Jeremy Corbyn’s suggestion that Britain might profitably employ Vanguard class submarines armed with Trident missiles, using conventional warheads, but with potential nuclear compatibility actually might make a great deal of military sense.
I have recently been researching the issue of Britain’s nuclear capability, with the intention of writing a substantive article on the subject. One of the things that has struck me is the incongruity of Britain specific capability, compared to other states with nuclear weapons.
The US Admiral Dennis Blair, a former head of Naval Intelligence and at one time Obama’s Director of Intelligence, once remarked that the chances of a nuclear war between China and the USA is between nil and zero. In contrast, India faces a clear danger of nuclear war from Pakistan. Yet both China and India not only have a clear “no first use” policy, but their nuclear arsenals are on de-alert status, whereby the warheads are not only not fitted to the delivery systems, but are stored separately. Israel goes one step further, and does not even have its nuclear weapons assembled, and has never conducted a test.
Ever since the USSR first tested a nuclear bomb in 1949 the world has faced the possibility of war between two nuclear armed powers. The stakes got higher once hydrogen bombs were invented, with their smaller size and apocalyptic destructive power. Whilst mutually assured destruction (MAD) might ensure that no rational government would use nuclear weapons, and they have not been used for 70 years, the danger has always been present that one side would develop a technical capability for a first strike that would disable the other side’s ability to respond, potentially forcing the side with weaker capability into the “use them or lose them” dilemma. Targeting the nuclear weapons of another power is referred to as “counterforce”, and the arms race over the last decades has been focused on escalating counterforce and measures to defend from counterforce, and ensure force survivability. This is the first strike scenario, and both the USA and Russia have felt themselves compelled towards a growing and increasingly diverse arsenal to target each other’s nuclear weapons, and develop new delivery methods that frustrate the oppositions counterforce, for example , increasing throw-weight and penetration, extending time to detection, and shortening time to target; meanwhile there has been an equivalent effort in defence, by hardening, dispersing or moving launch sites, and with ever more sophisticated readers for early detection and distinguishing between decoys and attacks.
Those weapons that survive counterforce are used for the second strike, or deterrent phase, which euphemistically targets “countervalue” – or civilian population centres.
One problem of such a second strike capability for the UK government is that clearly it is contrary to Protocol 1, Article 48, of the treaty signed by the UK in 1977, additional to the Geneva Conventions, and particularly article 51, which states
The civilian population as such, as well as individual civilians, shall not be the object of attack. Acts or threats of violence the primary purpose of which is to spread terror among the civilian population are prohibited.
But more practically, the UK’s nuclear capability is only credible as an adjunct to the larger nuclear capability of NATO, effectively that of the USA. To adopt the terminology of Admiral Blair, the risk of a countervalue first strike against the UK by a state actor is between nil and zero. (If a non state actor was in possession of nuclear weapons, then a nuclear response would have no target, and would therefore be no deterrent). Yet if the UK had no nuclear capability, it would not be a possible target for counterforce.
The unresolved issue therefore is whether a UK government would use its own nuclear weapons as a second strike response to a Russian counterforce strike against American targets, due to NATO obligations. Were they to do so, that UK government would be inviting a nuclear attack against UK civilian targets even though the UK had not suffered a nuclear attack.
Given that there is no credible nuclear threat to the UK, why does Britain maintain a continuous, sea based, on-alert nuclear capability, when India and China – for example – do not.
This raises a further complication of UK’s position. Each Trident missile carries about 12 multiple, individual warheads (MIRVs) and would be a formidable second strike weapon. But it also has a dangerous first strike capability.
In the 1980s the INF treaty eliminated most STOF (short time of flight) weapons, because in a first strike scenario they reduce the thinking time of the defending party from minutes to seconds, thus greatly increasing the risks of accidental nuclear war. However, when used in Depressed Trajectory (DT) mode, Trident itself becomes a STOF weapon, and as a submarine launched system (SLBM) the point of origin would be unpredictable. A Trident missile has a 7 minute flight time, or shorter, to hit targets in Russia.
The UK’s insistence on having a permanent seaborne presence with armed, first strike capable weapons is therefore potentially a dangerous source of instability.
So what of Corbyn’s suggestion? It is worth understanding that within NATO a number of states which do not have nuclear weapons of their own have a nuclear capability of carrying US warheads in specially adapted aircraft, with specialist trained crews. It is therefore a credible position that the UK could maintain a delivery system potentially compatible with US warheads.
In addition, a number of states, such as Canada and Japan, possess fissile material, dual use nuclear or conventional delivery systems, and the technical capability to develop warheads. For one of the current nuclear armed states, like the UK, to step back from current and live capability to the status of only nuclear potentiality would still leave national defence options open for the future, while propelling major momentum towards non-proliferation. Indeed one of the biggest problems of the UK’s current stance is that if we believe that Britain (that anticipates no currently foreseeable, credible risk of attack) needs nuclear weapons, then states with clear and present threats surely have an even more compelling case.
However, whether or not Trident will have a nuclear warhead is not even a decision that needs to be made currently. The so-called “Main-Gate” decision to place orders for the Vanguard submarines is due for 2016, while the decision on the warheads is not scheduled until 2019. If a credible case can be made for Vanguard and Trident acquisition without committing to nuclear warheads, then the divisive issue of replacing the warheads is postponed because even those opposed to a new generation of British nuclear warheads could still support the building of the Vanguard submarines, thus also securing the associated jobs.
Indeed, the STOF and MIRV capability of Trident means that they are capable of defeating even highly effective air defence, and armed with conventional warheads they could be used in extreme circumstances for national defence, whereas with nuclear warheads they could never be used. As Ronald Reagan said “nuclear war can never be won, and must never be fought”