UK’s credibility with Washington rests on a knife-edge.
When circumstances change, defence policy should too. Yet British governments have a patchy record. For many years, Conservative governments preferred a series of budget cuts to a properly conducted review of defence and security. The last serious effort to calibrate military spending with foreign policy was under Labour in 1998. The coalition government’s review of 2010 was another budget-driven exercise, which lacked intellectual rigour and did deep damage to Britain’s military power.
The defence review promised for 2015 — a date chosen to avoid difficult decisions before the election — must surely aim to set straight glaring deficiencies in capabilities arising from the 2010 review. The lack of a maritime patrol aircraft has been a humiliation, which forced a proud maritime nation to go cap in hand to allies for assistance last year when the presence of a Russian submarine was suspected in the UK’s nuclear deterrent transit area. Libya exposed the chronic shortage of ships designed for combat, and Britain’s inability to launch air attacks from the sea. TheUK does not have enough combat aircraft. The army, the navy and the air force all want for specialised personnel.
Moreover, there is an unhelpful technological argument that is becoming fashionable among some who are entrusted with explaining why Britain is still safe despite major cuts to the military power previously thought necessary. Even the Chief of Defence Staff’s 2014 Rusi lecture gave this new creed added respectability by describing a new warfare where the metrics of firepower are no longer the dominant factor. Cyber, data fusion, robotics would, it is prophesied, spawn this new way of waging war. If kinetic force is now less important, perhaps we are still safe with fewer capabilities and less mass?
This proposition needs much thought. It should be tested carefully through research and simulated war games. None of this has yet been done. History suggests relying on revolutionary technologies is risky. For every technological breakthrough, another arrives to negate it.
The Ministry of Defence is preparing for the coming review, but there are considerable obstacles to producing anything useful. There is the strong possibility of a hung parliament, with an uneasy coalition in government. A coalition of the Labour and Scottish National parties might even have a deputy prime minister committed both to the destruction of the union and the dismantling of the nuclear deterrent. There is little chance of an overall majority. Another general election might follow before long. In such circumstances, is any government capable of doing what is needed to maintain the UK’s place in Nato and its international interests and responsibilities?
The US is the UK’s principal ally. Yet our credibility with Washington rests on a knife-edge. Informed sources on both sides of the Atlantic say so, yet ministers deny it. This is denial on a grand scale.
Our potential enemies are not standing still. Every technical advantage is transient. The introduction of radar made a difference in the Battle of Britain. But it was our ability to build new fighters faster than Germany that was decisive. Imagine if we had concluded that radar allowed us to fight a war with fewer resources, and mothballed some of our fighter force and our factories.
The evidence points strongly to the likelihood that these new modes of warfare are adjuncts to hard kinetic fighting power. They may be indispensable, but they are adjuncts nonetheless. Why is it that the nations most involved in developing cyber-weapons also see the need to possess massive conventional forces?
We sorely need a defence review of real depth and integrity. If another round of botch and cut is all that is on offer, it would be better to wait until our rulers have the time and inclination to think deeply about Britain’s defence.
The writer was Chief of the Air Staff from 1992 to 1997
This piece first appeared in the Financial Times
Against a background of severe cuts to our Armed Force, and at least suspicions that there are more to come, it is probably inevitable that the need for, desirability and affordability of the UK Nuclear Deterrent will be subjected to even more intensive scrutiny than before. I have certainly heard some of this scrutiny from friends and acquaintances, and have noted that it is often from individuals who would never previously have been concerned about the issue. However, when discussing it with those who argue for its abandonment, it is difficult to find a simple, straightforward, inclusive case for maintaining the UK nuclear deterrent and that this should consist of a Trident-like system. The following comments are a personal attempt to build such a case.
We live in a dangerous, unpredictable and unstable world with unlimited scope for international disputes - real, imaginary or constructed - over territory, trade, faith, politics, water, energy and other natural resources.
We cannot be certain that, in the future, a totalitarian regime, fuelled by religious or ideological fanaticism, will not wish to threaten if not attack us with nuclear weapons, or with chemical, biological or cyber weapons which could be equally devastating to the nation and its people. We must have the means to deter such threats and, if attacked, to eliminate or reduce an enemy's capability to continue or escalate them. Our conventional forces have been run down to the extent that they are no longer capable, if ever they were, of achieving this, and with the USA refocussing its interest and military capability towards the East, it is essential that we retain our independent nuclear deterrent as our ultimate guarantor of security.
However unlikely or unpalatable it may be, we cannot be certain that we will never need to use nuclear weapons to defend ourselves and given that the UK independent nuclear deterrent is only about 3 to 4% of the defence budget, it is surely far better to have it and not need it, than need it but not have it.
