a Trident boat can do without any satellite help - should be fine for this.
In any case we will soon have access to the special encrypted military service of the upcoming European Galileo sat-nav constellation (the French are much more excited about this, as one may imagine).
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