Thoughts on the Successor Deterrent – CMC is in.

Nick Harvey – “The idea that you should produce weapons of mass destruction in order to keep 1,500 jobs going in the Barrow shipyard is simply ludicrous,”

You hear some foolish statements on occasion, but considering this one comes from an ex MoD minister it is an absolute pearler! The Barrow jobs preserve the sovereign and strategic capability that is nuclear submarines, regardless of whether they contain ballistic missiles or not. And the British Defence Industrial Strategy regards nuclear submarines as a strategic industry over which we must retain sovereign control.

That said, foolish statement aside I believe he is on the money when he talks of “nukes in the cupboard”.

At least insomuch that if there is to be no like-for-like replacement of Trident, a leap is more likely than a shuffle.

[Article somewhat revised 10/10/12 – see italics for details]

From the Guardian article:

“I think you might struggle to persuade the British public to do that, but I think you might persuade them to go down to the penultimate step: you keep something for a rainy day, but putting it away and not having it as part of your everyday activity.”

“Believe you me there are very senior figures of all three services who are highly aware of that perfect storm of these costs, who don’t believe the Treasury is going suddenly ride to their rescue with a cheque and who are asking, ‘Is the opportunity cost of having another generation of nuclear weapons too high, in terms of of what it would prevent us doing on other fronts?'”

“To convince ourselves that the only point of having any deterrent at all is the capability of flattening Moscow is the wrong and distorting lens through which to view the debate.”

There really are alternatives as RUSI made clear two years ago when it outlined four possible options:

1. a ‘Normally-CASD’ Submarine Force, (three SSBN’s and therefore pretty expensive)
2. a ‘CASD-Capable’ Submarine Force, (two SSBN’s and therefore a bit less expensive)
3. a ‘Dual-Capable’ Submarine Force and  (many SSN’s which have a few missile tubes)
4. a Non-Deployed Force. (warheads in Aldermaston, Jerry-rigged to whatever will fit)

Your author believes the choice will hinge on which solution gives us the most viable nuclear submarine industry into the future VS which solution absorbs the least amount of the defence budget on a purely deterrent function.

In short, the Malcolm Chalmers dictum: “If you end up going for an option which steps down the ladder but you don’t save any money it’s a political non-starter,”

What governs this calculation?

  • a – DK Brown believed four is the optimal production run for a high-tech/high-cost item like an SSN
  • b – The DIS requirement is for a new design every eight years in order to maintain design currency
  • c – The DIS requirement is for a new boat to hit the water every 22 months to maintain manufacturing
  • d – A fleet size that can meet “a”, “b”, & “c” without needing a service-life apt to give the Treasury apoplexy

Options number 1 & 2 fall foul of rule “a” and “b”

Option number 3 doesn’t generate significant medium term savings according to RUSI

Option number 4 is probably a step too far in public perception, and does nothing to assist the preservation of a viable strategic industry.

Rule “d” is important because the Treasury doesn’t want to have to pay for a billion pound boat only to retire it in twenty years whereupon it will be asked to break out the checkbook for a replacement billion pound boat. This is further emphasised by the choice of PWR3 for the reactor, with its higher price tag and service life than the PWR2+ alternative. Paying the extra only makes sense if you intend to make use of the extra service life (from 25 to 30 years).

This is why I am going to suggest that the chosen outcome might be a mix of three and four, not least because I don’t believe the review will consider cruise to be a credible deterrent, and the continued level of British investment in the Common Missile Compartment (CMC):

If the CMC is going to arrive in a four tube module – then we could opt for a “nukes in the cupboard” solution.

Why – because a four tube module would allow you to make a common class of SS(B)N that were not enormous, and not fantastically expensive.

You could then set about creating the most economically and technologically sustainable nuclear-boat industry we could hope to have: Twelve boats in classes of four with a twenty seven year service life providing a new design every nine years and a new boat rolling off the slips every twenty seven months.

All would have four tube CMC module which in day to day use could be kept ready for cruise or special-forces insertion.

In addition to this:
1. Aldermaston would create, store, and maintain, a number of warheads that would fit onto the Trident D6 missiles
2. We would lease, as we do now, just twelve Trident D6 missiles from the yanks. enough to roll a boat in for refit, one on tour, and one in workdown
3. A fleet large enough to maintain the SSBN function in currency, and possible even one boat ‘loaded’ so that there were always missiles in UK possession

It does rather hang on being able to adopt the CMC on a platform small enough that it can function as an SSN.

