Does the UK need a Designated Survivor?

tweet by Larissa Brown, the defence editor/journalist from the Daily Mail, started of a serious and playful discussion, with other like-minded journalists thinking they could be Designated Survivors. But seriously, does the UK need a Designated Survivor?

What is a Designated Survivor (DS)?

Mr Wikipedia and Mr Google have lots of information, sometimes exaggerated or inaccurate on this phrase. Anyway, such a term or individual arises in the United States, most notably during the State of the Union Address or a full joint session of Congress and all senior US Government officials including the President of the United States (POTUS). One cabinet member, usually one with a low/minority post and a ‘true-blue’ Presidential Candidate individual–that is, above 35 and USA born–will not attend the glorious session but be kept in an unknown bunker, with a host of Secret Service Agents and a copy of the nuclear football. Should, God forbid, POTUS and or the Congress be killed by a nuclear warhead or warheads or terrorist bomb or end of the world device, this individual will be the acting POTUS. The US of A still has a leader. See this news article for instance and the list of US Cabinet Secretaries who failed to attend the State of the Union Address.

How about the British Context?

A general answer is no, from quick checks, there is no DS equivalent for major UK events, say the State Opening of Parliament. However, in the above twitter thread, this tweet answered that the “Vice Chamberlain of the Household …is the parliamentary ‘hostage’ for the State Opening of Parliament”. Ok yes, by convention, the Vice Chamberlain of the Household, who is is a senior whip, is held captive in Buckingham Palace, that is, he or she does not attending the event. But, there is no clear suggestion that the Vice Chamberlain of the Household will assume the role of acting Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, should the presiding Prime Minister, again God forbid, be incapacitated or killed out right during this event or other major events. My good contact, @TheSecurocrat provided his view here, which may be a closer answer but still leaves the debate open.

Back to the question: Isn’t this a worry for the British leadership?

Yes, some may say. Tensions are high right now, threats are coming from Russia, global terrorism and other areas of extremism. The current threat level, as of this post on 21/4/2018, is severe, one level before there is an imminent attack. Should there really be an attack on the senior leadership of the UK, who will replace the PM immediately? Who would advise on leading the country or even detail a retaliation against adversary, perhaps even ordering a SLBM strike from the SSBN on patrol?

The answer, even before the UK gained a nuclear power, is, we don’t know for certain. The UK does not have a fixed constitution like other countries, rather, it is an ‘ uncodified constitution’. The reigning monarch, will ask the winning leader from the British General Election to form a government and that leader becomes the Prime Minister. There is no set deputy or vice to Prime Minister of the day. The 2011 Cabinet Manual, specifically paragraph 3.11, states:

The title of Deputy Prime Minister [DPM] is sometimes given to a senior minister in the Government, for example the deputy leader of the party in government or the leader of the smaller party in a coalition. The role of the Deputy Prime Minister is sometimes combined with other roles, but responsibilities will vary according to the circumstances….The fact that a person has the title of Deputy Prime Minister does not constrain the Sovereign’s power to appoint a successor to a Prime Minister.

The first and last line assets that a) there is no compulsory position for a UK DPM for any PM and b) the Sovereign appoints the next UK Prime Minster and all Prime Ministers even if there is a DPM. The again is the same for the ‘senior’ position of First Secretary of State (Cabinet Manual, 3.12). In the US, it is clear that if the POTUS is impeached, ill, or has passed away, the Vice President assumes his position or in the case of the major events, the DS. This naturally leads to critics wondering again: Should the PM be unfit (eg be medically ill or sick) or really murdered, who will take his or her place? The PM after all, directs the nation, the UK’s position globally, and especially the armed forces. Well, looking down in the history of British PMs, some had Deputy Prime Ministers like Churchill, Atlee, Eden, Macmillian, Thatcher, Major, Blair and of course, Cameron, naturally appointed a DPM from another political party given his coalition government. Macmillian, Wilson, Major, Blair, Brown and Cameron all also had First Secretaries of State, many of these were also DPMs before. For PMs without a clear DPM or First Secretary of State, they do still have a designated ‘deputy’, who appears prominently during Prime Ministers Questions when their boss is away. For example, Harriet Harman deputised for Gordon Brown in March 2009. In the case where there’s no clear deputy mentioned by the PM or found by the media, the deputy is usually the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

