HMS Vanguard's DASO Trident missile being launched
Nuclear

The Means To 'Flatten Other Countries' - Britain's Nuclear Future

Experts give their view on deterrence, weapons and killer swarming drones ...

HMS Vanguard's DASO Trident missile being launched

August 2020 marks 75 years since the United States used nuclear weapons to bomb targets in Japan, two acts that brought the six-year Second World War to a swift end.

It marked the beginning of the age of the nuclear weapon.

In the immediate decade following the dropping of those two atomic bombs, other nations around the world moved to arm themselves with similar weaponry. This was known as the arms race.

Today, eight, possibly nine, states around the world are armed with nuclear weapons. The UK is one of those countries with the others being the USA, Russia, China, France, Pakistan, India and Israel.

North Korea has carried out nuclear weapon tests but international experts have cast doubt on whether or not the country is capable of building the kind of nuclear warheads needed to launch any attack on other countries.

Taking a look at the UK's nuclear deterrent, how does the country maintain its tactical position with regards to nuclear weapons, and what will the world look like in the coming decades with regards to them?

Here, we explore what Britain and its nuclear deterrent will look like in the immediate to medium term future, asking experts their views on matters around the popularity and cost of maintaining nuclear weapon systems and whether anything is ever expected to replace the ultimate weapon that is the nuclear bomb.

Trident – 1996 To Present

Trident Missile Test Launch
A Trident missile launch from HMS Vanguard. Credit: MOD

Trident is Britain’s nuclear weapons system.

It is a submarine-based system allowing Britain to keep a constant nuclear deterrent at sea in an unknown location, silently travelling beneath the waves.

There is always at least one Trident nuclear submarine on patrol at an undisclosed location on the planet, a feat that has been achieved constantly since the system’s predecessor, Polaris, was introduced in 1969.

Trident missiles, which each carry several nuclear warheads, have a maximum range of about 6,500 nautical miles, which gives Britain’s weapons system and strategy added credibility as practically nothing is out of range on the basis that the weapon can be launched from any part of the planet where there is a sea - the naval captain ordered to fire just has to be sailing his submarine in the right place.

However, no such order has ever been given.

That is because since the start of the arms race in the 1950s, a world order of peace has been established thanks to a status quo known as mutually assured destruction (or MAD for short).

MAD is ensured when two or more nations hold weapons, in this case nuclear, that when fired can cause enough destruction to wipe an enemy’s territory and people out. Thus, neither side dares firing on the other for fear of immediate reprisal. This is therefore considered sufficient deterrence to avoid warfare.

But, as Sebastian Brixey-Williams, Co-Director of nuclear weapons think tank BASIC (British American Security Information Council), discussed in an interview with BFBS, deterrence is itself only theoretical. He said:

“There is an unavoidable fact that if you have very large bombs with a high explosive yield that can level cities, that is a big stick that people can’t ignore.

“But that is only one way to value nuclear weapons.

“The counter argument to that is that they are almost unusable. There are very few if any situations today where their use would obviously be in line with international humanitarian law or the law of international armed conflict.”

So why then does the United Kingdom keep nuclear weapons?

In the video below, Mr Brixey-Williams explains the strategic thinking behind keeping a nuclear deterrent and the popularity of it from both political and general population perspectives.

Mr Brixey-Williams suggested that an event like Brexit had caused politicians to attribute more value to the maintaining of weapons such as Trident. He said:

“It’s one of the diminishing number of cards that the UK holds.

"And one of the things that links it back to some of the early days of what some people see as Britain’s glorious imperial days.”

Yet members of parliament have not been united in Britain’s approach to its nuclear deterrent, particularly when discussing future spends to any replacement or upgrading of the current Trident system. In this respect, Trident has frequently been used as a political football.

In 2016, the House of Commons voted on the matter and decided that Britain would enter the middle part of the century with new, state of the art nuclear weapons technology. But as Mr Brixey-Williams discussed, one man who voted against the government was Conservative MP Crispin Blunt.

Speaking to BFBS, Mr Blunt said:

“It was probably the only occasion I found myself in the same voting lobby as Jeremy Corbyn."

