CONVENTIONALLY-ARMED UK TRIDENT? By Commander Robert Green, Royal Navy (Retired)*
Doubts about Nuclear Deterrence
The recent US nuclear posture review was partly prompted by growing doubts about the effectiveness of nuclear deterrence against the current primary threat extremists armed with weapons of mass destruction. These doubts surfaced during the Gulf War, when Israel was subjected to nearly 40 Iraqi Scud missile attacks, for which it was known a chemical warhead had been developed. Lack of a proportionate response has led several US nuclear weapon experts to argue that deterrence through threatened use of precisely targeted conventional munitions, rather than nuclear weapons, would be more credible and preferable in most cases. For neutralising deeply buried targets, however, the head of nuclear weapons research at Los Alamos National Laboratory has recommended that the US should develop a new generation of small nuclear weapons.
George W. Bush is the first US President to have publicly expressed lack of faith in nuclear deterrence against extremists, linking this to his emphasis on reviving ballistic missile defence. What is more, both his Vice-President Dick Cheney and Secretary of State Colin Powell rejected use of nuclear weapons against Iraqi forces in the Gulf War, which means that any future comparable US nuclear threat would lack credibility.
Small Nuclear Weapons No Answer
Those pressing for so-called small nuclear weapons to be used against deeply buried targets need to be aware of the following drawbacks:
In tests, the currently operational US B61-11 nuclear weapon penetrated only 20 feet into dry earth.
Deeper penetration is impossible because the weapon casing cannot be made strong enough to withstand the impact and temperatures involved.
Low-yield warheads are too sensitive to the massive shock.
The heavy radioactive fallout cannot be contained.
In addition, even the smallest nuclear weapon has such excessive explosive power that, when combined with its unique long-term poisoning effects from radioactive fallout, it would inevitably breach international humanitarian law on proportionality and discrimination.
The irresponsibility of calling for such a role for nuclear weapons was highlighted in 1998, when General Lee Butler, Commander-in-Chief US Strategic Command in charge of all strategic nuclear weapons from 1992-94, warned: In a single act, we would martyr our enemies, alienate our friends, give comfort to the non-declared nuclear states and impetus to states who seek such weapons covertly. Experience in Afghanistan has shown that the US has a growing choice of precision-guided conventional munitions, some of which are capable of disabling targets formerly thought vulnerable only to nuclear attack. However, the enormously indiscriminate daisy cutter fuel-air munitions, and those using depleted uranium, probably violate international humanitarian law.
US Navy Converting Trident to Conventional Armament
The START II Treaty limits US and Russian nuclear-armed ballistic missile-firing submarine (SSBN) forces to 14 hulls each so the US will have to decommission four of its 18 Ohio class Trident-equipped submarines. Irrespective of this, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld wants to accelerate US Navy plans to start work in October 2003 on a $2 billion project to convert the first two of them to carry a formidable mix of conventional armament as attack submarines (SSGNs). The 24 Trident missile launch tubes will be altered to accept canisters carrying seven Tomahawk cruise missiles, fitted with a variety of conventional warheads. With a full cruise missile conversion, each submarine will be able to launch up to 154 cruise missiles, compared with 24 such missiles in current US SSGNs. An alternative configuration allows for 66 special forces to access two midget submarines to carry out covert shallow water and amphibious operations. These are each attached to the SSGNs deck over two launch tubes. The remaining tubes will be shared between special forces equipment stowage and cruise missile canisters, still enabling some 98 Tomahawks to be carried.
US Concerns About UK Trident
Ever since the US allowed the UK to acquire Polaris, Tridents predecessor system, in 1962, it has had understandable concerns about the complications for its own nuclear strategy. Kennedys Defense Secretary, Robert McNamara, condemned small nuclear forces as dangerous, expensive, prone to obsolescence and lacking in credibility as a deterrent. The limitations of trying to encapsulate a credible capability in one system have become more apparent with Trident now the sole delivery system for the UK nuclear arsenal. For example, the UK government felt the need to claim an added sub-strategic capability by a degree of flexibility in the choice of yield for the warheads on its Trident missiles. Apparently this has been achieved by fitting a single, lower yield warhead in some of the 16 missiles carried by the four Vanguard class SSBNs.
Bearing in mind that sub-strategic nuclear weapons would be the first and most likely ones to be used, there is a risk that use of a UK Trident missile would be misidentified as a US Trident launch. Also, there is no way of distinguishing between sub-strategic and strategic use. NATOs announcement in 1999 that a small number of United Kingdom Trident warheads were part of NATOs sub-strategic posture in Europe, therefore, was unconvincing. With British attack submarines now equipped with conventionally-armed cruise missiles, this would be a much more proportionate and lawful way to launch a sub-strategic strike.