But really, does the UK need to copy the US and have a Designated Survivor during major events? One must realise that the DS in the US (and maybe in Russia and in China) isn’t just the leader-in-waiting during high-profile events, but part of the wider US Continuity of Government (COG) plan. This link gives a very detailed description of COG and COG is used almost daily, especially when the POTUS travels abroad. A US DS, as mentioned above, will be next to the nuclear football, formally known as the Presidential Emergency Satchel. He or she will be explained by the Football Carrier and possibly nearby senior military officers, the evacuation procedures and quite possibly, the range of targets for a nuclear attack or counterattack using ICBMs, SLBMs, B-2, B-52 bombers and in the future, B-21s. He or she will direct US Armed Forces, the US finances and the the whole might of the US nation after the elected POTUS. This is so because the US, whatever crises or wars it has been through, is still a reigning superpower and COG allows such power to be maintained and therefore a DS plays a crucial part in it.

What about the UK? The UK is not a mighty superpower it once was but is a P5 member on the UN Security Council, a leading member of the World Bank and the IMF, the G7.8/20 and so on. Yet, it nothing on the scale of the US, Russia or China, even as it should not falter in its efforts of being a major power. What I mean is, the UK does not, inasmuch as it tries, match might of the US of A. It does not have a nuclear triad like the US, Russia or China, and therefore there officially does not exist a UK equivalent of the nuclear football for any UK PM. The UK doesn’t have the range of conventional and strategic command and control a US POTUS or DS has or will have respectively. I mean, there is no UK equivalent of the E-6 Mercury or E-4 E4 Advanced Airborne Command Post for the  UK PM. The British PM does not even have a dedicated Air Force One like a POTUS has–don’t try to argue that the Cam or May Force One is the same as the VC-25s!

So really, the DS is not about one person but a range of assurances that yes, whatever happens to the US, there will always be a POTUS for the US of A. For the UK, its government, military/defence, economic and position it not near the size of US to warrant a constant COG. Yes, US COG doesn’t just happen at certain times but 24/7. The POTUS always has nuclear football near here 24/7/365, and people in the US line of succession are always kept in the loop. The UK, in contrast, again has a different and smaller range of leadership and global position and does not have a need for a person to standby to be PM. Having a DS or fixed individual ready to be PM would be not just a political waste, but a financial waste–the maintenance of a the US CG and DS must be really expensive and such expenditure would be better allocated to other areas of UK security. Furthermore, to create a UK DS or fixed deputy or vice PM, it would change the UK’s relationship with other major global powers and even increase the security threats to the UK. In the case of the US, because of its nuclear triad and range of powers, it can maintain a COG and a DS as it does not really change the threat levels towards the US. (This I know is debatable but I’ll leave it here.)

COG and DS usage in reality and well fiction

But, critics cry again, there have been times the UK and US leadership has been threaten and several US Presidents have been assassinated, most famously John F Kennedy. Recent files showed that the Soviets feared a random US General might have launched a nuclear strike on the Soviet Union immediately after his death. COG was more recently used in the September 11 attacks. Richard Clarke, the then National Coordinator for Security, Infrastructure Protection, and Counter-terrorism, initiated COG, which resulted in the then Speaker of the House, Denis Hastert, evacuated to a secure location and other Cabinet officials moved to alternative sites. (Read Clarke R. A, 2004, Against all Enemies, The Free Press, paperback version pp.7-9). Most recently, in fiction, Tom Kirkman, played by actor Kiefer Sutherland, was elevated from Secretary of Housing and Urban Development to POTUS due to an (spoilers!) American terrorist attack during the State of the Union address. If the ‘leader of the Free World’ can be threatened or killed, what about the UK PM?

A Designated Survivor in fiction: Tom Kirkman (Kiefer Sutherland) as the sudden President of the United States. This is most definitely the TV series Brown was watching and therefore tweeted about it. (All copyright is own by ABC).

On the UK end, luckily and maybe unluckily, there was only one British PM, Spencer Perceval who was assassinated in office. More well-known attempts on British PMs were the IRA attacks on the 1984 Conservative Party Conference in Brighton and the 1991 IRA mortar on 10 Downing Street. I don’t think Perceval had a deputy then or there was really need for the British leadership then to have a DS. Margaret Thatcher most certainly had a deputy, but it was not sure if she had a DS but most probably had a UK type of COG  during her Premiership. (I’m sure there are historians who know more about UK government protective procedures during the Cold War days since I’m not an expert on this.)