Mr Blunt was the only member of the Conservative Party to vote against the Bill that paved the way for work to start on Trident’s upgrade. Explaining his reasons, the MP for Reigate said:

“The most catastrophic value for money imaginable.

“For me, I wanted the UK to remain a nuclear power, to justify its seat on the UN Security Council and for the leader of the United Kingdom to walk with that special swagger that nations have when their leader has the means to flatten other countries, whatever indefinable merit or demerit that brings. Plainly that capability is not one to be surrendered lightly.”

The former Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee did not want Britain to be without a nuclear deterrent as it entered what is shaping up to be a volatile era of global politics, but instead his campaigning against the bill in 2016 was based on the principle held by him that the intended renewal programme would be obsolete before it ever entered service.

For Mr Blunt, it was about how and where those weapons will be positioned. He said:

“There are what strikes me as very serious risks around submarines."

Crispin Blunt  MP
Crispin Blunt, the MP for Reigate, served in the British Army as an officer in the Royal Armoured Corps during the late 1980s and early 1990s. Credit: House of Commons

The cornerstone of Trident’s modus operandi, like Polaris before it, is that the submarine carrying the weapon is invisibly operating in an undisclosed location in the general region of our enemy targets. This, according to Mr Blunt, is outdated thinking. He said:

“At the time (of Trident's introduction) the strategic context was very different to what it is now, and at that time the defence budget was very, very different to what it is now …"

It may seem strange that a former British Army officer, such as Crispin Blunt is, would align himself in the same company as those who would vote down a renewal to a programme that many believe has kept the UK safe from a third world war for over half a century. He said:

“The whole concept proceeds on the basis that the submarine is invisible, yet four years before I made that vote, there was a submarine research warfare scientist, a senior NATO position, gleefully proclaiming the end of the submarine because accusation technology was advancing geometrically and (had) the ability to pick up all the signals that a submarine gives off, whether it’s heat, movement or nuclear signal.

“There are about, as I understood it, four signatures that can be given off by bloody great lump of steal sitting in however much water.

"And with geometrically improving accusation capability, it strikes me that therefore the invisibility of the ocean disappears really quite quickly … and certainly within the lifetime of this programme. The moment the submarine becomes vulnerable because it can be seen, then you have got to protect it … so you have got to have layered defence. Then there is a whole bunch of assumptions about its vulnerability to cyber warfare. And so, on it goes …"

According to the MP, the end-user viability of a weapons system being based on a submarine 100 years on from the height of the Cold War, as it would be during the life-time of the renewed programme, has been lost as a result of old fashioned political jostling between the two main parties in British politics, Labour and the Conservatives. He said:

"The politics of this decision were left in the thought room of 1983. The General Election where Labour promised to disarm – which was seen as a rather important part of the longest suicide note in history of a major party going to the country – and for many in Labour this became a non-negotiable statement about their respectability to be elected to office.

“It had nothing to do with defence merits. It had everything to do with Labour’s merits as a governing party … were they serious about the defence of the country?”   

The Labour party was asked to respond to Mr Blunt's comments directly, however they did not respond to this request. An MP, who did not want to be named, said that "Labour has consistently supported Trident for decades for national security and employment reasons." 

In remarks made in the House of Commons on November 26, 2018, Madeline Moon, MP for Bridgend (Labour), said:

"... deterrent is also a vital part of our NATO alliance security and defence strategy."

Why Does Trident Need To Be Replaced Or Upgraded?

Primarily, the Vanguard submarines that currently carry the UK’s Trident missile systems will become obsolete at the end of this decade.

Before the decision was taken to go ahead with the upgrade, the Government explored the possibility of extending the life of the four submarines charged with carrying the country’s nuclear arsenal, however it was felt that to undertake such an option could leave the UK vulnerable to the possibility of there not being a submarine operationally on patrol at all times – thus risk leaving Britain without its deterrent.

The Weapons Engineer Officer's tactical trigger that would be used int he final stages of a nuclear missile launch on board a Vanguard class submarine. Credit: PA 

How Much Will It Cost?

In a 2015 article by UK Defence Journal, the cost of replacing Trident was estimated at £15 billion. However, this figure is disputed by CND (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament) who in their own article estimated the cost to be at around £205 billion – quite an eyewatering increase.

