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U.K. Must Balance Trident Renewal With Ability to Conduct Traditional Military Campaigns

By Rachel Oswald

Global Security Newswire

The British Vanguard-class ballistic missile submarine HMS Victorious. The high cost of replacing the U.K. fleet of strategic submarines will leave the United Kingdom with less money to spend on maintaining conventional military capabilities (British Royal Navy photo). The British Vanguard-class ballistic missile submarine HMS Victorious. The high cost of replacing the U.K. fleet of strategic submarines will leave the United Kingdom with less money to spend on maintaining conventional military capabilities (British Royal Navy photo).

WASHINGTON -- Budget difficulties have left the United Kingdom with a tough decision to make in the next few years -- whether to pour billions of dollars into building a new fleet of ballistic missile submarines or use the money to maintain its diverse conventional armed forces capabilities.

As Washington’s strongest and most reliable military partner, whatever choice London makes will have bearing on U.S. military operations going forward, both nuclear and conventional, issue experts agree.

The United Kingdom for decades has maintained a deterrence force of four Vanguard-class submarines outfitted with nuclear-armed Trident missiles. At least one of these submarines remains on patrol at all times in what is known as “continuous at-sea deterrence.”

The time is fast approaching when the British government will have to make a “final gate” decision on whether to carry out a “like-for-like” replacement of its strategic fleet. The four submarines -- Vanguard, Vengeance, Vigilant and Victorious -- are presently scheduled to begin decommissioning in the 2020s.

A British military spending plan for the decade would set aside $56.6 billion for submarine programs, the bulk of that going toward the Vanguard replacement project if it is given final authorization around 2016 after the next general election. The project overall is estimated to cost as much as $48 billion.

“That is going to take quite a big chunk of our new equipment budget,” said Malcolm Chalmers, director of U.K. defense policy at the Royal United Services Institute.

“I think there is U.S. concern about reduction in U.K. capabilities and I would not be surprised if U.S. officials ask questions about how the U.K. would cope with the increased spending on new submarines,” Chalmers said in a telephone interview from London last week.

In March, the U.S Joint Chiefs of Staff met with their British counterparts at the Pentagon for discussions on the two allies’ long-term defense strategies and the impacts of declining budgets on those plans, according to Defense News. The details of those talks have not been publicly disclosed but it is reasonable to think that British plans to renew the Vanguard fleet were discussed.

British Defense Secretary Philip Hammond is in Washington this week for further top-level talks on the two nations’ military collaboration.

The New York Times last week reported that the United States is quietly urging its ally to prioritize maintaining its conventional military capabilities over Trident renewal. “Either they can be a nuclear power and nothing else or a real military partner,” the newspaper quoted an anonymous high-ranking U.S. official as saying.

In public, the Pentagon insists it is not pressuring the United Kingdom to abandon or scale back the plan to modernize its SSBN vessels.

"We are not having discussions like this with the U.K.  The United States is not pushing them to abandon their nuclear deterrent.  We have worked closely together for a long time in this regard and appreciate their capability,” Defense Department spokeswoman Lt. Col. Monica Matoush said in a statement provided to Global Security Newswire.

When asked if the United States has a preference for the British focusing on either its conventional or nuclear capabilities, U.S. Navy Vice. Adm. William Burke responded on Tuesday, “We certainly appreciate what the U.K. does with their nuclear weapons. We value their nuclear deterrent.

“We also value their contribution to conventional work that we do around the world,” the deputy chief of naval operations for Warfare Systems said at a Capitol Hill breakfast. “They’ve been a great partner in that area as well. I believe it’s up to the U.K. to decide whether they value one over the other. But I will say we have agreed with the U.K. to work on a common missile compartment such that we are somewhat linked from an R&D and procurement perspective on the Vanguard as well as on the Ohio replacement.”

The Trident weapons that are used on both British Vanguard vessels and U.S. Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines have long been assumed to be cooperatively designed and maintained by the two allies.

The United Kingdom and the United States both specifically assign their nuclear weapons to the collective defense of NATO. In theory, that assistance from London helps to free up the U.S. fleet of SSBN vessels to conduct deterrence patrols in more areas of the world than they otherwise could.

The British Defense Ministry plans to designate approximately $253 billion over the next 10 years to the purchase of new armaments, vehicles, submarines and other military gear. However, these figures are not final.

The British Treasury has signaled that further reductions on top of the 8 percent spending cuts ordered by the Strategic Defense and Security Review in 2010 will likely be needed. Under the SDSR-mandated reductions, the country is lowering to 40 from 48 the maximum number of nuclear warheads it keeps on each of its strategic submarines.

There is also the chance that a new government will be brought to power after elections in 2015 that will have different spending priorities than the current coalition-leading Conservative Party whose austerity cuts have not been popular with the public.

The British military has played a central role in the the U.S.-led campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, providing equipment and troops. The United Kingdom, with France, took the lead in the 2011 NATO operation to establish a no-fly zone in Libya. The United States provided critical backup support. It is frequently said that the U.S. armed forces are most comfortable working with their British counterparts.

“If you ask the U.S. military ‘who do you like to interact the most with?’ It’s probably the British military,” Brookings Institution Arms Control Initiative Director Steven Pifer said on Monday. “The two militaries really know how to talk to each other, they know how to engage, they think alike.”

London would still probably remain a close military partner with the United States in any future foreign conflicts, but the United Kingdom’s ability to concretely support such missions would be significantly less if it pours most of its procurement budget into deterrent renewal, Pifer said.

“If they can only offer up a company of Royal Marines, it’s not going to be what it was in the good old days,” he added.

If the Obama administration does prefer the United Kingdom focus on maintaining traditional armed forces capabilities over its nuclear deterrent, it should say so publicly, said former British Defense Minister Des Browne.

“There are many people here who are doubting whether or not this ought to be a priority for our spending,” Browne said in a Monday telephone interview from London. “One of the reasons is there would be an expectation from our most important ally that we should do this (and to not do so) would damage our relationship with the United States.”

Speaking up now would deny a powerful argument to the U.K. supporters of the Vanguard modernization plan, said Browne, who now in the House of Lords leads a group of British parliamentarians who advocate for nuclear disarmament. “It would deny them a very strong argument ... and I think it would be a game changer" in the debate over the future of the British nuclear deterrent.

Chalmers, however, cautioned the Obama administration against either publicly or privately pressing too hard its views to London given the political sensitivities of the matter.

In the allies’ military relationship, the United States is clearly the dominant power, however the United Kingdom prides itself on both its traditional military capabilities and nuclear deterrent.

“I think if the U.S. were to seriously weigh in the way the [New York Times] article was suggesting, the effect would probably be counter effective,” Chalmers said.

Added Pifer, “My guess is they will say nothing publicly. They understand this is a hard problem for the British government to think through.

Browne said if the United Kingdom were to end its nuclear posture of continuous sea-based deterrence, it could extend the shelf life of its fleet and delay for some time the need to carry out the costly renewal plan. “The United States can have in U.K. a nuclear-armed ally in NATO who shares the burden of the nuclear defense of the alliance for some considerable time going forward if its prepared to consider whether it is necessary for every individual ally in this alliance to have a boat at sea (at all times).”

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