Article in Science / Physics
There are various moves afoot to deploy new strategic nuclear-weapon systems. The US, for example, has completed tests of its newest strategic nuclear weapon, the B-61 mod-12 nuclear bomb, and plans to deploy such bombs in an airbase in Germany. And Britain is about to spend billions of pounds on...

The Invulnerability Of British Strategic Nuclear Submarines Is Under Serious Threat

Frank Barnaby

There are various moves afoot to deploy new strategic nuclear-weapon systems. The US, for example, has completed tests of its newest strategic nuclear weapon, the B-61 mod-12 nuclear bomb, and plans to deploy such bombs in an airbase in Germany. And Britain is about to spend billions of pounds on updating its Vanguard strategic nuclear submarine fleet. But how invulnerable is Trident?

A recent report, published on 22 January 2016 by the British American Information Council (BASIC), written by the BASIC Executive Director, Paul Ingram and entitled "Will Trident Still Work in the Future?”, explains that “emerging developments in technology that are transforming our lives and already revolutionizing the battle-space in air and on land could ensure that submarines will no longer be stealthy in the foreseeable future, however silent they are”.

The strategic nuclear submarine is generally seen to be the most effective platform to carry intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). Hidden under the oceans, one discloses its location only once it has launched its first missile. The British strategic nuclear submarines, the bedrock of Britain’s nuclear deterrence, are called Vanguard-Class submarines.

The British Royal Navy operates four Vanguard-class strategic nuclear submarines (called Vanguard, Victorious, Vigilant, and Vengeance) which are the sole platforms for the UK’s nuclear weapons. (Vanguard was commissioned in 1993, Victorious in 1995, Vigilant in 1996, and Vengeance in 1999). The decision to replace Trident was made on 4 December 2006. The submarines have a projected life-span of more than 25 years.

The Vanguards carry the highly accurate and reliable Trident II D5 missiles, with an extraordinarily accurate first-strike capability and a near-certain second-strike retaliatory option. The cost of four new Vanguards is put at £31 billion; this is considerably more than the £25 billion estimated nine years ago. The costs are likely to rise still further.

The Trident system - the submarines, missiles and warheads - is the most sophisticated nuclear weapon delivery system available. But, as Ingram explains, the invulnerability of Trident depends critically upon the stealth of the submarines and the effectiveness of systems that protect them. If adversaries can confidently track them, submarines are not a good way to carry strategic weapons. They are slow and vulnerable once detected, and can be immobilized even with indirect explosions under the water.

Traditionally, Ingram explains, strategic nuclear submarines have been capable of providing invulnerability to pre-emptive nuclear attack. But, Ingram warns, rapid advances in underwater drone technology will probably challenge their vulnerability. In particular, according to defense expert David Connett, the Trident strategic nuclear submarine is under threat from underwater drones. These are autonomous underwater vehicles that can be controlled by ship- or land-based operators.

This is a critical time for the Trident system. There is an ongoing debate in the UK about whether or not billions of pounds should be spent on updating the Vanguard nuclear submarine fleet. The question is will underwater drones make the Vanguards detectable and, therefore, vulnerable? If so, more spending on British strategic nuclear submarines could be pointless.

There has recently been a revolution in aerial drone capabilities and this will probably be extended to underwater vehicles. As Ingram points out, “the US navy and other states including China are already known to be carrying out extensive research into underwater drones.” This is ominous news for the supporters of the Trident programme.

BASIC is concerned about the “lack of informed public debate about Trident. The worrying thing is that nobody is debating this. It is an issue that nobody wants to talk about,” Ingram says.

David Hambling, in an article in the British science magazine New Scientist points out that “in recent years, marine research has been transformed by a new type of unscrewed submarine known as a glider. Typically looking like torpedoes with wings, they don’t have a propeller, instead altering buoyancy in order to glide. This slow, frugal propulsion allows them to go for months on a single battery charge.”

The British Ministry of Defense (MoD) denies that the vulnerability of Trident is threatened. It states that: “ We believe it is unlikely there will be any radical technological breakthrough which might diminish the current advantages of the submarine over potential anti-submarine systems. In any event, we judge that a submarine will remain by far the least vulnerable of all the platform options.

In other words, the MoD is confident that the Vanguard system will remain safe and secure.

Ingram replies that: “To state that there is no problem is heroic, in the face of the evidence. Echoing what former Defense Secretary Des Browne has said, the principal justification for renewing the Trident system is the future uncertainty of the strategic environment, yet we are being asked to believe there is a strong certainty that our systems will not be transparent and vulnerable throughout its operational life, up to half a century from now.” This does stretch credibility!

Ingram goes on to describe how “developing sensors operating with extraordinary computing capabilities, based upon a large number of relatively cheap drones operating in a massive network could take away the stealth of submarines before the successor class launches in 20 years' time. It is often claimed that it is as difficult to find a submarine in the sea as it is a needle in a haystack. Both are achievable with the right equipment. A needle can be extracted with a very powerful magnet.”

The ocean is, of course, massive, but efforts to detect submarines have until now depended upon a small number of sensors based upon large platforms (aircraft, frigates, hunter-killer submarines) patrolling over huge distances. We stand on the advent of a new era where more effective and far smaller sensors can be based on a very large number of automated platforms in or over the sea in constant real-time communication with each other.

Contrary to the image invoked by MoD, we are not talking about some unpredictable, surprise breakthrough. The development of drone technology has accelerated in recent years, so that drones exist today that can travel for many months without refueling, that can hunt submarines under the surface using a variety of sensors at some range (thousands of meters), and that can communicate with each other. They cannot and will not for the foreseeable future travel at the speed of a nuclear submarine, but that is unnecessary as these drones operate as a pack. The technology needs to mature. The cost needs to come down somewhat. But both these are foreseeable in the next two decades.

Submarines are generally slower than surface ships, and once located and tracked, they are highly vulnerable to attack by missiles capable of hitting targets underwater, or the fast-moving air-launched drone torpedoes under development. An adversary could track the submarine throughout its patrol and hold it at risk, and take it out at the most convenient or critical moment

What about alternatives? Of course they all have their drawbacks. Surface ships are just as vulnerable as submarines. Land-based ballistic missiles have no stealth at all and also require a launch-on-warning posture in crisis situations. Aircraft are also vulnerable to first strikes and need to be rapidly scrambled into the air if there is a warning of in-coming missiles. They can also be shot down en route to their targets.

Until recently opinions on the debate over Trident renewal were largely determined by security, moral, diplomatic or economic concerns. The viability of the systems involved was taken for granted. But this is no longer a responsible answer to the emerging evidence that submarines may not only be the most expensive and sophisticated platforms for nuclear delivery systems, they may become the most vulnerable. Reassurances without evidence from institutions or politicians heavily committed to the renewal project, hold little credibility in the face of clear and emerging technologies that could not only undermine the advantage of the submarine, but leave us with an expensive and destabilising system. Basic concludes that “we need to reopen the Trident Alternatives Review and do a better job this time.” to Shut Down Permanently on December 31, 2017

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About the Author 

Charles F Barnaby
Frank Barnaby, a nuclear physicist, worked at the: Atomic Weapons Research Establishment, Aldermaston (1951-57); University College, London

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