Our possession of nuclear weapons signals to the world that we are in the first order of international, industrial and technological importance. Our permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council gives us enormous influence on the World and international relations. It is almost certain that, if we became the only permanent member of the Security Council without nuclear weapons, we would soon be unable to resist a clamour from nuclear nations such as India and Pakistan to replace us. That would be a huge blow to our international standing and reduce our ability to help resolve conflict in the world, thus, paradoxically, harming our own security interests. The desire to replace us on the Security Council might spur nations with a growing economy and technological capability to develop nuclear weapons in furtherance of this.
Our development and retention of nuclear weapons means that we have a huge reservoir of knowledge and expertise on their technology, design, construction, storage, command and control, and delivery. This enables us to more effectively monitor potential nuclear proliferation and take the right diplomatic, treaty and trade embargo actions to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons.
Economy and Industry
Building reliable, effective and safe nuclear weapons and their delivery systems necessitates substantial research and development in a wide range of advanced technologies, many of which have, or contribute to, non-military applications. These include maritime construction, navigation, communications, hydrographics, exploration, propulsion, medicine and acoustics. The expertise gained contributes substantially to the UK's advanced industrial base and helps the economy in no small way.
Without the driving force of the nuclear weapons programme, much of this expertise, and the huge numbers of jobs that derive from it, would disappear. Much of the nuclear weapons programme is in parts of the UK that would be particularly hard hit by the loss to their livelihood.
WHY A TRIDENT-LIKE SYSTEM?
The two main political parties are committed to replacing the combination of Vanguard submarines carrying Trident missiles with a like-for-like system. Other parties also agree that we should retain nuclear weapons, but there are voices that want a cheaper alternative. Such opinion has usually cited using Astute-class submarines with Tomahawk cruise missiles, or reducing the number of Vanguard class submarines by up to a half. The latter would mean that patrols could not be maintained continuously, leaving the country defenceless for months at a time while saving very little money. Aircraft and land-based delivery systems are so vulnerable and inflexible that no serious suggestion that these should be developed has been made.
Astute-class submarines are built and optimised for specific purposes (principally, detecting and attacking enemy submarines and ships). They were never intended to carry and deliver strategic nuclear weapons, and would require major and extremely expensive modifications to enable them to do so. Even then, they would not be optimised for this role and would be a poor alternative to a vessel that was.
We have few enough Astute-class submarines for their existing and very much essential roles, so would need to build additional ones.
Tomahawk cruise missiles are slow, fly low and have limited range and nuclear "punch" compared with Trident missiles. They can easily be detected and subjected to countermeasures or prompt retaliation. Furthermore, they may well be unusable if they cannot overfly particular territory because of political or military considerations.
Much of the deterrent value of Trident derives from its ability to deliver devastating destruction with little or no warning, thus leaving limited opportunity to deploy defensive or retaliatory measures. In contrast, cruise missiles give a great deal of warning, are vulnerable and have limited destructive power. A potential adversary might conclude that they are of limited deterrence because an attack by them could be countered and ridden out.
In short, neither the economic nor the military argument for the Astute/Tomahawk option stands scrutiny. The idea that we should soldier (sailor?) on with a much reduced fleet of our existing assets would, in my view, be as sensible as saving money by keeping fire stations open for only half the year.
I reiterate that the above text represents a personal view only and that it does not try to present any of the political, military, moral or financial arguments against a UK nuclear deterrent – it seems to me that the voices for them have always been noisy and need no help from me. The need for national security is, of course, the most compelling part of the protagonist case but I submit that there is more to it that, and have tried to be complete.
These notes are in the “Blog” section of the UKNDA web site, which emphasises their personal nature and also opens them up to comment from others. I would welcome any such comments.
HMS Severn (1700 tonnes) has just set off across the Atlantic to take over the duty of the “Atlantic Patrol North” which is normally the task of a Frigate or Destroyer and it is an unusual departure for an Offshore Patrol Vessel (OPV) to undertake the role, even if it is to be patrolling the calmer waters of the Caribbean.
The RN has a “peacetime” task of Caribbean Patrol as part of an agreement with the USA, the Netherlands and France in which warships are provided during the hurricane season to standby for disaster relief; there is a further arrangement with US Coastguard (USCG) to combat drug smuggling - HMS Argyll has had considerable success in this activity recently. Further, the RN has a responsibility to visit the Overseas Territories and Commonwealth nations in the Caribbean as part of “security and reassurance”, for want of a better phrase. Lastly, there is a need to foster good relations with other countries in the Caribbean, South and Central America and, of course, the USA. This is achieved by small scale exercises, port visits in which British industry uses the ships to display their wares, and more formal visits in support of diplomacy.