Much more recently, after the Cold War, after the September 11 attacks, after the 2003 Iraq War, yes, there was an attempt to structure the British Cabinet and parliament so that there would be a line of succession after the PM. This award goes to Peter Bone, MP for Wellingborough, who wondered what would happen if the then Prime Minister, David Cameron would be incapacitated or killed. Would Nick Clegg, the then Deputy Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, the Liberal Democrat leader, take over the coalition government which was Conservative Party-led? Drop your “morbid fascination” was the parliamentary reply from Clegg and the then PM. Cameron also added, “[a]ll I can say is that I have no plans to be incapacitated.” Bone still was undeterred and proposed this Prime Minister (Replacement) bill two years later, structuring who would be Prime Minister should the sitting PM be incapacitated or killed. You can review a debate of the bill here. Thankfully, Mr Cameron never got injured (only struck by a jogger) or killed in office. Bone continued to raise this issue with David Cameron again in September 2015 who would replace him if he was was killed. No answer. At present, Bone is still a MP today and still has this bill in mind as of 5 September 2017. One wonders if he will ask Theresa May the same question, give that she has not appointed a DPM or First Secretary of State after Damian Green resigned.

So that’s the recent history of attempts on the lives the British PM. There’s no fictional TV series or movie about British Designated Survivors (I could be wrong though). Do we still worry who will be in charge should there be a disaster or a London has fallen event? (I actually hate that movie by the way.) After 2010, there was the creation of the UK National Security Council which is ministers-staff and has sub-committees on threats and emergency procedures, so that all Ministers work in coordination and known what to do in the event of emergencies. But who does the rest of the wider UK government and armed forces trust during a huge disaster/strike?

In the 1997 action movie Air Force One, the Vice President asks: Who do they [people on Air Force One] trust up there? Who do we trust? (Picture copyright by Columbia Pictures)

Conclusion

A UK-style Designated Survivor for large important events such as the State Opening of Parliament or major events may be relevant. Yet, the UK’s military, economic and political in the the world is not the same as the US of A, and one must remember the Designated Survivor is a position within the wider scope of the constant US Continuity of Government. The UK may have its own version COG, but keeping a DS for events will be costly and quite frankly not needed. Across the UK’s parliamentary and Prime Minister’s history, it has survived through not just State Opening of Parliaments, but two World Wars and a range of other crises. Get a fixed deputy in charge? No,the Prime Minister of the day is decided and appointed by his or her Majesty.

Mr Peter Bone’s queries and plan, as thoughtful and relevant as it is, was more to ensure that no one individual who is not related to the Conservative Party replaces Cameron or May, not so much caring for a true UK-style Designated Survivor. The British Armed Forces, inasmuch as it is under civilian control, looks to the Sovereign of the day as their Commander-in-Chief. In the case of any crisis or emergency, I am sure all participants, from the military to down to the person in the street, will have a PM or leader in charge. Perhaps one day, there will be a changed role for the UK globally and thus a constitutional change that requires an awaiting person to be PM if and if the Prime Minister is insane, injured or killed. As of British political history and now, there is just no need for a Designated Survivor or a US-style Continuity of Government.

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So in a pre-“Trident Debate” mode let me say…

1) The whole debate is about replacing the ballistic missile submarines (officially the SSBNs). Not the Trident D5 missiles (whose name is incorrectly used to describe the whole system), not the nuclear warheads, which are the ones which cause the devastation. Read this House of Commons research report. Another simple to read document is this one, yet another MOD publication

2) No one and no organisation (including the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), the Scottish National Party (SNP), the anti-“Trident” Labour Party members including Jeremy Corbyn) have come up with a sensible idea what to do if the vote falls against the motion. No one has said how to properly scrap the not-even-completed-Successor-class submarines, how to quickly retrain specialised skilled workers, what to do with the Royal Navy submariners destined for these submarines, the support personnel, the civilians who support these personnel, their families. Then what to do with HMND Clyde which is prepared or is preparing to house these submarines.

3) People forget (and in relation to point 1)) that even if the vote doesn’t go in favour, it does not mean the UK’s nuclear weapons are gone. With the vote just about replacing the SSBNs, the missiles (yeah of course they are American-made but British-leased) will still be there. The nuclear warheads will still be there. Again, in relation to point 2, no one has created an idea how to dismantle all of them safely and quickly without thinking about the astronomical cost. At the most, the Yanks (heh) will take back the missiles, AWE will have to prove they can dismantle the warheads (such cost still paid by the British (not just Scottish) taxpayer) and their whole company.

