Sunday, October 09, 2005

Britain Needs to Replace Trident Nuclear Missiles?

The future of nuclear deterrence was an important issue in the last general election. At present, Britain deploys US-made Trident missiles as strategic weapons. Current missile system must be replaced in2024, because the Vanguard class strategic missile submarines will be decommissioned. Therefore, a nation-wide debate is on going, regarding future nuclear possession. Prime minister Tony Blair made it clear that Britain will maintain nuclear deterrence for big league status in the world. The Conservative party welcomed his decision. Now, British leaders will discuss options of future nuclear arsenals. Britain will be firmly committed to global nuclear deterrence, and the cost and performance of deploying the next generation nuclear weapons will be vital. Meanwhile, leftist politicians insist that Britain should abolish all nuclear weapons in order to adapt to the post-Cold War international politics.

Before talking of these debates, let me explain briefly about the history of British nuclear weapons. Britain developed its own atomic and hydrogen bombs in1952 and 1957. Since then, Britain possessed two categories of nuclear systems: strategic bombers and SLBMs (Submarine Launched Ballistic Missile). While the United Kingdom has developed V-bombers --Valiant, Victor and Vulcan-- by itself, it has been using US-made SLBMs as a principal nuclear deterrence.

Britain tried to make independent SLBM by itself, but it was not successful. Therefore, Harold Macmillan talked with John F. Kennedy, and decided to import US-made Polaris missile under the Nassau agreement in 1962. Since then, Britain’s strategic weapons have become closely related to those with the United States. When Britain needed to upgrade its SLBMs, Margaret Thatcher decided to replace Polaris with another US-made missile, Trident. At the end of the Cold War, the United Kingdom abolished strategic bombers, and concentrates all the strategic arsenals on US-made SLBMs. As a result, the future of British nuclear weapon is tied with the United States.

In order to upgrade current nuclear system, Britain has the following options.
1. Life Extensive Program of Trident missile system
In this case, it is necessary to build new Trident launching or multi-role hunter-killer submarines. Also, Trident missile itself could be updated from current version of D5 to D5A. This missile update depends on whether the United States will do or not. In any case, tremendous cost is expected.

2. Cruise missile
In this case, multi-role hunter-killer submarines will be used. In the Iraq War, Britain fired US-made Tomahawk missiles from hunter-killer submarines. Cruise missiles fly a shorter range than ballistic missiles.

3. Air-based missile
This is what the RAF (Royal Air Force) insists. However, land-based strategic forces are vulnerable to attack by the enemy. This is the most unlikely option.

In any case, Britain will retain nuclear deterrence, because the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats support it as well. At present, it is quite likely that Britain will renew current Trident missile system.

However, Labour left-wingers argue that Trident is a Cold War deterrence, and useless against present threats, like dirty bomb attacks by terrorists and nuclear proliferations, particularly by Iran and North Korea. Robin Cook, who resigned Foreign Secretary when the Iraq War broke out, insists that Britain should end futile and costly obsession with nuclear weapons. Instead, he argues that Britain should assume leadership in global arms reduction by unilateral nuclear disarmament. Clare Short, a radical left who also resigned the cabinet minister when the Iraq War began, says, “It's just a symbol saying that Britain is in the big league, but if you need nuclear weapons to be in the big league, it's no wonder India and others want them.”

Britain’s choice on the Trident issue will have a significant effect on WMDs (Weapons of Mass Destruction) and terrorism problems. Both of them are the most critical to the global security today. I do not believe Britain will disarm it nuclear weapons unilaterally. In order to deal with current threats in a cost-effective way, Britain may choose cruise missile, because some US Trident submarines carries Tomahawk missile instead. The key to this debate is Britain’s role in the global war on terror and nuclear non-proliferation.