July 19, 2016

Surprise Majority UK Labour Vote for Trident SSBN Replacement, Russia, Turkey

Second or First Strike Cooperation

The light blue footprint reflects the limitations of the UK's Trident II D5 SLBM coverage, from the Atlantic Ocean launch basin. Half of Russia, most of China, and all of North Korea are not in the (likely 8,000-12,000 km) UK Trident range. This means the UK very much needs to launch in cooperation with the US, assuming US assumed global coverage (especially from the Pacific Ocean). 

If France's newish M51 SLBMs (at 8,000-10,000 km) have a 2,000 km shorter range - then that restricts France's deterrent reach even more. But then again France's deterrent is mainly to make Russia's losses unacceptable. (Map-Diagram courtesy FAS, UK Defence Review via BBC, 2016).

UK Trident Vote

On Monday night, July 18, 2016, a majority of UK Members of Parliament (in the House of Commons) voted to replace the 4 Vanguard class (Trident firing) SSBNs with the 4 new (Trident firing) Successor class SSBNs. 472 (including 322 Conservative) voted to replace versus 117. This  represents more than 80% in favour - a sound mandate to replace Trident.  

While it was not a surprise that most MPs voted for the replacement - because most MPs in the Commons are of the ruling Conservative Party - it was a surprise that a majority of Labour Party MPs voted for the replacement. 140 of Labour's 230 MPs voted for replacement (a total of 47 Labour members voted against replacement, while others abstained). 

This Labour Party result represents a divisive thrashing of the Labour Party Leader's authority. Labour Party Leader Jeremy Corbyn is a very leftwing pacifist, so having most of his party in the Commons vote for a replacement of the SSBN's (the UK's only active nuclear weapons launch platform) is a bitter development for him. Corbyn's removal as Labour Leader is probably imminent.

Successor Class Basing and Cost Problems Remain

Problems of uncertain basing (ejection from Faslane submarine base in Scotland) and guaranteed rapidly escalating costs of the Trident replacement fleet remain. This is evinced by all but one of the MPs from Scotland voting against replacement.

A side note is that UK commentators seem to harbour a sexist surprise that the new female Prime Minister, Theresa May, says she would be willing to press the nuclear button without hesitation in a nuclear exchange. The effectiveness of a nuclear deterrent relies on assurance to an enemy that they would be destroyed in a SSBN/SLBM first or second strike situation.

Successor is probably a temporary name with a name more historical and British likely to replace it in years to come. The up front build cost of the 4 Successor class is currently estimated at UK £31 Billions total. This represents an injection of money into needy UK regional areas - a financial argument on top of national defence arguments for the Successors.

Russia Unhappy at Trident Vote but Happy With Turkey

Russia, under Putin, would not be happy. Russia would have preferred that its long moral/propaganda  (and perhaps financial) campaign that the UK undergo a process of unilateral nuclear disarmament has been frustrated once again. A disarmed UK would weaken NATO - a weakened NATO may be less threatening. A weaker NATO would permit lower Russian defence spending.

Nevertheless, this week has not been all bad news for Russia. With the near coup in Turkey, the important Turkish component of NATO is in temporary factional disarray. The Russians and US would be busy researching Turkey's latest troubles, separately.


Main reference the Members vote to renew Trident weapons systemBBC, July 19, 2016. Also see:

See the Submarine Matters articles on UK-Trident Replacement and Brexit.



MHalblaub said...

Dear Pete,
There might be another reason worth 4 SSBNs: the steady membership of the UK within the United Nation Security Council with the right to veto.
Without the nuclear strike capability the UK may vanish rather soon.

The British submarines are and will be capable to extinguish any place on earth - North Korea, Peking or Vanuta. The reaction may not a instant one but submarines are somehow mobil.


Ztev Konrad said...

Its not a surprise for UK labour, as their last conference confirmed the nuclear deterrent as party policy.

Anonymous said...

Brexit will likely lead to reduced foreign direct investments into the UK, so this big defense investment is likely aimed at absorbing some of the Brexit impacts on the labor force.
Given USN is also looking at the Ohio replacement, my guess is there is room for joint design partnership with the US to optimize required capital investments.

Peter Coates said...

Hi MHalblaub

It is indeed true that the UK wants to maintain its nuclear weapon capability (by replacing the SLBM firing SSBNs) to support its continued membership as a Permanent (P5) Member of the United Nations Security Council.

If the UK squandered its nukes privilege then India (with nukes) and/or bigger economy countries (like Germany) might take a higher position (than the UK) in the world pecking order.

True that UK SSBNs are mobile (making Vanuatu a prime target :) But leaving the Atlantic generally involves going through straits or relatively narrow seas, where they have an increased chance of being sunk by enemy SSNs of SSKs.



Peter Coates said...


Very true that Brexit may mean a drop in European and broader foreign direct investment into the UK. So higher UK Government spending (like SSBN replacement) will partly compensate.

Yes joint design partnership with the US benefitting the UK and US SSBN replacement programs is already taking place. For example see - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Successor-class_submarine#Munitions

The UK envisages a "12-missile common missile compartment designed in collaboration with the US for their SSBN-X, which could accommodate the current Trident D5 missiles and any replacement missile [another common US-UK project] once the D5 reaches the end of its expected life in the 2040s"

BTW, it is odd the US (for its SSBN-X) only says it wants a 16 Trident compartment - even though the SSBN-X will be as long and heavy as the Ohios.

I think it more likely that during the SSBN-X design phase the USN will demand 2 x 12-missile common missile compartments to maintain the 24 Trident standard or use some of the 24 for other uses like:

- large decoys-in-emergency

- better buoy broadband communications systems.



Peter Coates said...

Hi Ztev

Yeah also no surprise there remains would-be Labour leaders who want Corbyn's job http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2016/jul/19/owen-smith-jeremy-corbyn-labour-leadership-angela-eagle

Even noble pacifists, like Corbyn, become political lepers.