On 19 October the BBC reported that “A Royal Navy officer has been sent home from the U.S. after reporting to take charge of a submarine’s Trident nuclear missiles while unfit for duty. Lt Cdr Len Louw is under investigation at Faslane naval base in Scotland amid reports he had been drinking. Colleagues raised concerns when the weapons engineering officer arrived for work on HMS Vigilant last month.”
It must be made clear that there was no possibility this officer or any other single person could in some way commit the submarine to despatch of its weapons. It simply could not happen. But the squalid little incident did draw attention to the fact that a British nuclear submarine was in the United States for some reason and although the UK’s over-staffed and infamously incompetent Ministry of Defence condescendingly announced that “the Royal Navy does not comment on matters related to submarine operations” it was apparent that the boat was in port at the U.S. submarine base in Kings Bay, Georgia, probably to update and recalibrate technical devices and to load a number of Trident II D5 nuclear missiles.
The UK keeps insisting it has an independent nuclear weapons capability, so it has to be asked why the Royal Navy needs to send submarines to the U.S. to pick up missiles. But as with so many defence matters the government tries to keep the British public in the dark as much as possible. According to the U.S. Naval Institute, “Vigilant is one of four U.K. Vanguard-class boomers that the Royal Navy maintains as part of the British nuclear deterrent force. While the MoD maintains its own nuclear warheads, British and U.S. submarines share a common stockpile of Trident II D5 missiles stored at Kings Bay.”
It can also be asked why the United Kingdom government thinks the country needs nuclear weapons at all.
London’s reluctance to provide information to the public about nuclear weapons is likely based on the government’s desire to disguise the vast expenditure involved. When it is demanded by law that information be provided, it is released on a carefully timed basis. The public relations operators have it all planned, and choose a day when more exciting news can be either expected or manipulated, rather like the FBI’s notification of the preposterous allegations that “Iran and Russia Seek to Influence Election in Final Days” that — surprise, surprise! — were headlines on the same day that former President Obama gave a speech in support of presidential candidate Joe Biden.
But the Brits didn’t succeed in one particular case concerning vast expenditure on systems to replace the existing Trident nuclear missiles on its four submarines. It had been stated in the annual update to Parliament by the Ministry of Defence in December last year that “Work also continues to develop the evidence to support a government decision when replacing the warhead” and there matters rested — until in February Admiral Charles Richard, commander of U.S. Strategic Command, “told the Senate defence committee that there was a requirement for a new warhead, which would be called the W93 or Mk7. Richard said ‘This effort will also support a parallel replacement warhead programme in the United Kingdom’.”
The disclosure forced the underhand of the UK government, and on February 25 Defence News reported Defence Secretary Ben Wallace as stating that “To ensure the Government maintains an effective deterrent throughout the commission of the Dreadnought Class ballistic missile submarine we are replacing our existing nuclear warhead to respond to future threats and the security environment” which is a weasel-worded admission that did not mention the colossal sums of money involved.
(But then, Ben Wallace is no stranger to large sums of money, and during the 2009 revelations by the UK’s Daily Telegraph concerning fiddling and greed on the part of politicians it was revealed that in 2008 he had the fourth highest expenses of any Member of Parliament, claiming £175,523 (on top of his £63,000 salary), including £29,000 a year to employ his wife as a part-time research assistant.)
The cost of replacing Trident missiles by the “life extension programme” of the warheads is not known, as the only estimate available, given in a 2006 government paper on ‘The Future of the United Kingdom’s Nuclear Deterrent’, is £250 million which is obviously a small fraction of the true amount.
Not only is the UK committing massive sums to replace the weapons systems of existing nuclear submarines, it has embarked on an enormous programme to build four new ones to replace the Vanguard class vessels. A House of Commons research briefing of June 2020 (produced by the House Library whose researchers are not influenced by sleazy political fandangos) states that the programme involves “design, development and manufacture of four new Dreadnought class ballistic missile submarines (SSBN) that will maintain the UK’s nuclear posture of Continuous at Sea Deterrence” and that “the cost of the programme has been estimated at £31 billion, including defence inflation over the life of the programme.”
The United Kingdom is in a parlous economic state. The International Monetary Fund assesses that the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic will hit Britain’s economy much harder than much of the rest of the world, and while nobody can forecast what will befall the UK if it abandons trade negotiations with the European Union, it is certain that there can be no economic benefit from its current policies.
The last thing the UK needs to do is to commit billions of pounds to nuclear weapons. (Although its Members of Parliament do count the pennies on occasions. They’ve just been told they are to get a pay increase of over 3,000 pounds a year, and on October 21 voted overwhelmingly to reject a plan for poor children to receive midday school meals during school holidays in this period of extreme financial insecurity. They’re all heart.)
At the moment, UK nuclear policy is that “we are committed to maintaining the minimum amount of destructive power needed to deter any aggressor” and as noted by Scientists for Global Responsibility, “The UK’s nuclear warheads are carried on Trident missiles – leased from the USA – in nuclear-powered submarines. Currently, eight missiles can be fired, carrying 40 x 100kT warheads, with a few hours’ notice from a submerged submarine. The UK’s total nuclear weapons arsenal consists of 195 warheads.”
There is no doubt that 195 warheads would destroy enormous areas, but there is no point in going into detail, because if the submarines fired off any nuclear weapons at Russia (the only conceivable target), retaliation would ensure that the UK would cease to exist.
Just who does London imagine is being deterred by its expensive nuclear missiles? America is the only western country that would commit to firing nuclear weapons, and there is no possibility that Washington would consult London about its decision. Once Washington went to nuclear war, all that the UK could do would be to pop off its missiles to pile destruction on destruction. That’s not deterrence, and Britain would be well advised to refrain from spending countless billions on a new set of nuclear toys and commit its resources to betterment of its citizens.