Q&A: Head of U.K. Nuclear Review Says Politics Did Not Affect Outcome

Danny Alexander, U.K. chief secretary to the Treasury, delivers a keynote speech at the Liberal Democrat autumn conference in Glasgow, Scotland, in September. He said in an interview that politics inside Britain's coalition government played no role in a report on nuclear posture alternatives.
Danny Alexander, U.K. chief secretary to the Treasury, delivers a keynote speech at the Liberal Democrat autumn conference in Glasgow, Scotland, in September. He said in an interview that politics inside Britain's coalition government played no role in a report on nuclear posture alternatives. (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

Danny Alexander -- the U.K. Cabinet member who led his government’s review last year on alternative plans for modernizing nuclear weapons -- says politics played no role in the study's findings.

His party, the Liberal Democrats, demanded in 2010 that the study be conducted as a condition of forming a coalition government with the more right-leaning Conservative Party. While Conservatives have favored plans to replace all four of Britain's nuclear submarines, Liberal Democrats were looking for cheaper alternatives they hoped would be more suited to the post-Cold War era.

The study ultimately found that only one of several feasible options explored might be cheaper than the plan Conservatives favored. However, Alexander said the Conservatives' role as the senior partner in the coalition did not affect the study's outcome.

“I would say the report itself does not reflect any coalition compromises,” Alexander said in an interview last September in his London office, just two blocks away from the Houses of Parliament. “Because in a sense, the agreement between the parties was to conduct the review. The review itself was not driven by politics.”

The plan Conservatives favor is termed "like-for-like." It would replace all four of today's Vanguard-class submarines with a new Successor class, which also would carry today’s Trident D-5 nuclear-armed ballistic missiles.

Released in unclassified form last July, the Trident Alternatives Review found that all but one “credible” substitute for replacing the aging Vanguard-class boats would cost even more than the $30 billion or more in estimated lifetime costs required for implementing the existing like-for-like plans.

That one cheaper alternative they identified would involve replacing no more than three of the four submarines. But this three-vessel fleet would no longer allow Britain to keep at least one nuclear-armed submarine on ocean patrol at all times -- a policy called “continuous at-sea deterrence.”

In mid-September the Liberal Democrats formally embraced the three- vessel option, which would trim just $3 billion off of lifetime costs.

The Liberal Democrats' recommendation got a boost on Thursday when a leading U.K. think tank published a report saying the nation could still maintain a solid nuclear deterrent even after a reduction to three ballistic-missile subs.

"While continuous patrolling probably enhances the credibility of the U.K.'s nuclear forces, it does not embody it," states the new paper by Hugh Chalmers, a Royal United Services Institute research analyst. "It is not immediately apparent if Russia, China or, indeed, any other state would feel any less threatened by the U.K.'s nuclear forces were they occasionally unavailable."

Alexander, who serves as chief secretary to the Treasury in the coalition government, argues that it is appropriate -- more than two decades after the Cold War ended -- to take some new, incremental steps down the nuclear ladder.

“Our own national security assessment is -- and actually has been for some time -- that we don’t see a state-based nuclear threat,” he told Global Security Newswire.

“And it’s because of that assessment that I think we can afford to step back right now and have [that] as our policy, based on our not needing to do continuous patrolling,” said Alexander, who also represents Inverness and neighboring areas of Scotland in the U.K. Parliament.

His view, however, is not shared by the U.K. defense secretary and other leading Conservative members of Parliament, who say the so-called “CASD” patrols must continue, and four new replacement submarines must be bought to do it.

Some have questioned whether the review outcome represented a compromise position between some Liberal Democrats who called for a more dramatic step -- jettisoning the ballistic-missile vessels in favor of putting nuclear-tipped cruise missiles aboard attack submarines -- and those Tories who assert Britain already has the bare minimum posture it requires for deterrence.

Alexander insisted, though, that the findings involved no behind-the-scenes negotiations or arm-twisting, even amid reports about last-minute Defense Ministry objections about which portions of the classified version would be publicly released.