Mr Blunt’s own estimate of the programme is somewhere in between. He said:

“When I examined it, it would be a programme cost of £179 billion.

“The things cost about £40 billion to build but of course you’ve then got to sustain and maintain them through their life, and that number is almost certainly an understatement given the new threats that will emerge towards them and the extra arms that will be designed and produced … defences to these submarines.

“I, like many soldiers inside the Ministry of Defence who are still serving, are going, ‘well hang on a bloody minute … there’s quite a lot we can do with that money.’”

Britain’s upgraded nuclear weapons system is on course to be operational from the end of this decade and will remain so well into the middle of the century.

Killer Swarming Drones – Will Nuclear Weapons Be Replaced With Something More Sinister?

Yes, you did read that right.

Weapons technology does evolve. Look back at the Second World War, by the time it concluded, rockets had been invented that were so advanced they eventually led to Neil Armstrong walking on the Moon. At the start of the 20th Century, men were riding into battle on horses. By the end, weapons existed that could destroy entire cities.

So, given the trajectory of weapons tech over the past 100 years, what could the future look like over the course of the next century?

Crispin Blunt feels a nuclear option as it is but with different methods of delivery would provide better bang for buck. Discussing this, he said:

“You can arm yourself with an air delivered capability. There’s a new WE177 bomb – which is a bomb dropped by the aircraft which has gone out of service, but is close enough to being in service so therefore a sensible option to research and develop.

“And then you could put cats and traps on your aircraft carriers, so your aircraft carriers can now carry proper aeroplanes on them including a nuclear payload.

“You could produce another five frigates into the navy and produce a whole host of other naval assets. And in the nuclear deterrence argument you would just move where the doubt is in the enemy’s mind.

"Because in the end, all of this is about the mind of your opponent … would they?

“If you go for the air option where you park your aircraft on aircraft carriers, on land, at airbases or wherever, you have a distributed threat. In the mind of the enemy the issue they are contending with then is can they shoot them all down. Because if they cannot shoot them all down, then unacceptable damage will be delivered on their country.”

The Age Of The Terminator: Upcoming Royal Navy Drones
Drone warfare was imagined by James Cameron in the 1991 film, Terminator Two: Judgement Day. Credit: Hemdale Film Corporation

For Sebastian Brixey-Williams, something altogether quite terrifying could be afoot in terms of new weapons emerging on the horizon. He said:

“If your intention is to cause mass terror, mass panic, or to shut down a society in a way that makes it difficult to recover, there probably are alternatives. When Bill Gates talks about bioterrorism, yes certainly a virulent virus that can tear through a population would certainly bring a country to its knees. It can’t be controlled, but then arguably neither can nuclear weapons once fired.

“Cyber weapons have great potential. There’s so much we don’t know about cyber weapons at the moment and the potential of cyber weapons to shut down large civil projects like nuclear power stations or electricity grids … it’s just the icing on the cake. If there were really a large-scale cyber-attack on a country with the intention of bringing it to its knees, I suspect we would see something far, far worse.

“Cyber-attacks, although they may have humanitarian consequences, they do not have the same shock and awe factor as a nuclear weapon does.

“The final thing I would draw attention to is drones and drone swarming.

"This is not a technology that is particularly mature at the moment although it is advancing very quickly in part due to very rapid development cycles, but what we may see in the longer term is larger networks of drones communicating digitally, working cooperatively through AI which may be able to have that same effect of terrorising populations or shutting down societies.

“The advantage of drones is they are cheap, quick and easy to build. And once you have got the software, it’s easily mass producible. So, it’s very scalable as a technology.”

The idea of drone swarming may seem like something from a 1980s movie, but there are already messages coming from important people about their likelihood. Last year, then defence secretary Gavin Williamson discussed the technology, saying that in the future “swarm squadrons” would be deployed by the British military.

But, Mr Brixey-Williams does not believe the introduction of the drone, or even the increased prospect of cyber warfare will be enough to consign the nuclear bomb to the history book. He said:

“I don’t see a situation, obviously, where a state is going to choose to replace nuclear weapons with one of these other types of weapons systems. What’s probably more likely is they will just hold all of them if they can.”

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