UK Trident and Nuremberg
The current UK government is widely acknowledged as the most constructive among the nuclear weapon states. In the 1998 Strategic Defence Review, it unilaterally cut its nuclear arsenal by a third at 200 warheads, now the smallest of the five recognised nuclear states and announced that it had relaxed Tridents notice to fire from minutes to days. It was credited with a key role in negotiating the May 2000 Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review final document incorporating a plan of action on disarmament measures, by interceding with the other nuclear states and non-nuclear NATO member states.
However, the UK government is under pressure from the Trident Ploughshares non-violent direct action campaign, which is exposing the illegality of the current deployment of the single UK SSBN on so-called deterrent patrol. Citing the 1996 World Court Advisory Opinion on the threat or use of nuclear weapons, the campaign has achieved sensational acquittals in jury trials of activists in both Scotland and England. The Court confirmed that any threat, let alone use, of nuclear weapons would generally violate international humanitarian law, of which the Nuremberg Principles are part. This has serious implications for all those involved in planning and deploying nuclear forces because, unlike hired killers or terrorists, military professionals and their political leaders must be seen to act within the law.
The campaign is gaining support among legislators and church leaders, particularly in Scotland where the UK Trident force is based. As with the campaigns to ban slavery, and now landmines, and to establish an International Criminal Court, it is drawing upon a deep and growing awareness that it is on the right side of morality, commonsense, the law and public opinion. The basic legal argument is as follows:
Use of UK Trident nuclear weapons would be illegal, because the explosive power of each warhead (about 100 kilotons, equivalent to roughly eight times that of the weapon which devastated Hiroshima) plus radioactive effects make them incapable of use without violating international humanitarian law.
In its Advisory Opinion the World Court stated: If the envisaged use of force is itself unlawful, the stated readiness to use it would be a threat prohibited under Article 2, paragraph 4 [of the UN Charter]. The UN Charter is applicable at all times.
UK Trident is deployed under a policy of stated readiness to use, in order that nuclear deterrence is credible.
Nuremberg Principle VI states: The crimes hereinafter set out are punishable as crimes under international law: (a) Crimes against peace: (i) Planning, preparation of a war in violation of international treaties, agreements or assurances; (ii) Participation in a common plan or conspiracy for the accomplishment of any of the acts mentioned under (i); (b) War crimes (c) Crimes against humanity
Probably for the first time, the Nuremberg Principles are being brought to bear on the Royal Navy, which obviously does not want to be accused of crimes against peace and humanity, let alone war crimes. Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham observed: I suspect we are all going to find international law, as it applies to conflict, a harsh taskmaster. Yet the UK government prides itself as the only permanent member of the UN Security Council to recognise the World Courts jurisdiction, and wishes to be seen to uphold international law and democracy as leader of the 54-member Commonwealth.
The Royal Navys leaders must be increasingly disturbed and frustrated by the legal challenge to Trident, and especially after 11 September 2001 – by the reality that the weapon system of four of its most prestigious and costly capital ships is currently impotent in responding to the most serious and intractable threat.
Implications for UK Trident
All this has serious implications for the UKs four new SSBNs. Some former Royal Navy colleagues have indicated to the author that they would support getting rid of the nuclear weapons provided that a conventional role is found for the submarines. However, in the latest edition of Janes Fighting Ships, Editor Captain Richard Sharpe RN (Retd) reported: The UK government has said it has no plans to deploy conventional warheads in Trident.
With the increasing cost of high-technology warships, the Royal Navy is steadily shrinking. As it learned the hard way in the Falklands War, the vulnerability of surface ships to missile attack is extremely expensive and difficult to counter, and ever-quieter submarines can now deliver them from stand-off range. If it wants to sustain a capability for rapid, substantive military reaction with global reach, it cannot afford to ignore the option of converting UK Trident to conventional armament especially as the research, development and production of the modular systems are being done by the US, and their availability looks compatible with the deadline for the decision on whether to replace UK Trident. For the variety of reasons covered above, the US would probably welcome such a development in the US-UK special relationship.
A New World Role for the UK?
That decision apparently has to be taken by around 2007. This will offer the opportunity to renounce nuclear weapons, and replace them with a more credible, practical and lawful conventional deterrence system, which the US Navy is developing anyway and which the US Defense Secretary, impressed by the performance of its SSGNs in countering terrorism, is raising to a top priority. With four conventionally-armed, multi-role Vanguard class SSGNs, the Royal Navys submarine service – diverted since the Polaris era into the essentially political power game of nuclear deterrence – would be able to focus fully on what it does best: precision engagement to prevail in the three key military objectives: deterrence, coercion and combat.