These tasks are not new, save combatting drug smuggling which has increased dramatically in importance in recent years. In the 1970s the RN maintained a West Indies Squadron of up to four frigates based at HMS Malabar, Ireland Island, Bermuda. Four frigates would now represent one fifth of the RN's Destroyer and Frigate numbers. In 1975 it was about one twentieth.
The RN's world-wide peacetime tasking, set by the Government, has remained unchanged; what has changed dramatically is the number of vessels available to carry it out. As the deployment of the OPV indicates, the Navy's commitment to achieve what the Government requires is constant, so a vessel has to be found to do a job to which the UK, with the USCG, is heavily committed. This means that the RN “robs Peter to pay Paul” and the usual task to which the OPV is committed (e.g.: Fishery Protection, patrolling the Oil Rigs, Search and Rescue, pollution monitoring and UK port visits) will not be undertaken. However it will be an exciting trip for the ship's company, and rather challenging - given the North Atlantic weather in winter.
All the Armed Forces are desperately short of equipment with which to carry out their assigned tasks, but the RN has been particularly badly hit by the need to fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and provide ground and air forces there (including the Royal Marines and Naval Air Squadrons) with the equipment they needed. Harold Wilson's government, after “withdrawal from East of Suez” (never quite achieved) in 1971 stated that the RN needed 74 Frigates and Destroyers to carry out its assigned tasks. This number has been steadily reduced; to about 48 post the Falklands War; 36 in the early days of the Blair Administration and now 19 is considered adequate (by whom and why?). 19 ships means a maximum 14 available at best, allowing for maintenance and refit cycles. The “assigned tasks” remain the same if not greater in number; ships cannot be in four places at once.
The number of roles and tasks haven't changed, just there are insufficient tools with which to do them. Worse, in 1982 there were over 15 shipbuilding yards in the UK that built for the Royal Navy, now there are but four, two on the Clyde, one at Barrow-in-Furness and one at Appledore. The latter has recently completed a contract for a very fine and capable 2,000 tonne patrol ship (small frigate or corvette) for the Irish Navy at a cost of £41m. If the Government does not place orders for warships and auxiliaries the shipyards go to the wall (e.g.: Vosper Thornycroft, Swan Hunter, Cammell Laird, Harland & Wolf etc). The last frigate commissioned into the Royal Navy was HMS St Albans in 2002 - the next will be delivered in about 2020, an inexcusable gap of 18 years.
Another River Class Offshore Patrol Vessel, HMS Tyne, recently met a Russian Naval Squadron and escorted it through the English Channel.
Graham Edmonds and David Wedgwood
Since the formation of the Coalition government in 2010, the Prime Minister, The Rt Hon David Cameron MP, has regularly reaffirmed his commitment to the Defence of the Realm as his government’s ‘first duty’:
‘First, on defence: protecting our national security is a first priority for all of us as national leaders, and for the UK (let me be clear) NATO has been and will remain the bedrock of our national defence.’ (PM’s speech to the European Council, Dec 2013)
‘The first priority of a Prime Minister is to try to keep your country safe and that means not having some lah-di-dah, airy-fairy view about what this all means.’ (PM’s speech to the European Council, Oct 2013)
‘The first priority of the Government is the defence of the realm. Strong defence, protecting our interests.’ (PM’s interview with Plymouth Herald, Oct 2010)
A recent e-mail to the UKNDA board expressed concern that ‘rockets’ fired at ISIS jihadists in northern Iraq by Tornado aircraft and Reaper UAVs might encourage a response with weapons of a similar nature. The writer alluded to the difficulties national air defence encountered in dealing with V1s and V2s in the last years of WW2.
The last bombing campaign by Goering’s Luftwaffe petered out in May 1944 and thereafter German air attack was delivered by the V1, a cruise missile, and the V2 a ‘theatre’ ballistic missile. The V1 could be destroyed either by gunfire or by the dramatic manoeuvre of flying a manned fighter aircraft alongside wing tip to wing tip and physically tipping it off course. There was no system that could detect or counter the V2.
So what is the threat from the colleagues of ‘Jihadi John’ and other rogue states and organisations? The Middle East is awash with a variety of short, medium range (theatre) and inter-continental ballistic missiles with ranges from 100 to well in excess of 2000 miles. Not many, if any, are believed to be hands of ISIS (yet); however, the distance from Aleppo to London is 2,100 miles. It is also swamped with cruise missiles whose range varies from short to 1500+ miles. These can be launched from submarines, ships, land vehicles and aircraft.
