Americans Gives Russia British Trident Numbers

Does the disclosure of information about Britian’s nuclear deterrent to Russia really matter?

HMS Victorious arrives at Her Majesty's Naval Base Devonport, January 16, 2005
HMS Victorious arrives at Her Majesty’s Naval Base Devonport, January 16, 2005 (MoD/Lee Durant)

Recent newspaper reports bring to our attention an intriguing WikiLeaks revelation of American-Russian agreements as part of the New START treaty. The agreement, according to diplomatic cables released by the whistleblowers’ website, detailed plans for the Obama Administration to reveal to the Russians the serial numbers of all Trident D5 missiles which the United States provide to Britain.

The issue here lays in the policy which Britain pursues with regard to its nuclear forces. The policy relies on ambiguity: officials never disclose the exact numbers of the nuclear arsenal that is held by Britain. One can well imagine why this was part of the New START process as part of its raison d’être is the reduction of delivery vehicles used by both Russia and the United States. By also disclosing the number of American supplied British delivery vehicles, the Obama Administration is making sure to gain Russia’s trust. It would make little sense for the Kremlin to accept American vehicle and warhead reductions, attempt to match them as part of the reduction treaty and yet have to completely ignore those it provides to allies and uses by proxy.

SLBMs (Submarine Launched Ballistic Missiles), deployed on Royal Navy Vanguard class boats are the only credible option for Britain’s nuclear deterrent, having no space for silos and no suitable craft or infrastructure for standoff plane launched missiles like the 1960s Blue Steel project. This brings production of delivery vehicles firmly under control of the United States.

It is important to note that the warheads used by the Royal Navy on the Trident vehicle are British, but again with some American parts. The whole episode underlines the questionable sovereignty of the British deterrent. The missiles used on British boats are drawn from a pool based in the US Navy’s stockpile in Georgia and are technically leased, with an estimated British title to 52 missiles. The British government has a declared number of warheads at “less than two hundred.”

The issue for defense commentators in the British camp shouldn’t be about the surprise, seemingly perfidious actions by the American officials who authorized this disclosure. The writing was on the wall when Barack Obama ran for office that the supposed “special relationship” would soon be dead in the water. I wasn’t the only Briton highly skeptical of Barack Obama as the leader of the country often considered in Britain as the major security partner, and rightly so.

The real issue is one of sovereignty. If Britain must have a deterrent — and in these unsettling times it’s probably not a bad idea all in all — surely it should rest on either a policy not dependent on vagueness in the declared figures, or it should have sovereign capability over both vehicle and warhead production. Given the incapacity for Britain to build almost anything which works these twenty years past, from aircraft to amphibious warfare ships, this could be too much to ask.

However, last year’s Strategic Defense and Security Review did illustrate the pragmatic and potentially successful concept of the integration and establishment of British and French military-industrial institutions to increase interoperability and drive down production costs through using like models of equipment instead of separate, ever more expensive research and development. This could solve the issue of relying on American-made parts but brings with it its own gremlins.

The sovereignty issue is not really negated but altered. Undoubtedly if the Anglo-French industrial complex manufactured nuclear delivery vehicles and warheads, the relative political power of Britain in the scheme would be significantly greater with Paris than it ever was with Washington, forcing the project member to think much harder about the disclosure of any kind of nuclear related issues to those outside the scheme, let alone those outside NATO. But one is still reliant on another sovereign state with its own interests to follow, understandably.

Lastly, the disclosure of serial numbers may not be so revolutionary nor scary. Nuclear capability rests on how many warheads are in play at any one time, not a total number, as those without delivery systems are next to useless. Britain has four Vanguard class submarines, one of which is always in refit, one is gearing up for operations, another is afloat and the other gearing down. This means that one boat is usually at sea with another two potentially being rapidly deployed, one at least always available for emergencies. Each has sixteen tubes capable of firing Trident missiles carrying nuclear warheads.

Each missile, depending on warhead vehicle type, carry twelve reentry vehicles (the original American Trident fires twelve warheads per missile and was the same number deployed on earlier Trident missiles with the Royal Navy, though, presumably due to arms control treaties since, have been limited to six) or three reentry vehicles (as accuracy improves over the years, the yield and number of warheads reduces) or the also quite likely one warhead per missile. (Meaning the number of missiles carried is equal to the number of nuclear warheads). Some sources cite that since the 1997 Strategic Defense Review suggests 48 warheads across four missiles per boat but this doesn’t address the warhead per missile reduction which could mean anything between four to sixteen warheads, to 48 missiles per boat, all at least high-end sub-strategic yield warheads (about 100 KT).

That’s ruining someone’s day. The policy of ambiguity, then, may have its role to play here. The “official” number of warheads carried on each boat may be incorrect, leading to completely different figures of warheads per boat. However, as a cynic and observer of British defense policy, it’s most likely to be bottom end of all figures, and even they may be made of wood.

In all seriousness, the true nuclear secrets Britain must guard is not the number of missiles — this can be calculated based on existing figures, known knowns and known unknowns, with estimates toward a lower number and contingencies planned toward a higher, employed by any state wanting to deal with the British nuclear arsenal.

The real secrets lie in the position of the submarines. British nuclear policy could have any number or type of missiles, made anywhere in the world. These things aren’t as important as the crux of the whole deterrent policy; the invisibility of the boats and their ability to undergo missions lasting months, unseen and strike anywhere in the world with even a small number of warheads. The decentralization of nuclear responsibility, the precomittment to retaliation via submarine launched ballistic missiles, does throw in those elements of seemingly irrational thought and thus uncertainty so prized by the likes of Thomas Schelling to greater strategic effect than just a number of missiles.

A small arsenal, however, is never going to be enough to deter a great nuclear power such as Russia or China, and the British arsenal by itself could only serve to dissuade would-be rising nuclear states like Iran. The risk of taking heavy losses in value targets in London by second strike would probably outweigh the retaliatory benefits of attacking Moscow or Beijing for the loss of a military target like Plymouth.

But even this element of uncertainty about the position of Vanguard submarines is now under threat owing to a loss of the maritime patrol capability of British armed forces via the loss of the Nimrod aircraft in the recent Strategic Defense and Security Review. Now Russian attack submarines can wait off British coasts to track Vanguard class vessels with little chance of being discovered.

No wonder then that the Americans may as well disclose serial numbers of missiles sold to Britain. As part of a American nuclear plan, the British boats serve only as sacrificial bait to distract Russian attack subs and could perhaps be picked off before launching their own meagre compliment of warheads.

As an independent deterrent, which it has little claim to be, British Trident still has utility against emergent nuclear powers but serial numbers matter little here anyway, owing to the form of the policy employed at large; the submarine based delivery vehicle.

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