4) A removal of the submarines and then maybe the whole infrastructure (which the vote again is not about) WILL NOT reduce global nuclear weapons or create a spark for nuclear weapons reduction. The response will likely be: US (and France) will increase their warheads or delivery systems to match the loss of the UK’s nuclear deterrent. Or Russia and China may also join the “replace the short fall” race. Or regional, non-Nuclear Proliferation Treaty (NPT) nuclear powers would increase their stockpile.

5) With the lack of any current feasible anti-ballistic missile defence (BMD) system, a total removal of the UK’s nuclear deterrent would be the UK has no option should there be a nuclear threat (however so unlikely) or WMD or non-WMD missiles launched at British territories or interests. Of course, using a nuclear response to a non-nuclear attack has always been ruled out by British governments. However, the total removal of its deterrent means the door will be really open for threats. Can diplomacy and conventional forces subdue the threats?

6) The UK is a puny nuclear deterrent nation. The US has its triad (Bombers, ICBMs and SSBNs with SLBMs and tactical nuclear weapons–eek!), the French has two modes of delivery (SSBNs and via fighters (Rafales) launched by land or via their single aircraft carrier). The Russians have a less updated (maybe) triad which is being modernised. China (PRC) has some sort of triad. And then there are regional nuclear powers as mentioned in point 4. So a removal will mean a removal of the puniest nuclear weapons state.

7) The issue therefore is not about the Successor-class submarines or system of delivery but about reducing what is the real WMD–the warheads. At around 120 operationally available warheads and a stockpile of around 225 warheads, it is argued by pro-“Trident” pundits that is enough or not enough. I say there can be a slow phased reduction but simultaneously, there must be harder or more efforts placed on multilateral non-nuclear proliferation. The UK is right to maintain a minimum deterrent but not correct is being arrogant about it.

8) As the information charts say, this nuclear deterrent has never been set out to deter conventional, state or non-state based threats including terrorism. Yes, each terrorist or non-nuclear attack every day makes it hard to believe that the UK needs a deterrent. I bet the submariners, no some of them, are thinking, what the hell am I doing when London was attacked on 7 July 2005, or the latest Nice attacks. Or what’s happening in Syria. But again, don’t shut down all your electrical goods because you want to save energy. That’s too extreme….

9) Continuous-at-sea-deterrent (CASD) does play another crucial role besides (attempting) to deter nuclear threats from state powers. It helps train submariners, from the chef to the captain, on submarine-based procedures. It’s not your holiday cruise but a military activity where crew members do get their “Dolphins”. Removing their vessels or boats means less ability to train them.

10) Back to point 2. What’s going to replace the SSBNs? There’s no such thing as money immediately going back to the government’s “bank” because you still need to spend it on dismantling the submarines and their infrastructure (as I pointed out), and probably more billions in safely removed the whole system. By then, would you expect government to say, hey, here are savings for the NHS and non-military means? Or military stuff?

Comments on the “UK nuclear deterrence factsheet”

My comments on this pretty well written factsheet produced by the British Ministry of Defence. (Comments are in dark blue).

UK and nuclear disarmament

  • as a responsible nuclear weapon state and party to the Treaty on the Non Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), the UK also remains committed to the long term goal of a world without nuclear weapons
  • we have reduced our own nuclear forces by over half from their Cold War peak in the late 1970s (This is debatable. Yes, the UK has reduced its nuclear stockpile but so have others. What really counts wht effect this had internationally each time the stockpile was reduced)
  • we are the only nuclear weapon State recognised under the NPT which has reduced its deterrent capability to a single nuclear weapon system; We have dismantled our maritime tactical nuclear capability and the RAF’s WE177 free fall bombs (Same argument as above.)
  • as a result of our reassessment of the minimum necessary requirements for credible deterrence, since 2010 we have:
    • reduced the number of warheads onboard each submarine from 48 to 40
    • reduced our requirement for operationally available warheads from fewer than 160 to no more than 120
    • reduced the number of operational missiles on each submarine to not more than 8
    • by the mid-2020s, we will reduce the overall nuclear weapon stockpile to no more than 180 warheads, meeting the commitments set out in the 2010 Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) (Yes again, what is the effect on other stockpiles in nuclear weapon states.)
  • of the recognised ‘nuclear weapons states’ (NWS), we possess only approximately 1% of the total global stockpile of nuclear weapons, the smallest of all the NPT nuclear weapon states (That is great but again, has that have or had any effect internationally?)
  • our submarines on patrol are at several days’ notice to fire and, since 1994, we do not target our missiles at any state (Yay, but in the very unlikely case of possible nuclear conflict, how fast can you re-target?)
  • the UK plays a leading role on disarmament verification with the US and Norway (Expand please?)