It is not inconceivable that a renegade group might gain control of one of these systems and, if so, it is possible they might decide to launch a rocket in retaliation at the UK or Western Europe. What system in the UK can protect against such an attack? Unlike the nations of Europe the UK has not invested in any land-based anti-missile or ballistic missile defence (ABM or BMD). They can be detected but there is no ‘hard-kill’ able to destroy them. National Air Defence (AD) is primarily the responsibility of the RAF who by 2020 will have 107 Multi-role Combat Aircraft (the Typhoon) and an as yet unknown number of F35B Lightning II aircraft, the latter being shared with the Fleet Air Arm. These aircraft have no capability against ballistic missiles and a limited capability against cruise missiles, which flying at low altitude to avoid detection, will be difficult to destroy as a fighter aircraft will need to be in the right place at the right time.
The UK has Surface to Air Missiles (SAM); the Army and RAF deploy Rapier, a system in service and regularly updated since 1971. It is a point defence short range weapon for protection of military and other key sites against aircraft. It is due to go out of service in 2020. There is a plan to replace Rapier with a land based version of the Common Anti-Air Modular Missile, which has been selected for the Royal Navy’s T23 & T26 Frigates and is known as Sea Ceptor. CAMM has a range of 13.5 nm (25km) and like Seawolf the system it replaces, is a point, or self, defence missile system designed to destroy anti-ship cruise missiles and aircraft. It has no capability against ballistic missiles.
The Royal Navy’s and the UK’s only long range AD system is the Sea Viper Missile carried by the six T45 Destroyers, which are primarily designed for anti-aircraft and anti-missile warfare. Detection of targets is by the Sampson AESA and Type S1850M long-range radars, which can track more than 1000 targets at ranges of up to 200+nm. The system can track, target and destroy a variety of high performance air threats, including saturation attacks of very low altitude (sea skimming) supersonic cruise missiles, fighter aircraft and UAVs using either the Aster30 (long range) or Aster15 (short range) SAM It can launch 8 missiles in under 10 seconds while simultaneously guiding up-to 16 missiles to designated targets at any one time. With only 48 missiles onboard it could – in theory – empty its silos in about a minute. Importantly, the system can track ballistic missiles and funding is in hand to develop its ABM/BMD role.
However, the RN’s mission for the T45 is ‘to shield the Fleet from air attack’; not, therefore, the United Kingdom, which remains, uniquely in the western world, undefended from the most likely form of aerial bombardment. NATO takes the ballistic and cruise missile threat more seriously. The Patriot missile has a BMD capability and is deployed by Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, Greece and the US Army in Europe. There are NATO European plans for integrated BMD in the European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA) which is being implemented in three phases.
Phase 1 uses a combination of ship naval and land-based missile defence systems which share a common architecture and missile. The core component is a deckhouse enclosure which contains the command and control centre, and enhanced SPY-1(D) radar similar to those aboard USN destroyers and cruisers. The vertical launching system contains 24 SM-3 missiles. The USA is building three ‘Aegis Ashore’ sites: the test site is in Barking Sands, Hawaii, and the other two are at the Deveselu Air Base in Romania and Redzikowo in Poland. (http://cimsec.org/not-fathers-aegis/13697).
In Phase 2 NATO’s Active Layered Theatre Ballistic Missile Defence (ALTBMD) command and control network will be operational at an initial level. Additionally France, Italy and, possibly, Poland will have land-based BMD systems of their own and it’s possible that ALTBMD compatible BMD-capable ships will be included. The Netherlands Navy is already upgrading its ships to be able to track ballistic targets and to re-equip with the SM-3 missile. PAAMS missiles are carried by British, French and Italian warships.
In Phase 3 which is expected to be delivered in, or about, 2018, the US hopes to deploy longer-range SM-3 missiles on both USN ships and ashore at Redzikowo, and thus contribute to the BMD of Northern Europe. This system is intended to kill all shorter range types of Ballistic Missiles and have some capability against the very long range intercontinental range missiles (ICBMs). It is reckoned that just three locations for the long range SM-3 will provide ABM / BMD cover for all of Europe.
In the meantime ABM / BMD protection for the UK and Europe is provided by USN cruisers and destroyers based off western European coasts. The UK’s contribution to this effort will, or might be, the T45 destroyers. But of the twelve originally ordered, and paid for, only six were built and their task remains to protect the deployed fleet not the UK. Thus the UK relies upon the USN and European allies to the East for its air defence against ballistic missile attack. The last conventional bombing raid against these islands was seventy years ago. The last, and probably the next, air attack was and will be delivered by ballistic missile. We had no defence in 1944 and we have none now and there is a hole in our defences.
Cdr Graham Edmonds RN
(Vice Chairman, UKNDA)