Friday, March 24, 2006

How Not to Write About the UK Nuclear Deterrent

For some reason, otherwise sensible people go flappy around the edges about the UK nuclear deterrent.

Critics of the force often like to talk about how independent, or otherwise it is. This is a good point: after all, the rockets are leased from the US. But for some reason, from this starting point they rapidly descend into handwaving territory. Viz, this handwavetastic piece in the New Statesman by Dan Plesch.

He starts off well enough. Well, no, in fact. He actually starts off pretty badly. "Fresh evidence" apparently shows that "government's suggestion that it is time to renew "our" nuclear arsenal" is "meaningless". The fresh evidence, by the way, are some declassified US documents confirming (as everyone who knows anything about this knows) that the US and UK have exchanged information on weapons design and also traded various bits of equipment and supplies (notably tritium). This is neither fresh nor new, and doesn't render the government's suggestion meaningless. In what way is it meaningless? Does he really mean that because of this, we will still have nuclear weapons if we decide not to take up the suggestion? Or that we won't if we do? Eh?

This isn't much good, either:
Our present Trident submarine-launched nuclear missile system reaches the end of its shelf-life in the 2020s and we are told that, if it is to be replaced, work has to start soon. As the debate begins, supporters of a new generation of British weapons of mass destruction say we must have a bomb of our own so that we will always be equipped to face a crisis such as that of 1940. "Something nasty may turn up," is their bottom line.

We now know, however, that British weapons are so dependent on the US that this 1940 argument is a nonsense. In that year, we stood alone and the United States remained neutral. We would not have had a bomb in our arsenal because the Americans would have refused to help us make it, and would certainly not have given us one there and then.
No, and the nuclear bomb didn't exist anyway. The US was actually selling us a ton of stuff at the time, including the high octane aviation fuel that radically improved the performance of Hurricane fighters between the French campaign and the Battle of Britain (the Germans thought a new engine had been introduced) - no refinery in Britain could make it, and Shell's Baton Rouge plant shipped over masses of the stuff. Anyway, it's a strawman - the argument is surely that we need an ultimate deterrent in case we find ourselves faced by an existential threat like that of 1940, not that we need it in case the exact circumstances repeat themselves.

He goes on to mention that the Trident rockets under the warheads are leased, which is not news, and that they come out of the same stockpile as the US ones. Apparently the government had ROYAL NAVY painted on the ones testfired for publicity purposes, which is funny but hardly relevant. It's not as if the putative target would care. There's a recap of the Kennedy/MacMillan debates, and then this...
Let us say that Britain wanted to fire Trident and the United States opposed this. What would happen? For one, the entire US navy would be deployed to hunt down Red-White-and-Blue October; it would know roughly where to look, starting from the last position notified to the US and Nato while on normal patrol.
Well, the point of an SSBN is to avoid detection. No navy has ever been confident of finding them - we certainly weren't at all confident of ever catching the Soviet ones (noisier and more conspicuous than ours) before they fired.
Meanwhile, the prime minister would be trying to find a radio that was not jammed, hoping that none of the software had a worm and that the US navy wouldn't shoot the missiles down with either its Aegis anti-missile system or the self-destruct radio signal that is used when missiles are test-fired.
Communications with a submerged Trident sub are via the Navy's extremely low frequency transmitter in Scotland - I'm not sure it's possible to jam ELF, and doing so would also jam the US Navy's submarine communications. I reckon there's probably at least one landline between CINCFLT and Flag Officer Submarines in Northwood and Scotland. What sort of worm would this software have? I think he means a virus, or in fact a backdoor. It's also news, I think, to the US Navy that they have a leakproof antiballistic missile system. Perhaps Dan ought to write to Norfolk, Virginia and tell them? Yes, it's easier to shoot missiles down in the boost phase, but even if Aegis could do that they'd have to get several Aegis cruisers in range before launch - not necessarily easy as ships move slower than radio waves. The self-destruct signal? Better hope the receiver can't be switched off - after all, presumably the Russians would have telemetered the trials, and if they could make incoming SLBMs self-destruct? It's just not very good.

From the moment of a breach with Washington, moreover, every Trident submarine sailing down the Clyde would find a waiting US escort. In months the software would be out of date, Lockheed Martin and Halliburton would fly home, taking much equipment with them, and no spare parts would be available. As Quinlan put it: "We would be in shtook."
Crivens cazart! We're meant to be in extremis in this scenario - I don't think I'd be terribly relieved to be nuked with Trident 1.0 rather than 1.1, and seeing as we don't maintain the things ourselves I can't see the worry regarding spares. He later makes the point that renewal of one of the treaties involved could have played a part in the decision for war with Iraq, but doesn't dig into it. It's typical of a lot of writing about this: a near-frantic desire, fuelled with handwaving with little connection to realism, to convince that it doesn't really exist.

Yes, the deterrent is dependent on the US for rockets, and the nukes use some parts from the US. Not, though, that they have to come from there. It is a valid question whether or not the deterrent has increased US leverage since 1962. But can we please have a more reality-based opposition?

1 comment:

Watching Them, Watching Us said...


"So, what about independence of operation? Could Britain fire Trident if the US objected? In 1962 the then US defence secretary, Robert McNamara, said that the British nuclear bomber force did not operate independently."


Yes, but McNamara was easily fooled.

He rightly insisted on Permissive Action Links for the US Strategic Air Command Minuteman missiles and bombs - so that they could only be armed and detonated by the the correct codes from the President or the rest of the chain of command.

However, it turns out, that whilst McNamara was nominally in charge, that SAC decided to secretly order all the PAL codes to be set to eight zeros, so that there would not be any delays caused by communications problems during a nuclear war.

Keeping Presidents in the Nuclear Dark
(Episode #1: The Case of the Missing “Permissive Action Links”)



"Let us say that Britain wanted to fire Trident and the United States opposed this. What would happen? For one, the entire US navy would be deployed to hunt down Red-White-and-Blue October; it would know roughly where to look, starting from the last position notified to the US and Nato while on normal patrol. "


Surely Dan Plesh knows that the range of a Trident II D5 missile is around 6000 km ?

They could be launched from Holy Loch and they would still be able to hit
Moscow (about 2500 Km) or Washington (about 5500 Km)
in his stupid domesday scenario.


"Meanwhile, the prime minister would be trying to find a radio that was not jammed, hoping that none of the software had a worm and that the US navy wouldn't shoot the missiles down with either its Aegis anti-missile system"


That would be the Aegis anti-missile system which the Chinese managed to copy simply by investing in one of the defence sub-contactors ?

Since when is Aegis capable of destroying an incoming ICBM re-entry vehicle ? It can be no better than Patriot missiles at destroying SCUDs although it might be of some use against subsonic cruise missiles.

Aegis is deployed on ships, which is a bit of problem if you are trying to defend anywhere except the coast.


"or the self-destruct radio signal that is used when missiles are test-fired."


Which is only fitted as part of the telemetry package on a test flight, not on real weapons.

What makes Dan Plesh think that United Kingdom weapons engineers
could not build their own triggering mechanisms or detect and circumvent any US installed "secret destruct codes" which they were not already privy to ?

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