An independent deterrent

  • since 1969, the Royal Navy has delivered the nuclear deterrent under Operation Relentless, with at least 1 of 4 nuclear armed submarines on patrol at all times (Great to know this, but how does this really deter and what effect does it have or not have on conventional forces, especially with 4×2 crews)
  • our retention of an independent centre of nuclear decision making makes clear to any adversary that the costs of an attack on UK vital interests will outweigh any benefits (Got to convince the wider public that it is really independent since you are the only P5 nation to use the missile or delivery weapon not build by yourself.)
  • decision making and use of the system remains entirely sovereign to the UK; only the Prime Minister can authorise the launch of nuclear weapons, which ensures that political control is maintained at all times
  • the instruction to fire would be transmitted to the submarine using only UK codes and UK equipment; all the command and control procedures are fully independent (But unlike the US or even Russia, you don’t have a Permission Active Link (PAL) or well known two-man rule. How do we know that submarine commanders or people of high authority won’t abuse this system?)
  • Vanguard and Successor submarines can operate readily without the Global Positioning by Satellite (GPS) system and the Trident D5 missile does not use GPS at all (Got to make this known to the public)
  • our procurement relationship with the US regarding the Trident Missile does not compromise the operational independence of our nuclear deterrent

A minimum and credible deterrent

  • we are committed to maintaining the minimum amount of destructive power needed to deter any aggressor. This requires us to ensure that our deterrent is not vulnerable to pre-emptive action by potential adversaries (But how about implementing a no-first use policy like China? Otherwise it still seems like the UK is threatening other states, despite the assurance of no usage against non-nuclear weapons states.)
  • we require a fleet of 4 submarines to maintain 1 continuously on patrol and retaining this posture is essential to assure the invulnerability of the deterrent (Why? Explain. And explain why 2 crews per SSBN?)
  • our preference is for an invulnerable and undetectable system, which allows us to maintain it at a minimum level of scale and readiness, but we believe that it should also be capable of being held at high readiness for extended periods of time
  • invulnerability and security of capability are key components of the credibility of our deterrent and contribute to overall stability (Nothing is really invulnerable. Even stealth aircraft have been detected and shot down.)

Cost

  • the Trident Alternatives Review in 2013 demonstrated that no alternative system is as capable as the current Trident based deterrent, or as cost effective (Or was this too general a review?)
  • as set in the 2015 SDSR we estimate that 4 new Successor submarines will cost £31 billion to build, test and commission, spread over 35 years, with a contingency of £10 billion. On average, that amounts to 0.2% per year of government spending (Yes, but is this figure fixed even with inflation and changes in GDP?)
  • we expect that, once the new fleet of deterrent submarines come into service, the in-service costs of the UK’s nuclear deterrent will be similar to those of today, at around 6% of the defence budget (Again, what ratio will this be to UK conventional forces?)
  • UK and US nuclear defence cooperation is underpinned by the recently renewed 1958 Mutual Defence Agreement and the 1963 Polaris Sales Agreement; among other things, these allow the UK to reduce costs by procuring Trident missiles and other components from the US while maintaining full operational independence (Convinces me but is vague and won’t convince the man in the street.)
  • any programme to develop and manufacture a new cruise missile would cost far more than retaining the Trident D5 missile; in terms of both cost and capability, retaining the Trident D5 missile is by far the best approach (You wonder why the French have a nuclear-tipped cruise missile and the US is developing one.)