It has been suggested by El-Sid on that:

even the US is increasingly attracted to a fighter-bomber submarine, so watch this space. Realistically a true fighter-bomber like the F/A-18 is less likely, I’d think more in terms of a Tornado F3/GR4 combination – lots in common but it’s obvious to outsiders which is the fighter and which the bomber.

If you felt you could get away with a new design every nine years, on a three year build schedule and classes of three you could get away with nine as the total number of boats and still keep the service life at a PWR3-justifying twenty-seven years. It is not for me to say whether this is in fact feasible, but if it is then RUSI’s option 1 (Normally CASD), with three dedicated SSBN’s closely related to the other six future SSN’s suddenly becomes an option……….

Personally, I cannot see how it would save much cash for the Treasury, and the uplift in deterrent capability would come at the cost of a reduced fleet capability and a greater per-boat industrial subsidy. It would fail the Chalmers rule, and I know which option I would rather go for.

Let’s hope we see the final report soon.

Update – 10.10.12 – Thanks to El-Sid at Think Defence:

For pointing out that basic mathematics demonstrates that long thin things (like missile tubes) can be positioned side by side across a cylinder (like a submarine) without increasing the cylinder’s diameter to any significant degree. Therefore, regardless of configuration (1×4 or 2×2) a single CMC module should fit just fine on a 400ft 10,000 tonne SS(B)N.

Please also read a very similar article from TD regular Gareth Jones on Libdemvoice.

Update – 08.11.12 – An excellent article from Gabbie on the replacement deterrent system.

25 responses to “Thoughts on the Successor Deterrent – CMC is in.

  1. The whole nukes thing has always been a bit of an interest due to my location but with the country so far up the creek it’s even more so. The cost thing if i remember correctly is that keeping a full blown nuke capability works out at somewhere near £2bln a year which is reasonable. I like the added flexibility of lots of SSN boats with CMC’s allowing for a greater loadout of TLAM or special forces but with the Astutes already more or less here and set to be in service for a while the idea seems to have hit a stumbling block.

    However if we got say 5 more Astute class with additional CMC capability and put the nukes in the cupboard would we actually save much money, i don’t think we would. Sure it would be a far more flexible and useful force which is excellent but what would happen if some crackpot dictator carries out a nuclear test and the decision is made to restart deterrent patrols. It would be interesting to see the reaction in the national and international press, i think once we go down that route of stopping patrols the decision has more or less been made. Therein lies the biggest problem with the whole issue in my opinion……

    • I agree there would be no going back, which in itself might be frightening enough to keep casd as constituted, but if that hurdle can be leapt then I do think it will be a big leap specifically to given the maximum economic advantage. This is a forty years decision; go big or go home.

      Three ssbn won’t save much operationally, and will add design cost in amortising over fewer boats.
      Two ssbn only compounds this problem.
      A dual capable fleet gives us the most cost efficient industry but adds operational costs.
      Warheads on cruise is cheap operationally but does nothing to assist (or hinder) our strategic industry, and is only marginally credible as a deterrent.

      My combination of the last two achieves three goals:
      1. Mitigates the operational costs of dual capable
      2. Provides the most efficient submarine industry
      3. Maintains a credible nuclear deterrent

      Of course we could stick with casd, but the additional costs would not allow an SSN fleet larger than six or seven, which is awkward for design and manufacture reasons. Even then it would really serious cuts elsewhere.

      Barrow is on the very brink of viability, and it is only going to get harder.

      Kind regards


  2. Your right it’s a once in a half century decision which is why I think it would be a mahoosive mistake to make the decision on the basis of being broke again but we’ve made insane choices before so who knows. I think the decision if it is made will depend on how screwed up the finances stay and for how long, I doubt Tory’s would want the decision to cancel on their heads unless it’s an open vote. If the supporters can push the point that over the lifetime of the system it’s only a drop in the ocean compared to Government spending I think a straight replacement has a chance. I hope the Government are smart enough especially after the incident in the Atlantic, that 4 hulls minimum are needed for a credible deterrent.

    I think your suggestion is probably the only other credible solution I can think of being able to reconstitute a deterrent at some point given a serious enough set of circumstances. If everything was dandy I’d wish for my 4 SSBN’s and another Astute down the lines of the USS Jimmy Carter so we can plonk it off a coastline somewhere and conduct operations for an extended period of time.

