Trident Alternatives Review: a summary

Despite opposition from the Ministry of Defence, the Trident Alternatives Review (PDF) has been published. It looks at alternative systems and postures for the UK’s nuclear weapons. Some key passages:

The menu with prices:

Trident alternative costs

Comparing costs: notice the big yellow chunks.

Why non-Trident alternatives cost so much:

The cost driver for the Trident missile options is the construction of the SSBN submarines: we already have the missiles and the cost of designing and producing a new Trident warhead is judged smaller and less risky than any other option. The cost driver for all non-Trident based options is the warhead. Not only is the cost of a new warhead for a cruise missile or free-fall bomb very considerable (£8-10Bn, compared to £4Bn for a new Trident warhead, all at 50% confidence), but the length of time it is judged to take means that 2 new Successor SSBNs need to be constructed to fill the gap before a cruise-based deterrent is available. It is the need for these 2 Successor SSBNs that makes the cost of the alternatives more expensive overall than a 3 or 4-boat Successor SSBN fleet. Even if they were not needed, all options considered other than the Successor options would require additional submarine orders to avoid the loss of the UK‟s sovereign capability to build future submarines. (p8) … transitioning to any of the realistic alternative systems is now more expensive than a 3 or 4-boat Successor SSBN fleet. (p11; see also pp44-46)

Other implications of a cruise missile based system:

Operating a cruise missile-based system is likely to require the UK to deploy nuclear capable systems in different geographical regions than it does today, potentially requiring third party agreement. Any uncertainty about the UK‟s sovereign ability to use its deterrent would diminish the deterrent effect. There are no legal constraints in relation to international airspace and international waters. Forward basing is not permissible if the proposed location is within a Nuclear Weapon Free Zone. (p9) … Whether the cruise missile-based systems amount to a credible alternative to Trident would depend on a political judgment on whether the UK was prepared to accept: a reduction in whom it could deter unilaterally in all circumstances (major nuclear powers might only be deterred if UK acted with its nuclear allies); a significant increase in the vulnerability of any alternative system compared with an SSBN (as a result of not being able to deploy covertly and/or not being able to sustain an assured second strike capability through-life); and significantly increased operational complexity, especially if Forward Operating Bases were required. (p10)

The key judgements therefore revolve around how long a future crisis that engaged the UK‟s nuclear deterrent might last and in extremis whether it would be acceptable to rely upon collective deterrence in any situation in which the UK‟s deterrent was not available. (p24)

For the maritime options, “choke points” become a critical factor in determining the route nuclear-armed platforms might take. There would be significant force protection and diplomatic challenges with attempting to pass through them and, therefore, they would probably need to be avoided. Similar constraints for replenishing supplies/crew in overseas ports would be faced, unless an ally or third party was willing to permit entry to their territory. As such, routing and basing becomes difficult for nuclear-armed platforms, particularly at a time of heightened tension. These constraints have a considerable impact on the logistical and maintenance burden associated with sustaining a nuclear presence at distance from the UK. The diplomatic impact of creating a Forward Operating Base to help ease the burden and its vulnerability to disruption or attack would need detailed consideration. (p28)

Issues with using fewer boats and abandoning Continuous At-Sea Deterrence (CASD):

Choosing to operate the SSBNs in a non-continuous posture depends upon the level of political confidence that: a potential aggressor would not launch a no-notice pre-emptive attack when the UK was at a lower posture with no boat deployed; that, with sufficient warning, the UK could re-constitute back-to-back patrolling before a potential period of heightened tension arises (covering the availability of equipment and suitably trained and motivated civilian, military and industrial personnel); and that such back-to-back patrols could then be sustained long enough to cover any emergent crisis. (p10)

Operating a non-continuous posture might theoretically be an incentive to conduct a first strike on the UK aimed at preventing the UK from being able to deploy its nuclear forces, but the potential adversary would need to be sufficiently certain that the UK would have no remaining capability and that our allies would not come to our aid. (p32)

The issue of readiness:

The readiness of UK nuclear forces becomes more critical as hostilities rise. Changing the readiness of forces during a crisis can be challenging. Whether intended or otherwise, an adversary could perceive changes in posture or readiness as a sign of firm hostile intent. As a result, changes in posture in a crisis could contribute to miscalculation. Because of the fear of how changes might be perceived by an adversary, a government could find itself inhibited. This is not unique to alternative systems, however. This problem applies to all non-continuous postures. (p23)

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