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The British Nuclear Trident

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Of all the “official” nuclear powers (Russia, the US, France, the UK, China), the UK arguably displays the most peculiar approach to nuclear deterrence. Here, we will outline the most salient details, assess the prospects, and suggest possible confidence-building measures.

The Hardware

Let us start with the “hardware” before addressing various conceptual features. As of today, the UK’s nuclear deterrence appears highly optimized, resting on the following three pillars:

  • Four UK-manufactured Vanguard-class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) providing “Continuous At-Sea Deterrence,” that is, permanent at-sea presence of at least one ballistic missile submarine (presumably in the North-East Atlantic) ready to deliver a nuclear strike at any time (while another submarine is being readied for patrol at the base and two more are undergoing maintenance)
  • Trident-II submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) “leased” from the US (unused Tridents are stockpiled at the US naval base appropriately named Kings Bay)
  • UK-designed nuclear warheads (presumably with certain specific features making them very similar to US-made W76-family warheads) with a payload of about 100 kt (other variants are also possible) most likely “packaged” in reentry bodies similar to the US-made Mk4/Mk4A.

The total number of warheads is steadily declining, with the goal of reducing the amount from 200 currently to only 180 by the mid-2020s. The latest 2015 stage legally enshrined the following figures: not more than operationally available 120 warheads with a maximum of 40 warheads per SSBN on combat patrol.

As regards nuclear payloads for British SSBNs, it is a curious (though not officially confirmed) fact that, while the US creating the low-yield W76-2 warheads prompted rather passionate debates worldwide, the Royal Navy has never caused anyone any particular concern even though it has roughly the same weapons.

Currently, work is underway to develop a new generation of aptly-named Dreadnought-class strategic missile submarines that will replace the Vanguard-class SSBNs in early 2030s and ensure that the UK has a “convincing, independent, and battle-worthy” deterrent until 2060. The new Dreadnoughts will be equipped with 12-SLBM “common missile compartments” (CMC) (three four-tube launchers), while actually carrying eight SLBMs, which is similar to the new Columbia-class American SSBN developed with a significant financial contribution from London. Incidentally, American partners are working with their British allies on developing the nuclear power unit for the Dreadnoughts.

Work has already started on the lead Dreadnought SSBN (2016), on the first follow-up Valiant (2019); the second and third follow-ups will be called, no less aptly, Warspite and King George VI.

An interesting development in recent months is that American officials have announced a programme for developing new W93/Mk7 SLBM warheads (in terms of START treaties, we may say that W refers to warheads, while Mk refers to reentry bodies) and directly mentioned cooperation with the UK. This came as news to the British expert community, especially since the UK’s Ministry of Defence is mandated to notify the Parliament about any plans to develop new nuclear weapons. Giving credit where it is due, a relevant public statement was made very promptly.

Certainly, debates around the term “new” when it comes to nuclear warheads (especially since one would like to believe there are no opportunities or plans for nuclear test explosions) are extremely interesting in and of themselves, and each party may gain nothing. Yet, this situation serves as a vivid illustration of possible “glitches” in coordinating “para-nuclear” communications, even between the closest allies. Currently, though, there are more questions than answers related to W93.

The UK’s SSBNs are based at the Clyde naval base in Scotland. Certainly, despite Brexit, the prospects for an independent (and non-nuclear) Scotland remain rather slim, yet, if London’s worst-case scenario comes true, a new site will have to be found and new infrastructure built in a very short order.

The Concept

The UK’s nuclear doctrine guarantees unacceptable damage to any aggressor and there is no doubt that the UK has the requisite capabilities. Nuclear weapons can be used independently or as part of NATO’s nuclear forces. Since 1994, it has been assumed that Tridents are de-targeted. Yet, retention of a certain ambiguity regarding, for instance, the first nuclear strike is considered rather useful in order to bolster deterrence.

The order to use nuclear weapons can only be given by the Prime Minister, although experts believe the decision would be collegial. The order would travel from a special room in a bunker beneath Whitehall, down the chain of command to a SSBN and, at each stage, two people would participate in “passing the signal.” The order could, it is believed, be issued from the Prime Minister’s airplane, as well, but it would still travel via the Pindar.