For maximum kudos, the UK government should announce this step at the 2005 NPT Review Conference. The first breakout by one of the five recognised nuclear states and permanent members of the UN Security Council – would be sensational, and would transform the nuclear disarmament debate overnight. The UK would gain a major new world role which would be enormously popular, with its Prime Minister an immediate candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize. In NATO, with Lord Robertson as Secretary General, the UK would wield unprecedented influence in leading the drive for a non-nuclear strategy which must happen if NATO is to sustain its cohesion. It would create new openings for applying pressure, particularly to the US and France, and heavily influencing India, Israel and Pakistan, and others intent on obtaining nuclear weapons. Moreover, it would open the way for a major reassessment by Russia and China of their nuclear strategies, for all nuclear forces to be de-alerted, and for multilateral negotiations to start on a Nuclear Weapons Convention.
Both the anti-nuclear movement and Trident advocates have to confront difficult and challenging questions. Acquisition by the five recognised nuclear states of their nuclear arsenals involved probably the greatest investment in financial, political and human terms since the Second World War. Short of a detonation of a modern nuclear weapon in a populated area, none of these states is likely to be prepared to risk breaking out of the nuclear club without finding a replacement system with clear advantages to balance the perceived loss of security. Conversion of its SSBNs to conventional, multi-role armament offers such a system for the UK. France, Russia and China would probably try to copy the US and UK, because the SSGN would come into its own as one of the most potent, yet invulnerable, maritime coercion platforms. Meanwhile, the longer those who prefer to cling to the illusions of nuclear deterrence do so, the more likely it becomes that undeterrable extremists will follow their irresponsible example and obtain nuclear weapons.
Nuclear-armed Trident missiles in the Royal Navys Vanguard class SSBNs are a major impediment to the UKs ability to contribute to deployment of rapid reaction forces in support of the US, because they are militarily useless; and anyway their use – and therefore any threat to use them – would be unlawful.
A confluence of developments in the US, driven by a loss of faith in nuclear deterrence against the most serious threat of extremists armed with weapons of mass destruction, points to a win-win solution for the Royal Navy, the US-UK special relationship, and the worldwide anti-nuclear movement. Exploiting US plans for some of its Ohio class Trident-armed submarines, a UK decision to convert its four Vanguard class submarines to carry a mix of precision-guided conventional armaments and special forces would restore the Royal Navys eroding position as a leading maritime force equipped to work alongside the US Navy, and would probably be encouraged by the US. In so doing, the UK government would gain huge kudos as the first recognised nuclear state to break out from reliance on nuclear weapons for its security, and would position itself to take a leading role in the struggle to secure an enforceable global treaty with a verifiable plan to eliminate nuclear weapons.
*Commander Robert Green navigated Buccaneer nuclear strike aircraft and anti-submarine helicopters before serving in Fleet Intelligence during 20 years in the Royal Navy 1962-82. He is now a consultant on alternative security thinking based in Christchurch, New Zealand. http://www.disarmsecure.org
1. See Robert W. Nelson, Low-Yield Earth-Penetrating Nuclear Weapons, The Journal of the Federation of American Scientists, January/February 2001, Volume 54, Number 1, http://www.fas.org/faspir/2001/v541/weapons.htm
2. Walter Pincus, Nuclear Expert Challenges U.S. Thinking on Warheads, Washington Post, 24 October 2000.
3. Speech at National Defense University, 1 May 2001.
4. Colin Powell, A Soldiers Way (Hutchinson, London, 1995), p324.
5. Nelson (2001).
6. General Lee Butler, A Voice of Reason, The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, May/June 1998, p61.
7. Janes Defence Weekly, 8 August 2001, p3. Update on Rumsfeld in $20 Billion Budget Rise Is Urged, International Herald Tribune, 8 January 2002.
8. John Baylis, Ambiguity and Deterrence (Oxford University Press), 1995), pp300-301.
9. Sub-Strategic Use of Trident, letter from C.H.J.Davies, UK Ministry of Defence, to Dr E. Waterston, 27 October 1998.
10. Legality of the Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons (Advisory Opinion of July 8), UN Document A/51/218 (1996), http://www.icj-cij.org reprinted in 35 I.L.M. 809 & 1343 (1996).
11. Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham KCB , The Apotheosis of 21st Century Warfare, RUSI Journal, December 2000, pp64-68.
12. Janes Fighting Ships 2000-2001, p748.