‘Obsolete or bloody dangerous?’ – The state of Britain’s nuclear deterrent: 24 September 2010

In between university meetings, I have been thinking a bit about the SDSR and its attendant processes. But I have a question, and it is genuinely a question because it not an answer dressed up with a question… and that is about the British nuclear deterrent.

Now, I’m not a strategic studies person (which is why this is more question than argument), and my educated guess is that in the UK the strat studies community is now very small. Those who would have gone onto things like strat studies in the past, are now busying themselves with very different concerns today. That academics don’t study it is not particularly important, but that Sir Michael Quinlan was probably the last of the Permanent Secretaries trained in Strategic Studies and nuclear deterrence is profoundly worrying, if you accept my premise: nuclear deterrence relies upon a ladder of escalation, and that ladder of escalation is (admittedly) partly psychological, but also capabilities based.

We were all kept in a state of tense-safety during the Cold War because both sides (with all their respective nations and actors) had large and complex structures in place that ensured a ladder of escalation and not a hair-trigger first-strike-only-capability. There were notable events that presented this analysis with a problem: Cuba (which led to strong and secure back-channel-communication) and Able-Archer (which led to a greater level of communication and openness about test-runs etc).

So, my question – which is now a bit long and rambling – concerns the SDSR and the prospective cuts. Is anyone in government thinking about the short to long term effects of making these force reductions on our deterrent stance? If Tornado is phased out, and the emphasis falls on Typhoon, has anyone seriously thought about the Typhoon’s ability to a) get to a position to issue a second strike (of meaningful quality), and b) deliver a meaningful punch? I know this aircraft as well as the next international relations scholar, so I leave it as a question! Similarly, the proposal – if it is that – of reducing the number of Vanguard class boats from four to three (and thus ending the ‘continuous-at-sea-deterrent’) or to stretch out the operational life of these boats past their end-of-service dates only goes to jeopardise their effectiveness. The Russians were recently said to be actively trying to work out the Vanguards in-water signature, which would obviously destroy their stealth properties and their utility as a second strike capability.

The decision about the new Astute boats (and the fate of the old Vanguard boats) and the nuclear deterrent more generally, sits outside the SDSR, presumably for the good political reason that this will help the cohesion of the governing coalition, who vehemently disagree on this issue. But the SDSR impacts on the nuclear deterrent whether one likes it or not, and it’s not clear from the scant coverage of the review that this second strike capability – a capability that stops the deterrent from becoming a first strike only affair (with all the associated dangers and hair-trigger connotations) has been fully thought through. One can only imagine that if it had have been there would not have been some of the pre-announcements and spins from various ‘senior sources’. If one was feeling Machiavellian one could also suggest that this is a pathway towards the sort of unilateralism that had disappeared from British politics in the 1980s – degrading the support structure for nuclear deterrence makes the logic of unilateralism more palatable, but I don’t sense that the Conservative Party has a stomach for this, so the more worrying answer is that it’s been missed, because the officials and politicians currently working on it, are not as steeped in the theory and practice of deterrence as grandees such as the late Sir Michael Quinlan were.

A nuclear deterrent is only useful if it is modern and matched to a robust ladder of escalation and second-strike capability, and both of these look in danger at the moment.

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