Current Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s coming down with coronavirus once again brought to the fore the issue of delegating responsibility for the “nuclear button.” The Prime Minister may supposedly personally appoint up to three “nuclear deputies” in the government, whose identity is kept secret and who are vested with the authority to commit nuclear forces in a predetermined order. During the Cold War, “nuclear deputies” (two, as a rule) were selected from among the Foreign Secretary, the Defence Secretary, and the Home Secretary. The procedure was suspended after the end of the Cold War but resumed in 2001. Supposedly, while Boris Johnson was in the hospital, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab acted as such a “deputy”, in the same way that he shouldered other duties of the Prime Minister.

A curious feature of the British nuclear forces combat control is the tradition of written letters whereby the Prime Minister describes procedures and lists targets for a nuclear conflict; subsequently, such a “letter” is sealed in an envelope and placed in a safe box onboard each SSBN. When a prime minister leaves office, the letters are destroyed unopened and new letters are delivered (sealed as well). Remarkably, even though the world has been afflicted by a real epidemic of leaked official and sensitive information, the contents of such “envelopes” remain inaccessible to researchers even today. Nonetheless, the possible “options” given to an SSBN’s captain include: “retaliate,” “do not retaliate,” “use your own judgement,” “place the submarine under an allied country’s command.”

The People

The Royal Navy is staffed by flesh-and-blood people, the result being sex and drugs scandals and possible danger to maintaining CASD amid the COVID-2019 pandemic. Confined spaces often without access to outside air are, in general, good breeding grounds for infections, so reasonable concerns have been voiced about breaking CASD for the first time in the 50 years it has been in place. It should be stressed, however, that should this happen, even a sick crew would launch a missile if such a need arose, and a second submarine would be ready to go on combat patrol immediately.

It is not certain whether human error led to the failed submarine test launch of a Trident missile in the summer of 2016 (the British crew reportedly did everything by the book but the American-made missile failed), but the “political dimension” of the situation was very personal. According to media reports, Barack Obama personally asked then Prime Minister David Cameron to keep the details of the incident a secret. Theresa May, who became Prime Minister shortly afterwards, also kept mum. One of the first “victories” of the new cabinet was a successful vote on renewing the British deterrence programme (this ultimately became the above-mentioned Dreadnought). It is hard to say whether things would have gone differently if the information had been made public in a timely manner but, on the whole, the picture is not entirely seemly (even if not entirely new).

The UK’s powerful anti-nuclear movement is another important “human” factor and sometimes a source of remarkable documents. The starkest example is probably a report on the consequences of an SSBN nuclear attack on Moscow. We will not go into every detail of this valuable material but do note that, based on the calculations therein, up to half of Moscow’s population would die. Certainly, Moscow’s missile defence can handle some threats but the hypothetical British attack could involve several submarines. Of course, this is a purely hypothetical scenario, yet it serves best to show the destructive power even such a modest (compared to Russia and the US) nuclear potential has.

The International Dimension

Unlike France, with its emphatic “nuclear independence,” the UK has always maintained a significant “international element” in its nuclear development, primarily through close cooperation with the US. In the late 1970s, for instance, the UK had nearly 400 American warheads, including such exotic ones as artillery shells and nuclear landmines. At the same time, when it comes to arms control, the nuclear stockpiles of the US’ allies have traditionally been discounted.

Russian scholars note that continuously discounting the UK, with its added US-made SLBMs, from Russia-US nuclear arms control treaties is a way of executing Trident launches that do not count towards the treaties’ telemetry exchange limits. The problem may not be particularly relevant with respect to this venerable missile itself. When, however, a new generation of “Anglo-Saxon” SLBMs appears (approximately by the late 2030s), it might already be too late to discuss new approaches. It is, therefore, unacceptable to reduce the problem of multilateral nuclear control to the Russia-US-China triangle.