    As for the industry side of things we need the 8 Astute and 4 SSBN’s at least by my math to keep things ticking over allowing for the SSBN’s to take a bit longer. Even then 24months plus per boat is a relatively leisurely build pace and doesn’t allow for much production efficiency gains like the Virginia class builds.

    • Jimmy carter – is that the stretched Virginia?

      That is another option, if cruise is thought to be viable, ditch CMC and jump in bed with the Virginia Payload Module. It would have all the same non-deterrent uses as CMC but at a smaller cost.

  3. USS Jimmy Carter is a stretched Sea Wolf class, it’s got about an extra 100ft section for various things including essentially a drydeck shelter built in. It’s also got additional retractable podded thrusters for maneuvering to position itself on the seabed over telecommunications cables. There are also various other changes to make in an ideal covert operations platform, including extensive signals intelligence kit. Doubtless it’s got many more features that we don’t know about but an Astute with some additional features would be an excellent asset not just for the UK but NATO.

    The Virginia payload module was kind of what i was angling at yes, basically it would allow us to work continue to cooperate with the USN and it’s special forces. There are all sorts of plans being developed to take advantage of the space not least of which is the multiple round missile canister but also UAV’s etc… so it would make sense to look into it. GE electric boat were already brought in to consult on the Astute class / save the program so i would imagine they would have the clearances from the UK at least to have that discussion. Furthermore i would put money on the CMC folks and VPM folks either talking to one another or are the same people.

  4. Hi jedi

    “You could then set about creating the most economically and technologically sustainable nuclear-boat industry we could hope to have:
    Twelve boats in classes of four with a 24 year service life providing a new design every eight years and a new boat rolling off the slips every two.”

    Sounds like a good idea to me.

  5. Hi Jedi,
    Only recently got round to reading this post. Ironically I came up with a similar idea myself and have written an article for Liberal Democrat Voice suggestting a new dual role submarine armed with cruise, etc, but capable of taking Trident/future SLBM if the international situation changes!. I added a link to this page at the end before i submitted it.

  6. Pingback: Opinion: A Submarine for all seasons

  7. Pingback: A submarine for all seasons - Military News | Military News

  8. I think we have to make a distinction between maintaining a submarine design and building capability (essential) and a NUCLEAR submarine capability (perhaps less essential). The key numbers are: submarine lifetime: 25-30 years, minimum viable building rate one every twenty-two months = a minimum fleet of about 15 boats. Simply building another 5 on top of the current 7 planned Astutes would still leave a hiatus in submarine building at some point in the future. Our submarine industry is clinging on by its fingertips. Furthermore, at some point (like now perhaps?) we are going to have to stop the trend towards ever-fewer, ever more expensive platforms. There comes a point where there are simply not enough units to do the various jobs that need doing. Put simply, we could do with more, cheaper submarines. Unlike JB I do think nuclear cruise is an option, indeed I think it is the only option so how about this for size: We build a total of 8 Astutes (2 x PWR-3s are now on order for the 7th Astute and the 1st Successor, so we may as well not waste the last PWR-3) and follow that with about 8 more large SSKs with AIP, something like the Japanese Soryu class. We could design something similar ourselves or else simply build the Soryus under license. Even better, how about we collaborate with the Australians who are considering the Soryu class as a Collins replacement ? Soryus are about $600m each, about 4,200 tonnes displacement (which is not much less than the previous generation of SSNs) and carry an armament not much less than the Astutes (which are 3X as expensive). Soryus carry 36 weapons, Astutes 38. A fleet of 16 boats could mean 5 or 6 at sea at any one time and if each were armed with even 5 nuclear cruise missiles there you have 25 warheads at sea continuously without trying very hard. It would be possible to put as many as a hundred nuclear cruise missiles to sea in a crisis (plus many other weapons). Who would not be deterred by a hundred-odd nukes, even if they did fancy their chances of shooting some of them down?
    There are 3 main issues with a nuclear deterrent: cost, security and threat. Nuclear cruise trumps Trident on two counts out of three and the third point is arguable.
    If it costs too much it will impact too much on the conventional forces and push us down the dangerous path of inter-dependency with other EU countries. This is the route to paralysis as one country after another will be able to exercise a veto by withholding a vital component. This then leads towards Brussels taking charge of defence in the longer term.
    A nuclear force has to be secure – no point in having something that can be destroyed before we can use it; indeed someone might be tempted to try and destroy it. There seems general agreement that a submarine-based force is best. One based on 5 or 6 subs at sea is more secure than a force based on just one at sea.
    Threat? Cruise missiles are slower and easier to shoot down than ballistic missiles but ballistic ones are not invulnerable either, certainly not a small force of 12 or fewer. The Israelis reckon their Arrow missile can take out a ballistic missile and this technology will only spread. 12 Tridents or up to a hundred cruise? I suspect cruise will be good enough.
    Finally, if we design and build our own cruise missiles we may end up with a genuinely independent nuclear force, not one we are hiring from the US.

