Scuttling SSBNs: The Key to Britain's Fortunes?

By Copley, Gregory R. | Defense & Foreign Affairs Strategic Policy, April 1, 2013 | Go to article overview

Scuttling SSBNs: The Key to Britain's Fortunes?


Copley, Gregory R., Defense & Foreign Affairs Strategic Policy


Gregory R. Copley, on the 70th Anniversary of the Battle of the Atlantic

HEms t? Drake and Nelson must ask whether the remnants of Britain's strategic credibility are being dragged beneath the waves by the almost obsessive centrality which submarine-launched nuclear weapons have in the United Kingdom's sense of its strategic self. Could the scuttling of the Royal Navy's four-ship fleet of nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) be one of the keys to freeing Britain to return to a new, balanced force capability which would help it return to an affordable and muscular global capability?

There is presently no real debate about this; merely the rumblings of a discussion about the replacement for the ageing fleet of Vanguardclass SSBNs. Indeed, it is not an argument which focuses principally around economics; expensive as they are, the SSBNs are a relatively stable part of the traumatized British defense budget. No, this is about facing the future, and to do so it is necessary to see the future; not the past. There can be no sacred technologies around which the fleet - indeed the entire military hierarchy - must encircle in protection.

And certainly the British "strategic nuclear deterrent" is something meriting mockery: less than a handful of SSBNs (with usually only one on full operation at any time), with a few handfuls of warheads which over time were even scaled back from the great and awe-ful citybusting megatonnage to Chevaline theater- strategic kilotonnage warheads. Sorry, but is this the scrappy flexibility and reach of Nelson's Navy?

Let us think, for a moment, on the historical warp and weft which must be considered in strategic power.

Major investment in a key technology locks a military force, and therefore its sponsoring nation, into a structure - and often into a set of alliances - which usually last more than a half-century. And it is rarely the case that the "single technology" stops there; it produces spin-offs and a web of increasing interdependencies. It blends, or grows from, a habit of military doctrine, of prejudices as to who is the eternal friend or eternal enemy - which in turn shapes how intelligence is collected and analyzed - and this can last a century or two.

Britain's inherent, often visceral strategic reactions, in part originating from geography, have shaped threat assessments, and therefore strategic planning and military doctrine and hardware, for hundreds of years. Few things shape the United Kingdom's inherent prejudices in this regard more than its traditional rivalry over the past three centuries or so with Russia, a process galvanized by the Crimean War of the first half of the 1 9th Century, and continued with the Great Game for Central Asia which lasted until, exhausted, Britain surrendered that Game to an unsuspecting United States in the mid-20th Century.

But in that process, the UK evolved its relationship with the US in the post World War II era in a mutual alliance against the Russian successor, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), for ideological as well as geopolitical reasons. It developed and honed its force structures and military technology and threat-based doctrine almost entirely around that Great Quest. And today it limps into a new global architecture, "waging strategic peace with the force it inherited", and not a force or a doctrine geared to the dramatically new realities.

Great powers are hallmarked by the advantage they achieve in military power - and military technology - and human organization over the strategic terrain in which they exist. Great economies which lack independent military superiority are sustained - as in the case of modern Japan in much of post- World War II history - solely at the grace of a greater military ally.

Failure to sustain that advantage in the face of changing realities marks the decline of such states. Britain and France, in particular, today are in such a situation. …

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