“It was carried out as a completely objective study,” he said in the interview. “[There was] a group of senior people who are overseeing this. And then I was the minister responsible. … There weren’t other ministers involved in it.”

Alexander acknowledged that he was surprised at the review’s conclusion that it would take 24 years if the United Kingdom were to develop a new warhead that would be needed if the nation chose to deploy a nuclear-armed cruise missile in place of today's ballistic missile arsenal. Britain’s Trafalgar and Astute class submarines currently carry a conventionally armed cruise weapon, the Tomahawk Land Attack Missile.

The Trident Alternatives Review found that if the United Kingdom began work on designing and building a new cruise missile in 2016 – when a final decision is to be made on the way ahead – it would not be ready for deployment until 2040.

“This warhead timescale is judged to be longer than the Vanguard-class [ballistic missile] submarines can safely be operated,” the July government report said. “The third and fourth Vanguard-class submarines are planned to leave service well before 2040.”

The long development period required to shift to a cruise-missile-based nuclear force would create a gap in which Britain would field no strategic deterrent, an outcome that both parties in the coalition government agreed would be unacceptable.

“I would say that that was something that came as a bit of a surprise when we found that out” about the lengthy timing, Alexander said. “And I spent a lot of time -- and the officials spent a lot of time – testing that to really try and understand what lay behind it.

“And actually, in the end, I'm convinced that that is the genuine view of the people who do this stuff day-in and day-out,” he said.

Alexander said he does not believe that U.K. Defense officials intent on preserving the like-for-like modernization blueprint deliberately overestimated the time required to develop a new warhead so as to make infeasible a cruise-missile alternative they didn’t like.

“I am absolutely certain that it is not a timescale that is politically skewed,” he said.

Edited excerpts of the Sept. 25 interview with Alexander, who has served in his current post since May 2010, follow:

GSN: If your party feels confident enough in the U.K. defense posture that you are willing to take a little bit of degradation in the nuclear posture, do you imaging relying on your conventional force yet more? For example, under the Liberal Democrats' new policy, if a crisis emerges when Britain has no submarine on patrol, could you handle threats conventionally rather than sending a nuclear-armed submarine out on emergency patrol?

Alexander: Well, certainly. … In the Cold War, we had a very clear and present threat from nuclear-armed states, which definitely required continuous patrolling.

Right now we don’t see any such threats on the horizon. Our own national security assessment is – and actually has been for some time – that we don’t see a state-based nuclear threat. And it’s because of that assessment that I think we can afford to step back right now and have as our policy, based on our not needing to do continuous patrolling.

However, I think that we also recognize that whilst there are other unfriendly states with nuclear weapons in the world -- or potentially unfriendly states -- [so] that we can’t rule out the possibility that such threats might reemerge in future.

And therefore, I think that a policy that says let’s reduce the level of threat our weapons pose now -- sort of [a] British version of dealerting … our weapons.

But [retaining] the capability to step back up to that sort of posture, should threats emerge in future, seems to me to get the balance right between what we know about the world now, and what we can foresee about the world, with the recognition that things can change.

GSN: Do you mean stepping back up just temporarily to handle an immediate threat or crisis, or stepping back up in a long-term way, if need be?

Alexander: None of the analysis that I’ve seen supports the assertion … that a state-based nuclear threat to the United Kingdom could reemerge overnight -- at a moment’s notice -- that would be unpredictable. …

What’s much more likely is that circumstances change over time. You know, there’s an increase in tension. …

So the alternative postures that we developed in the review were designed on the basis that so-called focused deterrence -- that you’d retain the capability to sort of surge, if you like, back to a continuous posture, should a level of threat emerge that makes that necessary, for a period of months or even a period of a small number of years.

And with a three-boat system, one could do that. And I think that is a kind of prudent, balanced approach.

Clearly, if circumstances really change in future, then a future British government might have to … determine whether they had the equipment necessary to carry out the policy they wanted to carry out. …

The other point I’d make is that there is in general terms around the world -- and actually it’s being led by President Obama -- a kind of move to say let’s continue to work to reduce the level of threat that nuclear weapons pose in the world. And of course, there are states that are seeking to proliferate, and we work closely with Americans and with others to try and counter that.