    • Hi Steve,

      I still think the following is perfectly viable and sustainable:

      “Twelve boats in classes of four with a twenty seven year service life providing a new design every nine years and a new boat rolling off the slips every twenty seven months.”

      I would also question whether SSK’s, Soryu or otherwise, would provide Britain what it wants from a truly world-beating capability:

      1. The legs to range globally
      2. The electrical power to operate truly decisive sensor systems

      Both areas where an SSK inevitably struggles.

  9. I would turn the argument on its head and ask what is so special about Britain that we should consider ourselves too good to buy SSKs? If they are good enough for Australia and Japan, then why not us? I am suggesting a mixed fleet of SSNs and SSKs, so for those missions where the global range of an SSN is needed, we will have it. I cannot comment on the electrical generating capacity of SSKs but suffice to say the 1500-tonne Swedish HMS Gotland, when it was leased to the US Navy, acquitted itself well in exercises, ‘sinking’ a Los Angeles Class boat, so they say.
    Why is 8 SSNs plus 8 SSKs better than 12 SSNs or SS(B)Ns?
    First, it’s a bigger fleet, we can’t go on shrinking our armed forces indefinitely, we have got to stop sometime. How about now?
    Second, it’s cheaper: 8 SSNs cost 8 x £1.3bn = £10.4bn, plus 8 x SSKs @ £0.4bn = £3.3bn making a total of £13.6bn. 12 x SSNs cost £15.6bn even assuming these are just ordinary Astutes. If you add Trident tubes and make them even bigger they will be more expensive still.
    Third, it gives you a higher building rate, one every 22 months is claimed to be the minimum sustainable.

    Fourthly – it may be that SSKs can do some things better than an SSN. Better for prowling around coastal waters where most naval conflict is expected to take place perhaps? An Astute running aground while trying to land a party of special forces does not bear thinking about. Running aground off the coast of Scotland is bad enough; imagine it happening off the coast of Iran? Using Astutes for such missions is a daft as using Type 45s off the coast of Somalia. Also SSKs with AIP are quieter than SSNs.
    Admiral Mahan wrote that you cannot build a navy out of battleships alone. They are too expensive to build in the numbers you need.

    • “I am suggesting a mixed fleet of SSNs and SSKs, so for those missions where the global range of an SSN is needed, we will have it.”

      Britain is not so special that it could not benefit from having a mixed fleet of SSK’s and SSN’s, the only problem is that a split fleet would only make each type more unaffordable.

      France can get away with having just four or five because its reactors use cheaper low-grade uranium that are designed explicitly to subsidise its civilian reactor program, it is practically written into the balance sheet.

      It also makes them subject to expensive and long refit periods.

      SSK’s can master a specific environment by trolling around shallow waters at a few knots on batteries, and can make great tools for coastal area denial, but britain has an interventionist foreign policy that requires an ability to deploy decisive effect wherever and whenever it is required.

      SSK’s lack legs, they lack endurance, and they lack the electrical generation and scale to deploy decisive weapon and sensor systems.

      Soryu will be a great SSK, but they are being made because neither Japan nor australia has the stomach to operate nuclear weapon systems, not because they are ideal for the their respective geostrategic requirements.

      If we cannot have both, we must concentrate on one, and it is nuclear that is the decisive advantage. As I said, I am ambivalent about the deterrent, I believe that we will keep ICBM’s and advocate a common fleet of CMC equipped boats on that basis, but what I believe really matters is SSN’s.

      We can afford to sustain the design and manufacture of nuclear boats within the present Defence budget, and mostly because regular serial production means that later examples of class do not cost the same as the first.

      We should keep SSN’s, and not fear them for the fact that they might be used to justify a submarine based deterrent.