When it comes to the UK, traditionally proposed transparency measures appear too timid, given the “material” aspect of the UK’s nuclear deterrence architecture, as described above. Still, searching for uniform approaches to the declarative information on deployed and non-deployed nuclear forces, to notifications of test launches, etc. could promote further advances toward multilateral arms control.

The topic of the Russia-UK “para-nuclear” interaction conducted both bilaterally and within the “P5” (which was originally London’s idea) has been researched very thoroughly, and proposed cooperation options deserve the closest attention.

In conclusion, let us note that the British authorities are experts at providing information to the public at large. Certainly, the publicly accessible data are not exhaustive, but any attempt to clarify Russian nuclear deterrence approaches (which are significantly more multi-level and involve qualitatively different elements) in a similar manner would be a useful exercise at the very least.

From our partner RIAC

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Defense

India – The US Promote National Defense – Security Cooperation

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US and Indian foreign ministers and defense ministers at a press conference after 2+2 Dialogue on 27/10 (Source: IANS)

In recent years, the India-US bilateral relationship has been more closely bonded, especially defense-security cooperation in various fields including nuclear technology, maritime defense and security, anti-terrorism in the region and in the world … has been continuously promoted, contributing to the development of an intensive bilateral relationship. This results from the demand for security strategy, economic, security and political interests of the two parties. The United States wants India to become its ally in the Indo-Pacific region, counterbalancing China’s growing influence, ensuring U.S. maritime security interests and a huge commercial arm market for the US. To India: a good relationship with the US will help India highten its position in the region; India also wants to rely on US power to increase its military strength, to watch out China and create pressure on Pakistan. In addition, India’s comprehensive diplomacy and the US’s regional strategy carried out simultaneously without overlapping, is conducive to strengthening the bilateral security cooperation for both countries.

It is evitable that in recent years, defense-security cooperation between India and the US has made remarkable progresses. After removing the Sanctions on India for nuclear testing in May 2018, the US and India announced the Joint Declaration on Civil Energy Cooperation between the two countries. Accordingly, the US will provide nuclear fuel and technology support for India to develop civil nuclear energy. This has opened the door for India to develop their nuclear weapons and improve military strength. The two countries also cooperate in many defense activities including ballistic missile defense, joint military training, expanding arms sales, strengthening military staff exchanges and intelligence, as well as loosening two-way technology exports.

To be specific: In January 1995, the two countries signed the “US-India Defense Relations Agreement”, stipulating that in addition to conducting cooperation on research and production of military weapons, the two countries also conduct exchanges between military and non-military personnel. In May 2001, the Indian government announced its support for the US to develop a ballistic missile defense system, and proposed to purchase the “Patriot 1 (PAC-3)” air defense missile system. In March 2005, during the Conference on Cooperation in Ballistic Missile Defense, the US, India and Japan agreed to set up a joint working group, to implement close cooperation on ballistic missile defense. In June 2005, the United States and India signed a 10-year military cooperation agreement, which not only required increased exchanges between the two countries’ armies, but also proposed to strengthen military cooperation regarding weapons production, and trading as well as ballistic missile defense. In July 2009, the two countries signed a “Comprehensive customer surveillance treaty” on defense, the US sold advanced defense technology to India. This treaty allowed India to obtain a “permission card” to buy the US’s advanced weaponry. In addition, the two countries also cooperate in counter-terrorism in the region and around the world, maritime security, and joint military exercises …