Threat

  • it is a key responsibility of government to be sure that the UK is properly protected should the future turn out to be less secure than we hope (But how likely is the threat of a nuclear war, with or without a nuclear deterrent? Should there be a threat, should the UK response by “nuking” others back?)
  • in spite of the successes of arms control activities in slowing the proliferation of nuclear weapons, the number of states with nuclear capabilities has continued to grow (And is this the constant excuse to retain the deterrent? Why not try hard in bilateral and multilateral nuclear arms reduction agreements?)
  • there are risks that, over the next 20 to 50 years, a major direct nuclear threat to the UK or our NATO Allies might re-emerge; a state’s intent in relation to the use or threat of use of existing capabilities could change relatively quickly: for example, there was little prior warning of the collapse of the Soviet Union (Right again, is the threat of a nuclear war or explosion best to be replied by a similar or larger nuclear retaliation?)
  • when the case for the UK’s independent nuclear deterrent was last presented to Parliament, by the Labour government in 2006-07, it was acknowledged that the old certainties of the Cold War were gone. It was recognised that the UK faced a growing number of diverse and complex threats in an unpredictable world (You were lucky there weren’t many SNP MPs then.)
  • similar key judgements were made in the recent National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence Review. There is a risk that states with nuclear weapons, or those seeking to acquire them, might use their nuclear capabilities to threaten the UK, and attempt to constrain our decision making in a crisis or sponsor nuclear terrorism
  • therefore the government is committed to maintaining the UK’s independent nuclear deterrent to deter the most extreme threats to our national security and way of life, now and in the future (And for eternity?)
  • we know that international terrorists are trying to acquire radiological weapons. There are risks that they may try to aquire nuclear weapons; while our nuclear deterrent is not designed to deter non-state actors, it should influence the decision making of any state that might consider transferring nuclear weapons or nuclear technology to terrorists (So in the horrible event a terrorist nukes UK territory, what can the UK’s SLBMs do in response?)

Myths and discussion points

Myth 1. The nuclear deterrent is obsolete as it does not deter terrorism.

The nuclear deterrent wasn’t intended to deter terrorists. The UK has policies and capabilities to deal with the wide range of threats we currently face or might face in the future. Our nuclear deterrent is there to deter the most extreme threats to our national security and way of life, which cannot be done by other means. (Yes I’ve heard that before. Trouble is, how intense is the focus on the deterrent vs the focus on anti-terrorism? Is is possible that more reduction in warheads or even the boats could displace more money for conventional arms?)

Myth 2. The money spent maintaining a nuclear deterrent would otherwise be invested in our conventional capabilities.

Nuclear weapons remain a necessary element of the capability we need to deter threats from others possessing nuclear weapons. Conventional forces cannot deliver the same deterrent effect. The investment required to maintain our deterrent will not come at the expense of the conventional capabilities our armed forces need. (Yes, but again if you are nuked, is is right to nuke the other country back? Think about negative externalities.)

Myth 3. Submarines could become vulnerable to new technological developments such as underwater drones or cyber attack.

We believe it is unlikely there will be any radical technological breakthrough which might diminish the current advantages of the submarine over potential anti-submarine systems. In any event, we judge that a submarine will remain by far the least vulnerable of all the platform options.(Water didn’t stop the Titanic from sinking. Water sunk the Titanic. Or in other words, don’t be so cock-sure.)

Myth 4. Replacing Trident is illegal.

Maintaining a minimum nuclear deterrent is fully consistent with all our international legal obligations, including those under the NPT. (Lucky for the NPT to be vague.)

Discussion point 1. The UK does not require a nuclear deterrent as we are already protected by the US nuclear deterrent.

A potential adversary might miscalculate the degree of US commitment to the defence and security of Europe. An independent deterrent provides the assurance that it can be used to deter attacks on our vital interests. An independent centre of nuclear decision making in the UK also reinforces the overall deterrent effect of allied nuclear forces and thus enhances our security and that of NATO allies. (Wait till Donald Trump or a Trump-like President gets into power…)

Discussion point 2. All the UK needs is a dormant nuclear weapons capability, from which we could re-establish a deterrent if and when specific threats emerge.

Any UK decision to give up an active credible nuclear deterrent system would, for political and cost reasons, be extremely difficult to reverse. In practice, the timeframe for re-establishing a credible minimum deterrent would probably be longer than the likely warning of any change in intent of an established nuclear power or any covert programme elsewhere to develop nuclear weapons. Also, any move from a dormant programme towards an active one could be seen as escalatory, and thus potentially destabilising, in a crisis. (Re last sentence, how would it be “escalatory”, that is, how would adversaries know you are re-arming?)

Discussion point 3. We don’t need a continuous deterrent.

If we ceased continuous deterrent patrols, we could be deterred or prevented from deploying an SSBN in a crisis. The submarine is by far the least vulnerable of the platform options.

Discussion point 4. We could make do with an aircraft delivered system.

