As debate intensifies on the future of Britain’s nuclear deterrent, a fiscally reasonable, strategically sound alternative is emerging in the form of the new Astute class submarine.
With the production and development costs of the Trident successor programme costing £20 billion according to the Ministry of Defence and £30 billion according to Greenpeace, the Astute class nuclear submarines (already under construction) are well suited to providing Britain with a continued nuclear deterrent while saving up to £45 billion.
Astute submarines could be equipped with nuclear warheads for launch via cruise missile. Trident missiles have a range of 6,000 nautical miles whilst an Astute submarine equipped with cruise missiles have a range of 1,000 nautical miles. The key trade off, therefore, between a full SSBN system and Astute would be a decrease in the potency of the nuclear armament in terms of range and yield. However, given Astute’s capability to circumnavigate the globe without surfacing or requiring refueling at any time, questions of vulnerability are not as significant as might normally be the case with a submarine of less sophistication then the current Trident-bearing Vanguard class submarines or an Astute. Indeed, some forward-thinking BAE planners have already been considering a modified Astute with inter-continental ballistic missile capabilities as a potential successor to Trident.
Economically, a strong argument exists for the replacement of Trident with Astute, namely in the form cutting costs whilst saving jobs. The four Astute submarines currently under order were originally estimated to cost £2.5 billion although final costs are likely to be in the region of £3.8 billion – a salient warning as to the likely cost overruns of a new (i.e. non-Astute-based) Trident successor programme. But having already spent the large sums of trial and error in development costs, Navy sources confirm that further production costs will be much reduced. As such, Astute experts cite the cost of as many as six more Astute submarines at £3.4 billion. Such an expansion of the Astute programme would ensure the security of stability of Britain’s nuclear deterrent and would safeguard jobs whilst still costing less then the planned Trident successor programme.
Beyond construction costs, it would be necessary to maintain a nuclear warhead development programme for a sea launched, nuclear warhead armed tomahawk cruise missile. As nuclear scholar Dr. Neil Ritchie of Bradford University has noted:
“If the US were to share is W80-0 TLAM-N nuclear warhead design with the UK, as it has done with the W76 Trident warhead, it is conceivable the UK could design and manufacture an Anglicised version without nuclear testing and within acceptable tolerances using US test data and the array of ‘stockpile stewardship’ facilities at Aldermaston.”
Cost estimates for this effort vary but Naval experts consider it to be in the region of £2.5 billion, similar to the £2 to £3 billion estimated for the warhead development of Trident’s successor. Furthermore, reductions to force protection (the attendant surface warships, submarines and other units required to escort a submarine out of UK waters and into the safety of the anonymity of the Atlantic) would be possible not least because with more submarines with nuclear capabilities on operations, less importance would be ascribed to any particular vessel exiting UK waters. A move to cut attendant forces could see as much as a one-third cut in costs achieved as vessels that are currently tasked with spending weeks at a time on every three months escorting the submarines into or back from station in the Atlantic would be freed up for other duties or procurement could be cancelled all together.
Balanced against this is the fact that major cuts to surface ship budgets must be carefully considered in the context of the multi-mission role of such vessels. These cuts should be considered in the context of a full strategic defence review of Britain’s actual naval needs. Even so, a switch from Trident to Astute would open the door for further savings on the Trident fleet’s potentially vast through-life costs of £76 billion.
Job cuts that would otherwise result from the outright cancellation of a successor to Trident would also be prevented as the same 3,500 shipyard workers in Barrow and 2,400 related project workers across the UK currently working on Astute and who expect to work on Trident’s successor would simply continue to be employed on an expanded Astute project.
The political implications of such a move are also beneficial for the government. Alan Whitehead MP told Left Foot Forward it was, “a win-win cut that is genuinely painless and still leaves us with real nuclear capacity.” Such a move would also signal a turn away from the Cold War era doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction between NATO, Russia and China, with positive implications for the prospects of the Obama-led nuclear disarmament effort amongst the great power.
With support for a cheaper, less powerful alternative nuclear deterrent standing at an all time high of 40 per cent as revealed in last week’s Left Foot Forward YouGov poll, replacing Trident with Astute is a decision that makes political, economic and strategic sense. Realpolitik-minded defence experts will be watching the government’s response to an Astute-based alternative with great interest in the months to come.
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