Op-ed: Opportunity cost of Trident too high

Posted: 08/27/2013

Recently the MoD published its long-awaited Review of Alternatives to Trident, written at the behest of the Liberal Democrats. It says that cruise missiles might have been a viable alternative but for two things – the existing Trident warheads are not suitable for use in cruise missiles and that it would take 24 years to develop a new warhead.

This is such a long timescale that the Vanguard-class subs would have been retired before the new system was available, necessitating the purchase of two new Trident SSNBNs as a stop-gap and therefore wiping out any cost-savings.

I find the point about it taking 24 years to develop a new warhead to be particularly astonishing, but reading between the lines of the report perhaps one might wonder if the UK hasn’t lost the ability to design new warheads altogether.

So far as the suitability of existing warheads to go in cruise missiles is concerned, the case rests on two points.

  1. In the case of horizontally-launched missiles, these would have to be stored in the torpedo room in close proximity to the crew, and this would necessitate the development of a low-radiation warhead. I don’t suppose we can argue with that point. Developing a low-radiation warhead would take even longer than 24 years.
  2. The report also says that the existing Trident warheads are too delicate and would not stand up to the manhandling that cruise-missiles are subjected to. One can imagine that horizontally-launched cruise-missiles manhandled down into the torpedo room might be subject to a few knocks but in the case of vertically-launched cruise missiles, why should the handling of the warheads be any different to what they experience in vertically-launched Trident missiles?

What the report did not say was that the warheads are too big to fit inside a 21" diameter cruise missile. Considering 12 warheads plus decoys have to fit inside a Trident, I suppose it is reasonable to assume the warheads are not that large. Had the Trident warheads been too large for a cruise missile I am sure the report would have said so.

Comparing vertically-launched cruise-missiles with Trident, the only difference in what shocks the warhead would experience post-launch, when the cruise-missile cants over to follow a horizontal course to its target while the Trident missile continues onwards, upwards and then downwards on a ballistic trajectory. The report is quite adamant that the Trident warhead would not be suitable for cruise-missile use, but how do we know that? If Aldermaston has lost the people who can design warheads, they might also lack the people who can make an informed judgement on this issue too. It should be easy enough to put some sensors in a Tomahawk and measure the acceleration, g-forces and shocks that a cruise-missile warhead might be subject to in a real launch, then take an existing warhead and subject it to the same (or worse) shocks to see what, if anything, breaks? Has the MoD ever done this? If not, how can it be so sure the Trident warhead would not be suitable?

Let us suppose that Trident warheads are indeed suitable for use in vertically-launched cruise missiles – what then? The main capital cost of the like-for-like replacement of Trident is in the four big submarines, with a quoted coast of £11-14 billion. At an guesstimate, we would have to reserve around £2-3 billion to develop a new indigenous cruise missile, which would still leave us with £10 billion.

Here are some important points to consider:

  • How many of the seven planned Astute-class boats can be fitted with vertical launch tubes, and why were they not part of the original design anyway? The keel has already been laid for the sixth boat so it may now be too late to change its design and incorporate vertical tubes. The worst case scenario is that only the seventh boat onwards could have vertical tubes fitted and I presume it is too much to contemplate chopping existing subs in two and inserting a new section – although the Spanish are contemplating something similar for their new subs.
  • We will need more Astutes beyond the planned seven, which may need to be supplemented by cheaper conventional boats. Astutes currently cost £1.2 billion each, while the biggest and best conventional boats are about £500 million each. So, three extra Astutes, with the seventh, eighth, ninth and tenth having vertical tubes, would be £3.6 billion.
  • Half a dozen big conventional boats, which would also be fitted with vertical tubes, at £500 million each is £3 billion. We now have a submarine fleet of 16 boats, much better than at present.
  • A dozen frigate-sized OPV / patrol frigates, like the French ‘Floreal’ class or the Dutch ‘Holland’ class – would be about £1.5 billion. This would quickly and dramatically ease the Navy’s surface ship numbers problem.
  • And what about two more Type 45s? Six isn’t very many as only two are on operations at any given time. At £700 million each, that’s another £1.4 billion.
  • With the remaining £500 million, perhaps we could buy another big amphibious ship? Or more MARS replenishment ships?

This is just the author’s preference of course. Many other shopping lists are possible but it is clear from this ‘fantasy navy’ exercise that the opportunity cost of Trident is pretty high. And the case for the like-for-like replacement of Trident rests on the assertion that Trident warheads are too delicate to be used in cruise missiles, and that it would take 24 years to develop a warhead suitable for cruise missiles (despite France and Israel already having such warheads). It is very difficult for politicians to argue with such assertions, however sceptical we may be.

Finally - do we really need a deterrent in this day and age anyway? A good question, but probably a redundant one, I doubt if anyone could get unilateral disarmament through parliament before 2016.

What do you think about Trident? Does the MOD report confirm your beliefs or confound the issue? Email haveyoursay@defenceiq.com with blogs, questions and opinions.

Posted: 08/27/2013

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