Short and medium range aircraft operating from the UK or overseas, or short or medium range land based missiles, do not provide an assured deterrent on the grounds that these options lack sufficient range. Even aircraft launched from aircraft carriers would not meet our range criteria. Furthermore, these options would be vulnerable to pre-emptive attacks, or to interception by air defence systems whilst in the air.

The nuclear button–the fallacy, the missing point

Since bearded, love-IRA, hate-NATO, love-Hamas (you get my drift) Corbyn was “elected” leader of the UK Labour Party and thus Leader of Her Majesty’s Most Loyal Opposition, there has been controversy almost every other day. One of the biggest was that over the UK’s nuclear deterrent, erroneously called “Trident” in British circles. Corbyn, a a certain BBC Today Programme, stated that “I am opposed to the use of nuclear weapons. I [Corbyn] am opposed to the holding of nuclear weapons…” and the report claimed that “Should he get to Number 10, he said simply, he would not press the nuclear button…” (see this news report).

Fast foward to 4 October 2015 where Andrew Marr interviewed David Cameron. Here’s the full transcript (I don’t have access to the BBC today transcript.) Andrew Marr asked:

Marr: You mentioned Jeremy Corbyn just now. He said, with admirable clarity and honesty, that there were no circumstances in which he would press the nuclear button. Would you say the same or would you say yes there are circumstances…

 

Cameron: …No his answer … The problem with his answer is that if you want to have…if you believe, like me, that Britain should keep the ultimate insurance policy of an independent nuclear deterrent, you have to accept there are circumstances in which its use would be justified. And if you give any other answer other than that, you are frankly undermining our national security, undermining our deterrent and making Britain in a dangerous world…

 

Marr: So you would press the button in short?

 

Cameron: I’ve given the answer, which is if you believe in the nuclear deterrent – as I do – you have to accept there are circumstances that justify its use.

My interpretation is that Corbyn would never increase the readiness level of the SSBNs or never issue the order to fire if the UK is under the threat of a state-led nuclear attack or has already been nuked, Corbyn as PM (ugh!) would not fire a Trident D5 missile in retaliation (since if he was PM he would have dismantled the SSBNs and their SLBMS). David Cameron and future possible conservative PMs would do the opposite: should the UK be under nuclear attack or nuked, they would increase the alert level of the deployed SSBN and fire back in retaliation if the UK was nuked.

Corbyn’s “I will never push the button” stated resulted in many media and social media “outrage” that he’s not a leader with any credibility on defence and is undermining defence and the nuclear deterrent. Mark Stout from War on the Rocks wrote pro-nuclear deterrent article attack dear bearded one and saying he should never be Prime Minister.

That’s find, people can be outraged. The fact of the matter is that Andrew Marr and media outlets created a storm with factually incorrect information. First, there is no “nuclear button” in the UK. Yes, it is known that UK command and control over its nuclear weapons in the past and present is not as stringent as in the US. Former WE, 177 bombs were only secured via so-called bicycle locks. Past and possible current SSBNs do not have the US “Permission Active Link” security system PAL as the MOD said, “The number of participants required to act in concert means that the ‘Permissive Action Link’ type safeguards found in other systems are not relevant in the SSBN domain” and “The UK took a decision not to install Trident CCDs or their equivalent on the grounds that an aggressor might be able to wipe out the British chain of command before a launch order had been sent”. (This matter of weak C&C will be discussed in another post.) Instead of having a so-called button, all UK Prime Ministers (possibly) go through a similar “two-man” rule, like the US POTUS does (should they want to start or add to doomsday). As Paul Beaver, a strong military analyst explained, the order (to launch a SLBM) has to go through several protocols I quote the news article:

A sequencing system ensures a printed code, stored in a secret Ministry of Defence location, has to tally with that kept in a safe on board the nuclear submarine. Two officers, extensively tested for their mental stability, sit in separate parts of the submarine and enter the code simultaneously into a computer, allowing the launch. The PM makes the decision, but several other people probably get involved at various points during the process, including the attorney general and the chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee.

