This week labour under Corybn were trying to float various policies to address what to do with the Trident submarines if they were disarmed of nuclear missiles. One option which they put forward was to simply send them out armed with conventional missiles, but without the nuclear warheads. Needless to say, the media quickly lambasted this, quickly digging up some disgruntled labour MP’s to ridicule it.
However, is this such a silly idea? A liberally leftie peacenik paper tiger? well no! And you mightn’t want to mention that to the crew of the USS Florida ….at least not while they are within missile range! They operate a SSGN, an ex-ballistic missile sub (which the Americans disarmed of nukes to comply with the latest START treaty) and loaded with cruise missiles carrying conventional warheads instead. The sub carries an incredible 154 cruise missiles, more than enough firepower to really spoil someone’s day.
A UK Vanguard or Trident replacement sub would have seven cruise missiles per VLS, giving a warload of 112 cruise missiles. A fleet of 4 of them could thus launch 448 missiles at an enemy within a very short time period. This would not only do a heck a lot of damage to the poor saps on the receiving end, but they would overwhelm enemy air defences, as even the best defended countries (such as the US, Russia or China) simply do not have the capability to deal with that many missiles simultaneously, particularly if the initial target is in fact those very air defences (this is exactly what the US has used its SSGN’s for in the recently). Needless to say, this would provide the Royal Navy with a formidable capability, one which would be much more useful than the current Trident fleet.
Its a concept known as an “arsenal ship”. This was an idea floated by military theorists who questioned why you would want to use an aircraft carrier (which costs billions of dollars) and risk the lives of its crew (in the thousands) to attack a well defended target. Instead, they argued you could simply sail a less expensive ship crammed full of hundreds of missiles (e.g. even just a cargo ship, its holds filled with VLS tubes, operated by remote control) and have it unleash all of them one after the other and devastate the target, all for a fraction of the cost and without risking the life’s of sailors.
Needless to say, once the military took up to the idea, they made a few changes. Using sub’s would allow an “arsenal sub” to stealthy approach an enemy shore, which would increase its chances of survival and decrease the warning to the enemy of impending attack. And, as noted, they were planning to decommission the sub’s anyway, so its not as if it cost them a lot of money. And it ensured that the sub’s were still in service, should the Russians break the treaty and the US decided to re-arm them with nukes.
I would note that there was some opposition to this plan in the US Navy, notably from aircraft carrier and air force commanders, who obviously feared the submarine force were about to eat their lunch. So some opposition from certain sectors of the UK military would only be natural.
An alternative plan would be to re-arm the Trident missiles with conventional warheads. A Trident missile carries up to 14 MIRV’s which can be directed at separate targets within the same geographical area (so 224 targets per sub, in theory). Intercepting a ballistic missile is very difficult, only a handful of states can do this and they would struggle to cope with 14 in bound warheads, nor indeed multiple missiles launched at once (that’s sort of the whole point of MIRV’s!). So again, even with conventional warheads (keep in mind they’ll be travelling at hypersonic speed when they hit) a trident missile is really going to spoil your day. The downside is, that at $37 million a pop, its a bit of an expensive way to take out a couple of ISIS bunkers.
A more serious problem with all of this however, is the response from the UK’s nuclear rivals. The Russians see a load of trident missiles (or cruise missiles) pop out of the North Sea, they don’t know who is launching them, they don’t know what kind of warhead they carry (nuclear, conventional, chemical, a large lump of lead). Indeed they won’t even be sure initially what’s the target. They may well conclude the worst and commit to a nuclear retaliation (against NATO and the US). This is almost what happened in 1995 when the launch of a sounding rocket in Norway was mistake by the Russians for a trident nuclear missile strike on Moscow. Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed, but that mightn’t happen next time.
In short, a genuine criticism of Corybn’s plan is that he is proposing not so much unilateral nuclear disarmament, but to adopt a nuclear policy midway between Israel (who have nuclear weapons, but are not a declared nuclear power) and Japan (who have the technical capability to become a nuclear power within a very short time period, but have consciously chosen not to do so…unless threatened with nuclear blackmail). Whether the world, or indeed the UK’s NATO allies, would accept this is far from clear. Certainly there would have to be some negotiation and ultimately what policy the UK can then apply to these sub’s will be determined by the outcome of those talks.
So there are some real concerns regarding Corybn’s proposal. What is clear however, is that the media, even the BBC, were very quick to rush to judgement. It would seem that rather than asking some expert (e.g. Jane’s defence for example…headquarters in London), instead, they rang round the usual suspects of Tory-lite labour MP’s or right-wing leaning retired generals (the sort who still think we’re fighting the Germans) and rushed off to print with whatever sound-bite they got, rather than fact checking to see if it was true.
The media simply aren’t willing to give Corybn a fair trial. They will not allow him to air new ideas and seem determined to stoke up rebellion within the labour ranks.