But equally, I believe as the United Kingdom we also have a responsibility to look to see whether there are further steps down the ladder of disarmament that we can take -- responsibly -- alongside the steps that the American government has talked about … So that we can also play a part in that very long journey to a world free of nuclear weapons.

GSN: Some critics have said that at times when all of your proposed three submarines are in port, they could be vulnerable to a disarming strike or efforts to block their passage to sea. Your response?

Alexander: I think that was one of the most ridiculous assertions that I heard at [a September Brookings Institution event in Washington to discuss the findings]. …

Our nuclear submarines come and go at the moment. They are required to do so. We have procedures that I’m not going to describe to keep the [Gare] Loch [port] secure. This [Liberal Democratic policy prescription] is not suggesting that we would get rid of those procedures or suddenly abandon the fundamental military tenet that says you work to keep your bases secure, or to keep your ability to enter and exit those bases secure.

We also have a fleet of nonnuclear submarines. We have substantial capabilities in that area, which are there precisely to keep our ability to deploy our weapon systems. And those would need to be maintained.

Nowhere in the report do we recommend keeping our deterrent less secure in future. I certainly wouldn’t recommend that.

GSN: What compromises did Conservatives and Liberal Democrats in the governing coalition make in order to agree on the same set of Trident Alternatives Review conclusions?

Alexander: Very good question. And I would say the report itself does not reflect any coalition compromises. Because in a sense, the agreement between the parties was to conduct the review. The review itself was not driven by politics.

The review itself was conducted by senior officials in the Cabinet office, drawing upon evidence provided by officials … in various parts of the Ministry of Defense and in other areas.

And it was carried out as a completely objective study, within the remit that it was given. It was overseen by a board, which included Defense officials, and Cabinet office people, and Foreign Office, and so on.

So there’s a group of senior people who are overseeing this. And then I was the minister responsible. So during the process of the review being conducted, it reported to me and only to me. There weren’t other ministers involved in it.

And then when the report was completed, the finished document was presented by me to the prime minister and deputy prime minister, and shared with the Foreign and Defense secretaries. And then the published document, which was obviously a declassified summary, was produced.

And different parts of government had views … about what we could say in different areas. But the analysis is the facts as we found them.

And I think it’s pretty robust because of that. And I think also the … extent of the evidence that is presented, I hope, will be useful for a long time to people who study this area.

I mean, there are things that came along in the study that we hadn’t expected. So, for example, the conclusion about the time lines that it would take to produce a warhead for [a cruise missile] system -- I would say that that was something that came as a bit of a surprise when we found that out. And I spent a lot of time -- and the officials spent a lot of time – testing that to really try and understand what lay behind it.

And actually, in the end, I'm convinced that that is the genuine view of the people who do this stuff day-in and day-out.

GSN: Was there consensus on those projected time lines, though, for developing and fielding a cruise missile? Since the report came out, that has drawn a lot of public debate and criticism. And some have the view that the timing estimate was politically skewed, particularly because U.S. timing projections for building a Reliable Replacement Warhead were considerably shorter.

Alexander: Well, look, firstly I am absolutely certain that it is not a time scale that is politically skewed. I've spent a lot of time talking to people about that, and I'm absolutely certain.

GSN: What convinced you of that?

Alexander: There’s only a limited amount I can say about this. But I'd say a number of things.

Firstly, our warhead program is highly optimized around the current [Trident ballistic missile] system. And it's a very, very high-quality operation, but that's its job. And if you want to change its tasking -- without having exotic costs -- then that takes time. Point No. 1.

Point No. 2: Each warhead is fitted very precisely to the weapon system with which it's deployed. And the physical conditions in a cruise missile that's flying low altitude, bouncing around in the sky, is quite different than the physical conditions in a ballistic missile that sits in a submarine for a long time and then --

GSN: Blasts off?

