Wednesday, 14 July 2010

BAe Taranis and the independent nuclear deterrent.

Yesterday the British aerospace company BAE released further information on their unmanned stealth aircraft, Taranis (see right). One of the aims of the project is to "explore and demonstrate how emerging technologies and systems can deliver battle-winning capabilities for the UK armed forces."
As such, all of the demonstrator has been built utilising only UK technology - unusual in these days of multinational, multi-billion projects. This prototype has cost £143 million to develop, but it is a long way from a production vehicle - it is purely a prototype. Yet that is remarkably cheap when compared to the billions the US has spent on their X45 experimental aircraft. (It should be noted that the aims and planned missions of the X45 and Taranis are not the same).

Many countries have developed unmanned aircraft (or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) over the years, but Taranis offers a step-up in terms of capability. For one thing, current UAVs require a base-station where they are flown from, whilst  the Taranis can fly autonomously without user input. This is an exceptionally tricky thing to achieve, and poses many technical and ethical questions. This is also one of the first stealthy UAVs, although the term 'stealth' covers a multitude of sins, and is not the battle-winner that many people suppose.

This news has got me thinking. One of the biggest problems for our coalition Government has been the replacement of the Trident nuclear deterrent. The Liberal Democrat's manifesto said they were against a "like-for-like" replacement for the submarine-based system, which will cost many tens of billions over its thirty-year lifespan. The Conservatives, however, are vehement that the nuclear deterrent should remain.

The Liberal Democrat position is interesting. Obviously, they are not in favour of replacing Trident with submarines of similar capabilities, yet they are also not saying that they want to scrap the independent nuclear deterrent. But what could that non-like-for-like replacement be? Most commentators have suggested it could be as simple as having two submarines instead of the three we currently have (something the last Labour Government was already considering). I cannot help but wonder if there is a better alternative.

Trident's predecessor was Polaris, which itself replaced Britain's first nuclear deterrent, the V-Bomber fleet of Victor, Valiant and the infamous Vulcan. The reasons for this change were complex, but could perhaps be summed up as follows:
  1. Polaris was cheaper
  2. Polaris was safer (no planes flying overhead with nuclear warheads), and less risk of lost weapons (so-called broken arrows)
  3. Polaris was more strategically secure; the enemy knew where the V-Bomber bases were, whilst ballistic submarines can remain hidden until needed
  4. The V-Bombers had been made largely redundant by anti-aircraft systems.
The situation has changed since the Trident system was envisaged. The delivery system (the ballistic missiles and the submarines) are now far more expensive than the actual warheads.Additionally, the risks of an all-out nuclear war has receded significantly, slightly negating the third point. Stealth technology goes some way to negating the fourth point (especially when combined with cruise missiles).

The current Vanguard submarines will need replacing within the next decade, and work will need to start on that replacement soon. The Trident missiles are hired from Lockheed Martin, and the warheads themselves are now essentially American. The independent nuclear deterrent is far from independent. The British Government retired the WE.177 free-fall nuclear weapon in 1998, meaning that the nuclear deterrent could only be delivered by Trident. All our eggs are firmly in the ballistic-submarine basket.

Could Taranis' successor be used to replace Trident? This would meet both the Conservatives' and Liberal Democrats' aims: to maintain the nuclear deterrent, but not replace the submarines. I wonder if this is where this is all heading. We have time: Trident does not need to be replaced until the 2020's, giving us some breathing space to develop a successor system.

Of course, there is no obvious use for the nuclear deterrent at the moment (except for its use as a deterrent). The chances of all-out nuclear war are currently remote. Yet it is not something that you can develop easily once it is lost, and the lifespan of the systems can be over thirty years. Put simply: we have to develop a system that meets not only today's strategic requirements, but those that we will have in thirty years time. Can we guarantee that the world will be such a friendly place in 2040 or 2050?

Taranis is only a prototype, and much information is not known: maximum load, range without refuelling, speed at low and high altitude, maximum altitude, and aspects of the low-observability amongst many more. These questions will remain secret for many years; as the prototype plane has not flown then many will not be currently known.

So, what shape would the system take? I envisage a series of Taranis planes heading towards enemy territory, their stealth technology helping them evade the enemy's air defenses. Stand-off weapons such as cruise missiles could be used to penetrate further into enemy territory. Use of multiple planes and decoys could help overwhelm defences. Effective range for an attack can be doubled, as there would be no need to get the airframe back after an attack (unlike manned aircraft, although strategic air bombing of Russia was often seen as being a suicide mission - the crews knew that they were unlikely to return).

Such planes would also be multi-use; they could be nuclear-capable but also be used for attacks with conventional munitions as well. Indeed, this would probably (and hopefully) be what they are only ever used for. This would make them far more cost-effective and useful than ballistic missile submarines, which generally have only one use. The capabilities of the planes would make them useful to both the air force and the army, giving those forces buy-in to the scheme. The Navy would, of course, complain.

This is, of course, a simplistic pipe dream. Yet I wonder if the coalition's thinking lies in this direction. It would require a massive change in strategic thinking, but perhaps that is what is needed at this time. Ballistic missile submarines are fascinating, complex beasts, but I cannot help but think that they are not the best fit for a future nuclear deterrent that is more likely to be used against single rogue states than in an all-out nuclear exchange.

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