July 22, 2013
Credit: U.S. Navy
Somewhere under the Atlantic, one of the U.K.'s Vanguard-class ballistic missile submarines is on its secret deterrence patrol, safeguarding British sovereignty with its Trident missiles. But on the surface, the future of this deterrent is facing very public scrutiny as the government prepares to lay the foundations for its replacement.
The government wants to replace its four ballistic missile submarines (SSBN) with a new generation, and new warheads for the refurbished Trident missiles, but the cost of the program—estimated at £15-20 billion ($23-30 billion)—is a difficult one to swallow as the country tries to reduce government spending, particularly for the armed services.
The current coalition government, formed by the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, have pushed the new SSBN program—called Successor—ahead, with the signature of contracts worth hundreds of millions of pounds. Even before a final “main gate” decision on the development of Successor, due in 2016, the government is due to have spent at least £3 billion.
Now, a review of alternatives to Trident has been published—in a redacted form—prompting discussion of the program's future. Publishing of the review was called for by Liberal Democrats, who have long believed the price tag for the deterrent is too high and that the funds could be best spent by better equipping conventional forces.
With four submarines, the U.K. is able to maintain a 24-hr. deterrent, with submarines in dock ready for deployment and another in refit or maintenance. But the Liberals believe the mission can be achieved without “continuous at-sea deterrence.”
In a speech to the Royal United Services Institute on July 16, Danny Alexander, Liberal Democrat chief secretary to the treasury and minister in charge of the Trident alternatives review, said that the review process provided a “real opportunity” for making long-term savings and “recalibrating our nuclear weapons policy to the requirements of our age, and to contributing to nuclear disarmament.”
While the Liberals do not have a policy of unilateral disarmament, their stance suggests that while the U.K. is not at risk of surprise attack, such as during the Cold War, the new Successor submarines could be held at readiness rather than sitting on a “hair-trigger.”