Alexander: Right, exactly. And so, it is actually a completely different design process. You can't just say, 'Well, let's just put the same [warhead on it].’

This is not like making a model out of Play-Doh -- you just short of shift it around a bit and it fits in, as you know. And so that takes a long time.

You basically have to start from scratch.

And then, of course, along with most other civilized countries, we don't [explosively] test our [warheads]. We've signed to the [Comprehensive] Test Ban Treaty, so we don't test new warheads in the [ground].

So the other ways of being sure that what you've got will deliver its intended objectives take longer. …

Look, I was surprised. But on the basis of the questions that I've asked, I'm satisfied that that time line is correct.

I daresay if you had a few extra tens of billions of pounds to throw around, you could do it more quickly.

But this was not based on finding the most costly possible way to do things. It was based on looking at within the sort of money that we have available for the Successor program, or [even] a bit less, what can we do?

GSN: In performing the review, was the assumption that any nuclear-armed cruise missiles would go on surface ships, or how would they be deployed?

Alexander: Actually the review considered a whole range of options with cruise missiles.

So they could have included air-launched, launch from surface ships, or launch from submarines.

GSN: Was there one mode that was particularly attractive to you, going into this?

Alexander: No, not really. I have to say … others who have been more steeped in this subject before may have had particular views. I didn't go into it with any preconceptions about which or what I would prefer.

Except for the following: That one of the interesting points around a cruise-missile based system would be the possibility that an aircraft would offer dual-use platforms, that could be equipped with either nuclear or conventional cruise missiles.

And there's some merit for that … from a financial point of view, but also in the long run in terms of if you want to take further steps down the ladder in future, creating a simple way of doing it.

And actually, the analysis that we did, [some of] which is contained in the published report, suggests that a cruise missile-based system would, in theory -- I think particularly the supersonic cruise-missile option that we analyzed -- would meet the test of deterrence that we were interested in.

The main issue with that was the [warhead-development] time lines. So what we're not prepared to tolerate was a gap of five years or so when the country would have no deterrent at all. That doesn't meet the kind of assumptions that we put around it.

The interesting point about that is that it suggests that if our predecessor government -- if the Labor Party back in 2006 -- had undertaken a review with the scope of the one that we've done now, then that would have been a realistic option then. Because if they had made that decision in 2006, there would have been no gap; a cruise missile-based system perhaps would have been a viable option; that could have been public debate.

And of course, it is the case, too, that at some point in the next few decades, this country will have Successor or whatever the next government decides. That will last for a number of decades and then there'll have to be further decision-making after that.

So I hope that the evidence here will be something which is useful at that point, too. Because it still seems to me that, at some point over the course of the century, moving to some kind of dual-capable system would actually be preferable.

Maybe beyond my lifetime.

GSN: Could the United Kingdom field both nuclear- and conventionally armed ballistic missiles, in your view? Or would you have the same qualms as raised in the United States about having a dual-capable Trident, where a future adversary wouldn’t know which variant is being launched, and might respond precipitously?

Alexander: I guess you could have that risk of mistake with any system. But the cruise missile option makes more sense, I think, because I guess those sort of systems are more readily used from a conventional point of view. So you'd have an existing system that it could be interoperable with.

GSN: Another criticism that some people have raised is that the $30 billion estimated for the like-for-like approach is that those funds could be better used elsewhere, even just within the security realm. So do you see a potential trade-off in which monies instead could be spent on -- for instance -- improving intelligence capabilities, special forces or logistics?

Alexander: I would say those are all important parts of our armed forces. And in the end, all public expenditure choices ultimately are trade-offs. Because in any circumstance, even … in good economic times, as it were, there is not a limitless supply of money. So you always have to choose what you do.

I think that my view is that it would not be right for the country -- the United Kingdom -- to cease to be a nuclear-weapons state. … And therefore, the question that we should ask is: How can we achieve that in the most cost-effective way possible?

And then there's a question, there's a choice, about how you use any savings. And, in fact, six billion dollars -- available principally in the period sort of 2025 to 2035 -- could be of considerable use in respect of intelligence gathering, or other military capabilities that are being generated at that time.