      • I am not sure if there is anything much in your reply that I can agree with Mr JB. Let’s start at the top.
        What is your evidence for saying a mixed fleet is unaffordable? If Soryu’s cost £400m to build in Japan, why would an equivalent cost more in the UK? And why would building 8 SSKs + 8 SSNs instead of 7 SSNs plus 4 SSBNs make the SSNs more expensive? Russia, China and India all operate mixed fleets, as did we at one time.
        France has 6 SSNs but I don’t follow your argument about the reactors. If French SSNs spent more time in dock than ours, the French would need more SSNs not fewer.
        “Britain has an interventionist foreign policy that requires an ability to deploy decisive effect wherever and whenever it is required” – absolutely, but are you sure that is all we will ever need? No interesting conversations with Russia about arctic mineral resources? We cannot predict exactly what our future needs will be, as the Australians said in their defence white paper, defence planning is an exercise in hedging your bets, and betting everything on one scenario is a certain mistake.
        SSKs lack legs? The Soryu class has a range underwater of 11,000km on its air-independent propulsion. Even in WW2 German and Japanese submarines operated in the Indian Ocean and US submarines ranged across the whole of the Pacific. They (SSKs) don’t have the range, speed and ability to deploy over strategic distances that SSNs have, but they are not mere coastal vessels.
        The reasons why Australia and Japan do not operate SSNs is not because they lack “the stomach to operate nuclear weapon systems”. It’s not about nuclear weapons. In Australia’s case, they don’t even have a civil nuclear power program, so they lack the knowledge of nuclear power and would find it difficult to recruit the necessary personnel. Not so in Japan’s case, but they have no need to deploy submarines over strategic distances. Japan’s potential enemies are conveniently local. They have plans to expand their submarine force to perhaps 24 boats, but how few would they have if they spent that money on SSNs?
        We can and should afford a mixed fleet of SSNs and SSKs if we scrap the plans for a new generation of Trident-carrying behemoths. It is completely do-able.

      • Hi Again Steve,

        Hope the wordpress formatting shows this below your 2:36pm post.

        “What is your evidence for saying a mixed fleet is unaffordable?”

        It would make the unit cost more expensive as R&D is amortised across a smaller fleet, and it would also demand an extremely long build schedule (and thus industrial subsidy), or, an extremely short service life (and thus a poor ROI).

        “France has 6 SSNs but I don’t follow your argument about the reactors.”

        France accepts that its nuclear SSN program is economic in order to underwrite the cost of what it considers two strategic priorities:
        1. Its civilian nuclear program
        2. The independence of acquisition of its nuclear deterrent
        We do not maintain a massive civilian nuclear program or a fully independent deterrent, and in consequence we expect our SSN program to be sustained by a via nuclear industry. A question of priorities.

        “We can and should afford a mixed fleet of SSNs and SSKs if we scrap the plans for a new generation of Trident-carrying behemoths.”

        This is the core of our disagreement I believe, for I believe that scrapping the nuclear boats that the future deterrent will be based upon will not leave us with a viable nuclear boat industry, and I consider nuclear boats (SSN’s) as vital.

        This makes interesting reading:

        Click to access WHR3_Final_Report.pdf

      • Thanks for the link, I will read it over the Christmas break. I don’t think a fleet of 8 Astutes plus 8 Soryu-equivalents would give any issues with amortising the R&D costs etc, these are quite big production runs by modern warship standards. The only issue would be the big gap between the last of the 8 Astutes and the first of the Astute replacements many years later, with only SSKs build in the meantime. Enough work to keep the sub-builders in business but Rolls Royce would have to mothball it’s reactor-building facility for a few years (but they have done that before and revived it, so hopefully they can again. Although I hesitate to say this, both us and France have the same issues of a barely-viable nuclear submarine industry, so maybe some cooperation might be sensible? Depends on the politics.

        As you say, our main difference is the Successor subs, canning them releases a lot of money…..

        Regards, Steve.

    • It’s an interesting read, and while it reiterates the future threat of SSK’s it doesn’t actually infer that they might be the solution for the US or UK.

      It will be interesting to see what comes of the London conference in March, if there is any mileage in SSK’s for the UK i imagine we’ll hear about it there.

  10. people dont seem to realise that without the nuclear submarines there would be no submarine industry in this country full stop. With just 7 ssn submarines the work force would be employed for approx an absolute maximum of 14 odd years (2 years to build a submarine with one started when one build ends) However each sub has a design life of between 25-30 years but could certainly go for up to 35 (like american Ohio class). Therefore the workforce building SSN’s would have nothing to do for around a minimum of 11 years but possibly for up to 20 odd years. This isn feasible and therefore the only options are building more SSN’s or keeping SSBN’s.

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