The rest of the article talks about the “letters of last resort” which is more well known and written in open access publications. This two-man control has also been confirmed by RUSI analyst and nuclear proliferation expert Andrea Berger, who told yours truly that If PM inputs code in PINDAR he needs [a] second person (CDS I believe) to verify. Formally, order won’t go anywhere without it. (Pindar is the protected bunker under Whitehall–possibly–where the PM and staff would go in nuclear crisis or something of that sort). Beyond the two-man control (especially on board the submarine), former Chief of the Defence Staff (CDS) Lord Guthrie says the Monarch of the day controls the armed forces so that even an irrational or lunatic Prime Minister won’t be able to easily start World War Three. (This claim may sound far-fetched though). The bottom line is that neither anti-nuclear weapons Corbyn no “yes I’ll fire” Cameron or any future (or past) UK Prime Minister can easily press. So end of ruckus please.

The second issue missing from the Marr and BBC question is the time frame that leaders to the decision. In both C and C’s claim, they won’t or will fire due to a threat or an attack to the UK. However, exactly what led up to this threat? Was there a total breakdown in relationships between the UK and a nuclear weapon state? Did negotiations fails? Did conventional war break out or large-scale proxy war? Was the UK acting aggressively or too passively? The whole conventional idea of the nuclear deterrent means that I won’t fire because I know you wold fire back. But about the time frame that may cause State A to still fire? This is the big question that people must ponder over.

 

Arguments against Trident: Beyond moral views and usefulness

The Nuclear Information Service, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, and General (rtd) Sir Hugh Beach others have made a strong arguments against the retention and renewal of the ballistic missile system in the UK, colloquially known and “Trident” (after the US Submarine Launched Ballistic Missile (SLBM)). Their arguments can be found in this evidence paper.

Given the extensive arguments presented, I turn to cover another area not exactly mentioned. That is, the burden of keeping Continuous at Sea Deterrent or CASD. As the name implies, 24/7/365, there is at least one UK Vanguard Class SSBN “patrolling” somewhere in the ocean. A second is undergoing training (and ready to relieve the patrol boat when it returns), a third is under maintenance while a fourth is in reserve (may also be readying to relieve the patrol boat). This is drawn from page 7 of this research paper.

Such tight non-stop patrols means that Royal Navy submariners are tasked forever to fixed on the deadly duty of “deterring” others from other nations from launching nuclear/chemical/biological weapons against the UK. Each V-Boat is crewed by 135 sailors. And each V-Boat, unlike SSNs, has two crews to ensure unbreakable CASD–known as Port and Starboard crews. A look at an old Royal Navy Bridge Card for example, shows that at least Vanguard and Vengeance have two crews–I’m sure all four boats have. This means that 135×4=540 sailors are on nuclear deterrence. Given the need to deploy, train, maintain (and crews train while there’s maintenance) and be on reserve, it is highly unlikely the 540 sailors can be used for other tasks.

This means that this lot of “special” officers and ratings are kept forever from executing conventional duties. In recent increasing need for the Royal Navy to be even more global, 540 sailors aren’t able to contribute to normal patrols or respond to emerging crisis. It is even more than that considering that there are others in the operational management of the whole nuclear deterrent–for example, staff in Faslane, the MOD and elsewhere. Furthermore, in the latest era of cuts, this means that well, these 540 plus sailors and troops are sparred. That’s nice, but it also means that while you retrench other sailors, the 540 would be looked on jealously–“hey, we should have volunteered to be V-boat sailors, then we wouldn’t have been sacked!” In an opposite angle, retaining 540 plus sailors that cannot perform duties such as daily patrols, Fleet Ready Escort or even homeland resilence–helping with the floods.

Another angle is that the V-Boats do not just carry deadly Trident D5 SLBMs. They also have four torpedo tubes for firing Spearfish Torpedoes. With four tubes, this means that there are at least eight (or ten) Spearfish Torpedoes per boat. So at least 32 Spearfishes are with the V-Boats. This is alot and it means that the Navy cannot use 30 plus torpedoes. V-Boats are not attack submarines can cannot act like one. Even if one wants to (take away the SLBMs), V-Boats are not of the design to conduct SSN-like missions. And again, in the era of cuts and calls for making the RN stronger, well you have torpedoes in untouchable subs which you cannot withdraw them from.

Back to the personnel angle, with four boats, V-Boats or its successor, this means feeding and paying around 540 sailors (if by any luck the next class will require less manpower). Again, hundreds of foodstuff needed to feed sailors who frankly, do nothing except know they have doomsday devices that can be launched. The pay may be better than other Royal Navy sailors, but again, with budgets tight, it’s a unsaid ringfencing.

Thus, personnel torpedoes, food and payment. And you still wish to have four nuclear-powered submarines with weapons that should never be used??