One of the activities promoting bilateral relations between India and the US was the “2 + 2 Dialogue” taking place on October 27, 2020 in New Delhi. Within the framework of this dialogue, India and the United States had shared exchanges of a free and open Indo-Pacific vision, embracing peace and prosperity, a rules-based order with  the central role of ASEAN, resolving disputes, ensuring the economic and security interests of all related parties with legitimate interests in this region … The focus on defense-security cooperation in this “2+2 Dialogue” is the signing of the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA). The agreement allowed India to access accurate data, topographic images, maps, maritime and aviation data and satellite data on a real-time basis from US military satellites. Thereby, this will assist the provision of better accuracy for such weapons as cruise missiles, ballistic missiles and drones of India, and support the rescue operations during natural disasters and security strategy. The BECA is one of the four basic agreements a country needs to sign to become a major defense partner of the US. The other three agreements that India had previously signed with the United States are the General Security Of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA),  the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) and theCommunications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) . These are “cornerstone” agreements allowing the armies of the two countries to fight together in the event of a conflict. Accelerating the signing of the BECA was just one of various ways India reacted to China threats, especially after the border clashes in Doklam (2017) and Ladakh (5/2020-now). India, the US, Japan and Australia were more active in the Quartet Meeting on October 6 in Tokyo. India also invited Australia to join the Malabar naval exercises with the US and Japan in November.

The signing of BECA was a further institutionalization of the Indo-US strategic relationship to promote the two countries’ intensive cooperate on strategy and military, without pressure to become an official ally yet have benefits. Washington received interests in selling weapons to New Delhi, especially when conflict starts. New Delhi has attached more importance to US military equipment because of its transparent pricing, simple operation and maintenance, thereby reducing reliance on Russia for weapons. Currently, the total value of Indian weapons purchased from the US is more than 15 billion USD and is expected to double in the coming time. The US-India military cooperation, therefore, will be closer in the future.

Also at this dialogue, the two countries agreed to cooperate in dealing with the Covid pandemic, considering this a priority for bilateral cooperation in this period. Accordingly, the US and India will cooperate in RDto produce a series of vaccines, to expand access to vaccines, and ensure high-quality, safe, effective and affordable medical treatment between the two countries and on a global scale.

Currently, India-US defense-security cooperation is at its heyday in the history and is likely to develop further. This relationship has profound effects on the regional security environment, especially direct effects on China. As military forces grow, India will probably implement their military strategy “taking the Indian Ocean in the South, expanding power to the East Sea in the East, attacking Pakistan in the West, watching out for China in the North”, plus nuclear deterrence. This will worsen the fierce arms race in such regions as the South Asia and the Indian Ocean, leading to an imbalance of forces and add up a number of unstability factors in these regions.

In short, India-US defense-security cooperation is making remarkable progresses and has created impact on regional security, especially China and other countries with common interests in this region, including Vietnam. Therefore, the China-American-Indian triangle relationship is currently in an unstable state. In this scenario, it is suggested that countries actively identify issues relating to the this three military powers relationship and devise appropriate diplomatic strategies, balancing bilateral relations with major powers with disagreements to ensure national security and stability in the region.

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Defense

India-Pakistan LOC peace

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India and Pakistan have both announced to “strictly observe” the truce along the Line of Control and all other sectors “in the interest of achieving mutually beneficial and sustainable peace along the borders”. Such an announcement could not have emerged without Indian prime minister Narendra Modi’s imprimatur.  A hunch is that the move is an upshot of a nudge from the US president. This impression is fortified by several events that are accentuated by India-Pakistan entente (so called surgical strikes, 5000 ceasefire violations, hype about 2008 Mumbai attack and the one at Pathankot  airbase, so on). From Pakistan’s angle, India believed in might is right. And while it was open to compromises with China, it displayed a fist to Pakistan.

Need for a dialogue

In the past, peace at the LOC proved ephemeral as it was not backed up by sufficient follow-up. A dialogue is needed for the hour. It is a good omen that Pakistan is open to talks despite chagrin at abolition of the occupied state’s statehood.

Misconception about the sanctity of the India-Pakistan LOC vis-a-vis the Sino-Indian LAC

A common misperception is that the Line of Actual Control (LAC) is more sacrosanct than the LoC. For instance, India’s prestigious Indian Express explained: ‘The LoC emerged from the 1948 ceasefire line negotiated by the UN after the Kashmir war. It was designated as the LoC in 1972, following the Simla Agreement. It is delineated on a map signed by Director General Military Operations of both armies and has the international sanctity of a legal agreement. The LAC, in contrast, is only a concept –it is not agreed upon by the two countries, neither delineated on a map nor demarcated on the ground’.

