Europe Needs the UK’s Sea-Based Nuclear Deterrent

by Felix F. Seidler. Felix is a fellow at the Institute for Security Policy, University of Kiel, Germany and runs the site Seidlers Sicherheitspolitik”. This article was published there at first.

The no-vote on the Scottish independence referendum has saved Britain’s Scotland-based nuclear deterrent. This is great news for Europe. Because in a multipolar and increasingly chaotic world, the UK’s sea-based nuclear deterrence will remain essential for Europe’s freedom and security.

Her Majesty's Naval Base, Clyde.

Her Majesty’s Naval Base, Clyde.

Nuclear deterrence remains a source of stability…
Thank you, Scotland. Due to your no, the Royal Navy saves billions of Pounds. The base for Britain’s four nuclear ballistic missile submarines (SSBN) does not have to be relocated. The four Vanguard Class boats are going to remain in Clyde, Scotland. This is good news, because nuclear deterrence will remain necessary throughout the coming decades.

Even after the Cold War, strategic stability in the international order is ultimately guaranteed by the nuclear balance of power. With Russia and China becoming more assertive, sea-based nuclear deterrence will serve as a source of stability. Why? What would finally prevent Russian president Vladimir Putin from marching through the Baltic to Poland are not Brussels’ words and tiny sanctions. Instead, it is, as it was during the Cold War, the risk of a nuclear escalation, which is likely to deter Putin and will therefore keep Europe safe and free.

…for Europe, too.
For legal, political and financial reasons, there will never be any kind of multinational European sea-based nuclear force. However, European countries still need a nuclear umbrella for their security. If you do not believe that, please consult our Baltic and Polish friends.

Illustration of the US Navy's new SSBN.

Illustration of the US Navy’s new SSBN.

Some European observes would argue that there is no need for nuclear deterrent provided by European countries, because the cheaper approach would be to free-ride under Uncle Sam’s nuclear umbrella. Even though US-president Barack Obama has paved the way for the modernization of America’s nuclear arsenal and the construction of a new class of SSBN serving up to the year 2085, it is yet unclear, if the US Navy’s future sea-based deterrent will be large enough to span up a worldwide nuclear deterrent as we have it today. Hence, Europe and the UK cannot afford to rely on that America provides nuclear free-rides forever.

Without nuclear forces in the back, European countries would be even weaker than they already are. Moreover, as European decline keeps marching on, abandoning nuclear weapons would leave the Europeans, in Obama’s words applied on an other case, as a regional power struggling for influence. The only reason why Russia in 1990s and early 2000s was still seen as a major power was its nuclear arsenal.

Moreover, with its declining conventional forces, a Europe without nuclear weapons could easily become an object of blackmailing by Russia and a nuclear Iran, maybe even by China. Instead, sea-based nuclear deterrent provides a position of strength and, therefore, creates a stable strategic environment four pursing regular foreign and security policy.

Why an UK nuclear deterrent?
Some readers may argue, why should Britain bear the costs on her own? However, beside the truth that a multinational European nuclear force is a pure and undesirable fantasy, it is clear that Britain would not be willing to share control over its nuclear weapons. An addition, a demur is, if a UK deterrent applies on more than the UK. Would Britain retaliate against Teheran, in case Iran nukes Berlin, Rome or Brussels? Maybe not. However, it makes Mullah’s life much harder, if they at least have to take the risk of retaliation into account.

Moreover, an other object might be that France also continues to operate its own sea-based nuclear deterrent. France’s four SSBN commissioned between 1997 and 2010 are relatively new. However, with an eye on the French economy and public debt, France’s defense budget’s future remains uncertain. Future governments in Paris might decide for financial reasons to sacrifice parts of or the whole nuclear force. Hence, it would be a risky game to rely on France. Given a life cycle of 30 years, France would face a SSBN-replacement discussion while the UK’s Vanguard-Class successors are entering service.

Nuclear submarine HMS Vanguard passes HMS Dragon as she returns to HMNB Clyde, Scotland.

Nuclear submarine HMS Vanguard passes HMS Dragon as she returns to HMNB Clyde, Scotland.

Thus, the UK Government should go for four new SSBN. Of course, that will be financially difficult, but without new SSBN, parts of Britain’s shipping industry and its expertise will inevitably die. In response, the Vanguard replacement program might be postponed and the new SSBN class will be paid off by the skin of Britain’s teeth. However, that is not be a bad thing. The longer the Vanguards remain in service and the later the new SSBN are commissioned, the better: This would guarantee a UK sea-based nuclear far into the second half of this century. New British SSBN, commissioned in the late 2020s or early 2030s, with an estimated lifetime of 30-40 years, would guarantee an active UK SSBN force at least until the 2060s.

Finally, it is good that the UK’s nuclear deterrent remains independent. “Brexit” does not matter in any way for nuclear deterrence (EU never had and will never have any role in that anyway). Even in NATO, the Royal Navy’s SSBN are considered an independent nuclear force. However, in a multipolar, increasingly chaotic and unsecure world (Brzezinski 2012: 75 et sq.), sea-based nuclear deterrence will prevent Europe from being blackmailed. Britain is the only country left in Europe, which at least tries to think and act strategically with global ambitions. If the UK does not remain a credible European source of strategic stability, then no one else in Europe will ever be – and that might one day turn out to be a disaster.

This entry was posted in English, Felix F. Seidler, International, Security Policy.

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