… by aiding the Indians, as we must, we are effectively supporting them to achieve a nuclear independence that we cannot ourselves afford
We do not yet know whether Commander Andy Coles will face a court martial for his heroic exploits aboard HMS Astute, but some disciplinary procedure seems inevitable. The poor fellow will be frogmarched down a holystoned Admiralty corridor until he stands before a bench of grizzled sea-dogs, champing their pipes and gazing with pitiless gunmetal eyes as they spit out their staccato questions.
How the devil, they will want to know, did he manage to ground Astute (magnificently named, eh?) off the Isle of Skye, a stretch of water hardly unknown to the Royal Navy. “Coles,” they will growl, “you have held us up to ridicule. We have spent billions devising a state-of-the-art stealth submarine, and you have contrived to reveal its secrets to the Russians, the Chinese and to every dinghy of chortling rubberneckers that went out to look. What have you got to say for yourself, hey?”
Since I have an instinctive sympathy for Coles and his predicament, I hope he will come up with something good. Perhaps he will reveal that he was locked in the privy at the critical moment. Perhaps he had just heard of Wayne Rooney’s new salary for Man U, and fell swooning on to the galley floor. But if I were advising Cdr Coles, the key point I would urge him to get across is that steering these colossal bits of Britain’s nuclear defence can be trickier than you think; which brings us to Trident, and the recent row over whether or not to replace our prize nuclear marrow.
I have to say that I have let my imagination roam, and approached the question without ideological preconceptions. Perhaps we could save money, and deter aggression, by doing a kind of Saddam Hussein – allowing the world (and above all the Americans) to think we have weapons of mass destruction when in fact we have none. We could invest in a cheap collection of ultra-realistic inflatable missiles and inflatable submarines to pose as our strategic nuclear response. The trouble is that someone like Cdr Coles would almost certainly pop them accidentally (Commander, you have let me down, you have let yourself down, you have let the whole submarine down) and so I have concluded that we have no option but to remain a fully-fledged nuclear power.
We can’t be bullied. We can’t let the word get around that we are a soft touch. I don’t want this country to be blackmailed by France – which has 300 warheads – let alone by Iran. If we want to deter aggression, if we want to remain members of the UN Security Council, if we want to speak up powerfully for all that is good and right in the comity of nations – and if we want people to take us seriously – then I am afraid it is a sad necessity that we continue to wield a nuclear club. But we should be under absolutely no illusions that this is in any sense an independent deterrent. When we eventually renew Trident, in whatever form, we will be spending tens of billions on machinery and technology that is American in virtually every respect. The warhead is a copy of the US W76 warhead. The arming, fusing and firing systems are designed by the American Sandia lab and procured from the States. The neutron generator is manufactured in the US and acquired off the shelf. The gas reservoir is made in America and even filled up in America.
The Mark 6 guidance system is designed and made by Charles Stark Draper labs in the US and the fire-control hardware is made by General Dynamics; and it is not just that the kit is made in America. These firecrackers are repaired in America, and when the Trident missiles need maintenance they are taken to a base in Georgia. In so far as the warheads are still officially manufactured in Aldermaston, you should bear in mind that this is done under contract to Lockheed Martin, and in so far as the subs are taken for repairs in Devonport, the operation is partly contracted out to Halliburton.
But what makes our so-called independent deterrent a complete fiction is above all the guidance system. As Cdr Coles discovered, you have to know where your submarine is at the moment you fire the rocket. The position of the Trident sub is determined by using GPS and the electrostatically supported giro navigation system – and both of those are controlled by America.
Suppose we wanted to launch our independent ballistic missile. The submarine has nosed into the right place – the Persian Gulf, off Dieppe, wherever. David Cameron is in his bunker in Chequers. All options having been exhausted, the ashen-faced Prime Minister reaches trembling for the red button – and then suddenly the whole thing goes blank. “So-rree!” says the Pentagon. “Change of plan, guys!”
Trident is wholly dependent on American satellites; which makes it all the more suggestive and paradoxical that we are at once cutting defence and increasing our aid budget. Don’t get me wrong. I am completely in favour of the DFID projects in India – tackling poverty, illiteracy and disease; and I completely understand that aid and trade go together, and that we want to build the closest possible relationship with this great nation and nascent superpower. And it is of course true that even if we chopped the whole overseas aid budget, we still could not afford to build our own independent nuclear deterrent.
But I cannot help noticing that India is not only a nuclear power, but that it also has its own space industry. Like Russia, like China, like America, like France, the Indians can use their own satellites to guide their own missiles. It is a melancholy reflection of our changed status in the world that by aiding the Indians, as we must, we are effectively supporting them to achieve a nuclear independence that we cannot ourselves afford. If you don’t invest in your own satellites, you end up as a satellite power – which is effectively what we are; and the best that can be said for the position is that it may be undignified, but it saves us a fortune.