17 July 2013
Patricia Lewis

Dr Patricia Lewis

Research Director, International Security, Chatham House


Despite being politically contentious, the Trident Alternatives Review (TAR), should act to prompt more debate on Britain's nuclear posture. 

The Review, a Liberal Democrat-prompted government report released this week, was charged with addressing just three questions: 1) Are there credible alternatives to a submarine-based deterrent?, 2) Are there credible submarine-based alternatives to the current proposal?, and 3) Are there alternative nuclear postures, which could maintain credibility? 

Within these limitations, TAR considers various strategic nuclear systems as alternatives to the like-for-like replacement of the Trident missile system, due to retire in about ten years. The TAR incorporates strategic, technical, and economic considerations to conclude that timing and infrastructure considerations trump all other nuclear options.  

According to the Review, the predicted timeline to develop a new nuclear warhead would likely exceed the 2024 retirement date of the current Vanguard-class submarines. A nuclear bridge - such as the production of two successor SSBNs – would be built and operational up until the point that an alternative system could be deployed – estimated to be no earlier than 2040. As a result, transitioning an alternative system would be far more expensive than a direct successor SSBN fleet. In order to replace Trident without any gaps, the UK has to make a decision by 2016 as to if, when, and how to replace Trident. In 2011 the government approved an 'Initial Gate' decision for £3 million to be spent on the design phase. 

The TAR looks at specific combinations of platforms (ships, land-platforms, submarines, aircraft etc), delivery vehicles (missiles or bombs), and warhead designs. Cruise missiles received special attention, focusing on both subsonic stealthy cruise missiles and supersonic cruise missiles. Large aircraft, fast jets, surface ships, three types of submarine, and a land silo were investigated as were four different designs nuclear warheads.

The Review examines five possible operating postures for nuclear weapons: 1) Continuous nuclear deterrence – continuous high readiness posture, 2) Focused nuclear deterrence - high readiness posture maintained for a specific period, 3) Sustained nuclear deterrence - visible deployment of a capability in varied states of readiness, 4) Responsive nuclear deterrence - irregular and unpredictable deployments in varied states of readiness, 5) Preserved nuclear deterrence - no regular deployment but ability to deploy if needed - low readiness posture. Each operating posture was assumed to have a potential impact on readiness, reach, perceived resolve and weapons vulnerability and thus on the ability to launch a response (or second) strike.

The TAR presents the cost estimates of the various combinations of platforms, delivery systems and warheads, plus the time and resources required to develop them, infrastructure requirements and costs such as contract buy-outs. But it does not address the costs of decommissioning in the end-of-life phase, apparently because they are so small and so far away that they are dwarfed by the myriad of other costs. The omission is a pity given that the UK has hitherto been seen as a leading state in multilateral nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation efforts, where the costs of disarmament and dismantling are a hot topic. Indeed, the report refers to the lack of timeframe in Article VI of the NPT as a reason why Trident renewal would not breach the UK's international obligations. 

The Review makes no recommendations. Its tradecraft is guesstimates and predictions, yet it strives for accuracy and clarity. However, its roll-out and the broader Trident issues are steeped in domestic and international politics. Not least of which include the fact that the 2016 decision on whether and how to replace Trident will come after a general election and following a referendum on Scotland's independence. The decision will be made after what is gearing up to be a very difficult 2015 NPT Review Conference. In barely concealed tone of irony, a key paragraph in the report points out that the costs involved in developing an alternative to Trident could have been cheaper than like-for-like if such a possibility had been considered some years ago. It’s just all a bit too late now.

The most contested issue is the deterrent value of nuclear weapons. In a statement launching the Review, Danny Alexander MP advocated an end to continuous-at-sea-deterrence (CASD) and proposed a reduction to three boats under the posture of 'focused deterrence'. He explained that while the UK will maintain a nuclear deterrent capability 'as long as the global security situation makes it necessary' to do so, there were options for moving down the nuclear ladder. This raises important questions, worthy of broader discourse, which hopefully the TAR will inspire. The stage is set for a difficult way ahead and the Review is likely to open up the Trident debate, as indeed it should.


Listen to Patricia Lewis discuss Trident, July 2013