To understand Sino-Indian differences, one needs to peek into the Indian mind through books such as Shivshankar Menon’s Choices: Inside the Making of India’s Foreign Policy, Shyam Saran’s How India Sees the World, and A G Noorani’s India-China Boundary Problem 1846-1947.

The afore-quoted newspaper poses the question: “What was India’s response to China’s designation of the LAC?” It then explains India rejected the concept of LAC in both 1959 and 1962. Even during the war, Nehru was unequivocal: “There is no sense or meaning in the Chinese offer to withdraw twenty kilometres from what they call ‘line of actual control…” In July 1954, Nehru had issued a directive that “all our old maps dealing with this frontier should be carefully examined and, where necessary, withdrawn. New maps should be printed showing our Northern and North Eastern frontier without any reference to any ‘line’. The new maps should also be sent to our embassies abroad and should be introduced to the public generally and be used in our schools, colleges, etc”. It is this map that was officially used that formed the basis of dealings with China, eventually leading to the 1962 War’ (Indian Express, June 6, 2020, Line of Actual Control: Where it is located and where India and China differ).

India considers the LAC to be 3,488 km long, while the Chinese consider it to be only around 2,000km.

The LAC was discussed during Chinese Prime Minister Li Peng’s 1991 visit to India, where Indian PM P. V. Narasimha Rao and Premier Li reached an understanding to maintain peace and tranquility at the LAC. India formally accepted the concept of the LAC when Rao paid a return visit to Beijing in 1993.

The reference to the LAC was unqualified to make it clear that it was not referring to the LAC of 1959 or 1962 but to the LAC at the time when the agreement was signed.

India’s disdain of the LOC

India’s mindset on the LOC should change. The problem is Nehru never cared a fig for the disputed state’s constituent assembly, Indian parliament or the UN. This truth is interspersed in Avtar Singh Bhasin’s 10-volume documentary study (2012) of India-Pakistan Relations 1947-2007. It contains 3,649 official documents which gave new perspectives to Nehru’s state of mind.

In his 2018 book (published after six years of his earlier work), India, Pakistan: Neighbours at Odds (Bloomsbury India, New Delhi, 2018), Bhasin discusses Nehru’s perfidy on Kashmir.

LoC peace should lead to Kashmir solution

The tentative solutions include (a) status quo (division of Kashmir along the present Line of Control with or without some local adjustments to facilitate the local population, (b) complete or partial independence (creation of independent Muslim-majority tehsils of Rajauri, Poonch and Uri, with Hindu-majority areas merged in India), (c) a plebiscite to be held in five to 10 years after putting Kashmir under UN trusteeship (Trieste-like solution), (d) joint control, (e) an Indus-basin-related solution, (f) an Andorra island (g) Aland island-like solution and (h) permutations and combinations of the aforementioned options.

Another option is for Pakistan and India to grant independence to disputed areas under their control and let Kashmir emerge as a neutral country. An independent Kashmir, as a neutral country, was the favourite choice of Sheikh Abdullah. From the early 1950s “Sheikh Abdullah supported ‘safeguarding of autonomy’ to the fullest possible extent” (Report of the State Autonomy Committee, Jammu, p. 41).

Abdullah irked Nehru so much that he had to put him behind the bars. Bhabani Sen Gupta and Prem Shankar Jha assert that “if New Delhi sincerely wishes to break the deadlock in Kashmir, it has no other alternative except to accept and implement what is being termed as an ‘Autonomy Plus, Independence Minus’ formula, or to grant autonomy to the state to the point where it is indistinguishable from independence”. (Shri Prakash and Ghulam Mohammad Shah (ed.), Towards understanding the Kashmir crisis, p.226).

Sans sincerity and the will to implement, the only Kashmir solution is divine intervention or the unthinkable, nuclear Armageddon.

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New Wars

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Twentieth century was a century of great events and developments in every part of human life. The century is marked by the deadliest wars, deadliest weapons and unprecedented interconnectedness. The destructive power of A-bombs and the interconnectedness that transformed world into a global village infused traditional wisdom of conflict resolution with great confusions. New conflicts demanded new solutions. Globalization transformed the traditional theatre of conflict; war.