So I think it's not right for people to sort of sneer at the numbers and say well, that's not worthwhile. As minister responsible for public expenditure in the United Kingdom, I can tell you that every dollar is valuable -- or indeed every pound, as we would say over here.

So look, people can make that argument. Of course they can. And it is a perfectly legitimate thing to say, 'We think this is not worth the money we're spending on it, and we should do something else.'

The view I've come to is it is worth rethinking this policy for first principles, in terms of how we do it. But [on] the basic decision about do we wish to be a country as a nuclear-weapons state or not, I fall down on the side of we should be a nuclear-weapons state because of the threats of the world around us.

I would like us to move to being a world free of nuclear weapons. I agree with President Obama that is a very long journey, indeed. And while we are still on that journey, the United Kingdom needs to remain a nuclear state.

GSN: Do you ever imagine a future step down on that ladder where the U.K. effectively denuclearizes and comes under the U.S. umbrella of extended nuclear deterrence?

Alexander: I haven’t got any proposals for steps down the ladder beyond the ones that I’m proposing off the back of the review.

I think that the move from a continuous posture to a lower posture is actually rather a big and important decision. It’s one that I suspect would be one of the biggest steps towards reducing the level of threat that nuclear weapons pose in the world that the U.K. has ever made.

But I don’t have a whole menu of what the further steps are beyond that.

GSN: Are you opposed to the idea of the United Kingdom relying more on the United States for its extended deterrence?

Alexander: Well, for the reasons I gave earlier, I think that I would like the U.K. in its own right to continue to be a nuclear-weapons state. But it’s also true – and a very important fact – that we cooperate closely with the United States and our NATO allies. And we work together to protect one another.

And that’s a set of facts I don’t want to change, and I don’t think need to be changed by if the U.K. implements the conclusions of this review.

GSN: One of the options for backing off of the continuous at-sea deterrence policy of 24/7 sea patrols is to, at times, send submarines out to sea without nuclear warheads. Is that a way of implementing this step-down that you subscribe to, personally?

Alexander: Well, so that’s, in a sense, the description of the lowest of the postures that was considered under the review. The review called it ‘preserved deterrence.’ It was basically you maintain the capability -- so you have the submarines, and you have the weapons, and you have the trained crew, [and] they maintain their skills through[out]. But you don’t deploy the weapons.

Now, I think that is a perfectly reasonable approach. Whether we’d be able immediately to take the step right the way down to that posture, or whether we would start with a situation where we had regular or even irregular patrols with weapons on board – there’s a whole range of options there.

I think that what’s important is that our party has embraced the view that our country should move away from continuous deterrence to a lower posture. And we will need to work out the right, precise doctrine around that.

But … in the right circumstances, with the right threat environment, I don’t object to that as a way of going about our business, no.

GSN: What would be the purpose, then, of sending out the submarines without nuclear weapons on board?

Alexander: The main reason is that … you still have to work hard to maintain the skills and training of the crews involved.

You can’t do that from land. You have to send people out on patrol. That was the argument in the policy paper.

As I say, there are other options. You can send the submarines out with weapons on board. You could do that frequently; you could do that infrequently. So there’s a whole range of steps that are available, once you’ve decided to get rid of continuous deterrence.

And I think that the judgment about which of those steps you’d sit on is one that you would actually take in light of both the threat environment that you saw, and also the advice from the military about what’s the best way to maintain the capabilities that you need.

GSN: So the primary reason to do that would be to maintain the crew skills, but you could do that with the nuclear warheads onboard. So is it that removing the warheads is mainly to signal the world that you’re taking gradual steps in reducing the role that nuclear weapons play?

Alexander: Yes, that’s right. Yes, exactly. You need to have patrols in order to make sure your crews keep their skills.

Not having nuclear weapons on board would be part of a signal that … we are trying to reduce the level of threat that our weapons pose.

January 31, 2014

"The report itself does not reflect any coalition compromises," says U.K. Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander, the Liberal Democrat who directed the study.