It's interesting to see that one of the issues Blair appears to want to tackle in the last stages of his leadership is the debate on the replacement of replacement the British Nuclear deterrent. With the withdrawal of the last free-fall WE177 nukes (ancient 'small' 10kt nukes) from service in 1998, the remaining British nuclear deterrent consists of four Vanguard-class SSBN submarines. Each carries up to 16 Trident II D5 ballistic missiles which carry an American MIRV delivery system with an eight warhead capacity. However it's thought that they'd generally be loaded with three warheads each on 10, 12 or 14 of the Tridents with the remaining carrying a single warhead for an extended reach single-strike capability which provides a greater range, up to about 7,500km.
The Trident system is designed to launch W76 and W88 warheads, the latter being the only really 'modern' nuke with better accuracy, fusing and a 475kt yield. However British warheads are based on the older W76 units with around 100kt yield. The yanks have, however, been doing quite a lot of work in improving the lower-yield W76 and that's probably of interest to our military. The thing is about nukes, you need to periodically rebuild them because of decay, issues with the trigger sources and that sort of thing. So it's possible to tinker with them during that phase. No one appears to believe that the UK would consider replacing W76 with W88.
Also, in total it's held that the British warhead stockpile is around about 200 warheads. There are enough Trident II D5 missiles to fully load about three boats but then since only one SSBN is on patrol at any one time, that's considerably redundancy. In times of heightened alert, it's expected two SSBNs would be on patrol and, surprisingly, the patrols are coordinated with the French, not the Americans. One assumes that's to ensure a reasonable Western European coverage of potential launch sites and target coverage.
So having detailed what we have now, what's the analysis on the capability and do we need to maintain it or scrap it? In terms of capability, it's 'plenty' enough really. It's not cold war craziness but it's enough capability to categorically eradicate most significant military and civilian targets in a medium sized country which is, basically, all the deterrent you should reasonably need.
Maybe it's useful to compare what we have with France. It's actually quite similar, they also have four SSBNs deployed with shorter-range ballistic missiles but also with MIRV capability based on French-designed TN75 100kt warheads. They are thought to have slightly more of them, between 250-300 operational warheads. France also has something Britain does not, an active bomber-based nuclear force based on 300kt yield French TN81 warheads, of which they have about 60 operational. Perhaps more importantly than all of that, France has already been where we are now in deciding the future of their nuclear deterrent. They have broad support for the continuation of the program and it remains funded (around 10% of their defense budget) and even has a component for the development of a new generation of nuclear weapons. They actually tested a nuclear weapon as recently as 1996.
The British people, conversely, aren't in such broad support of a nuclear deterrent when polled, however retaining some form of nuclear deterrent still has the lead. Until such time as the cost of the necessary maintenance and replacement of the Trident system is mentioned, around Â£25 billion, at which point some polls show an opposition to the idea. That said, this is a little like leading the witness, if you put those sort of numbers in front of the man on the street and say emotive things (like the Guardian quotes) that it's the equivalent of building 1,000 schools, then it's little wonder you get that kind of result.
It's a bit of a moot point because the Convervatives widely favor a commitment to the nuclear deterrent and with their renewed fortunes, any move to renew the program (supported, after all, by Gordon Brown before backtracking a bit and saying 'let's discuss it) will lightly meet with a solid majority in the house and be passed.
Where do I stand? I guess I'm for retaining an equivalent-level nuclear deterrent as we do today although I think we should have some additional air-based delivery systems because that's a closer fit to any remotely conceivably threat we might face in the short and medium terms. It's hard to really see a need for nuclear weapons today but that's the thing about war, rarely do countries expect to see it coming but when and if it does, you'll be wishing you had a little something up your sleeve. That said, nuclear weapons aren't even really about that, they're about the deterrent. I'm having a hard time seeing a country in the world which we might want to use nuclear weapons against.
That said, the world is a pretty scary place and things are going to get more interesting when the scrabble for the remaining resources kicks off. And given, at this stage, we're purely talking about just giving a broad thumbs up to a system that needs replacing by 2020, I think it would be short sighted to consign the British nuclear deterrent to the dustbin just yet. Let's face it, rogue states will probably end up with nukes in the next 25 years and I think we can all sleep a little safer at night knowing that they know any conceivable use of them against us would be a somewhat foolish thing to do.
That does little to protect us from loony fringe extremist groups who will, let's be honest, will be the first people who might reasonably obtain nuclear weapons with the will to use them against us. I think this serves to underline the importance of not allowing rogue states who, let's face it, wont be trying that hard to keep their nuclear toys out of the hands of said loony fringe extremists, going on their current policies and rhetoric.
Perhaps the solution is to make it abundantly clear that the use of any nuclear weapon manufactured by said rogue state against us will be met with a retaliation on the makers of said weaponry. Would that make them think twice? So how about it Ahmadinejad? No, I expect not. Perhaps Persia is destined to attain a distinctively glassy sheen to it within the next 50 years.