 War in twenty first century has acquired a whole new character. State which was once the almighty Leviathan has lost its monopoly over violence, its erosion of monopoly over violence from globalization transformed the character of war. Wars of today are not fought between states rather there is network of state and non-state actors which includes mercenaries, private security companies, hired thugs etc. Globalization has unleashed a plethora of problems by undermining state sovereignty. Globalization which was supposed to encourage cosmopolitan politics and cooperation ended up creating more divisions.

Mary Kaldore, professor at London School of Economics, is among the scholars who have acknowledged the impact of globalization on the character of war. In her book, New and Old Wars: Organized Violence in a Global Era, she highlights this change in character of war.  Highlighting the difference she wrote that new wars are different from old wars because of who fight these wars, for what reason these wars are fought, how these wars are financed and the way these wars are fought. Old wars were fought by states, financed by states, were waged for ideological purposes and battles were the defining character. However, in new wars; actors are networks of state and non-state actors, which are to a greater extent privately financed and direct confrontation between opposite forces is rare. Kaldor is of the view that this change in character of war is caused by globalization. Kaldor is of the view that this transformation is a consequence of globalization and disintegration of state.

 Along with globalization, clash of symmetrical opponents can destroy the world. Advent of nuclear weapons has changed the traditional military logic. In fact, any war according to old military logic is simply not beneficial anymore. War between nuclear powers will leave neither party at benefit. Since the costs of such victory cancel the benefits it holds. Avoiding direct war serves the political interest better than waging one. This change in military logic is evident from the change in tactics of wars of today. Today’s wars are fought through Guerilla and counter insurgency tactics are the tactics. Majority of the conflicts involves one state and one or more than one non-state actor. These are battles between wolves and shepherds where wolves attack the flock while shepherds try to save the sheep.

However, it is not the change in military logic and innovation of new types of weapons that have transformed the character of war. Rather transformation in politics is the defining element of this change. Politics of ‘new wars’ is Identity politics which is very different from politics of old wars.  Old wars were largely driven by ideological politics whereas new wars are driven entirely by identity politics. In words of Professor Kaldor, “identity politics is about right to power in the name of a specific group whereas ideological politics is about winning power in order to carry out a particular ideological programme”. Globalization prompted groups to securitize their identity. War for these actors is either a mean for keeping their identity or claiming in lands in the name of that identity.

 Another dimension of problems caused by globalization for the concept of war is proliferation of capitalism. The ideas of capitalism and free market motivated such actors who saw potential for profit in war. These actors established private security firms and were up for grab for the highest bidder. Companies like Titan and Blackwater are profit-maximizing companies whose only motivation is the accumulation of wealth. These institutions induced the concept of war with further complexities and legitimacy of violence further degenerated. These developments underline the need for a new conceptualization of war. To address these complexities and set the basis for future exploration, Kaldor defines war as a “mutual enterprise” rather than a “contest of wills”. The reason illustrated by Kaldor is that the latter makes the elimination of enemy the ultimate objective of war whereas former suggests that both sides are interested “in the enterprise of war rather than winning and losing for both political and economic ends”. Although it is very difficult to discern what means one employs for what ends, the protracted conflicts all around the world and the industry which these wars fuel paints a different picture a picture very close to the concept of war as mutual enterprise rather than a contest of wills.

War in nuclear age, where symmetry in capabilities will, eventually, lead to MAD, cannot have the same character it once had. Mankind frightened by the destructiveness of these weapons and compelled by their natural instinct to clash is trying to fight the new wars with new weapons according to old principles. This is commendable but not practical as this undermines the capabilities of new weapons by considering them just another weapon of war. Concepts of limited war show the appreciation of this reality. There political, technological and economical developments highlight the need for evaluation of old ideas and encourage the need for new ideas. As the aphorism goes “modern problems require modern solutions”, wars of today are modern and they require modern solutions as the traditional ones are not adequate enough.

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