Against the background of economic collapse within the operational life time of the next generation of nuclear submarines, the UK is about to place itself in the worst possible position of all nuclear weapons states. Its Trident programme distills down to concentrating all the nuclear eggs in a single basket as the plan of purchasing four submarines guarantees only one submarine on patrol at any one time as determined by the timetabling of refit, repair and crew rotations. In effect it means a £100bn of investment is locked into a single submarine on patrol. As austerity cuts deepen, maintaining the level of protection it needs will be increasingly difficult and the UK's single nuclear deterrent submarine will set sail into the unknown with little idea if a silent Russian Akula attack submarine is sitting on its tail or not. If a conflict does occur, the UK's entire operational nuclear deterrence and the decades of investment attached to it can easily be wiped out in a single torpedo strike. This is a totally flawed and dangerous strategy. No other nuclear weapons nation has its deterrence dependent on a single weapon system as the UK does. It is beyond credulity that such a system is being developed today in a world made unstable by climate change, energy shortages and technology races. It also makes the UK's pretensions of being a credible nuclear armed nation nonsense, and a nonsense that will cost £100 billion to maintain.
The result of this combination of a dangerous military strategy and economic hardship is the entirely plausible scenario that in a world moving towards the edge of ecological collapse a Trident submarine could easily be forced into a premature launch decision. We can easily envisage this - a Trident submarine commander in doubt about the effectiveness of the weakened antisubmarine warfare capabilities that he needs to guarantee his security may believe correctly or incorrectly that an enemy submarine is on his tail. If his submarine is the only one on patrol, he knows that he is the custodian of the entire UK nuclear deterrence as all other submarines can be destroyed within seconds while in port, putting him under increasing pressure to act on any order. Having only one patrolling submarine could become an increasingly likely mode of operation as funding cuts eventually make in-roads on the finances of submarine operations. The commander would also be aware that his failure to fire if the order comes through when the country is under threat or under attack would render the concept of deterrence a failure and he and his crew have been drilled to fire without question for this very reason. But the order may not come through if his communication with headquarters has broken down. This could come from any one of a long list of possible causes that may emerge in the event of an economic melt down such as a wide spread power or equipment failure or if in the early stages of conflict a high altitude nuclear burst is fired to disable electronic systems with its electromagnetic pulse as part of what is intended to be a limited exchange. In the terrifying silence that he is plunged into, he would have to decide with his executive officer if he should fire. His dilemma is to fire and kill one hundred million people and precipitate a war that will end the world or don't fire and risk having the country's entire nuclear deterrent which is the apex of over one hundred years of development by the military industrial complex destroyed in seconds by a submarine that may or may not be on his tail. He will know that if he fires one missile, he must fire them all because one missile being fired will betray the location of his submarine. Fortunately for him, but less fortunate for the rest of humanity, his submarine is designed to allow continuous rapid fire of all missiles with only twenty seconds between each one. He may or may not know that if he fires his missiles, the fire storms he will start will be adequate to plunge the north hemisphere into a nuclear winter which will destroy any life that does not get killed in the initial nuclear exchange. He does not have the option to predetermine not to fire in a situation of ambiguity because that would render the concept of deterrence a failure. He will look at the sealed letter of last resort that every submarine captain has from the prime minister to be opened in the event of his or her death being perceived by the Trident captain. Though nobody knows what is in these letters, other than the prime ministers that have written them, it is unlikely that this will offer any categorical guidance not to fire, because the concept of deterrence requires the willingness to fire once total destruction has been delivered to the country. In the midst of this silence and surrounded by doubt, the captain would not have to remain waiting indefinitely for an electronic authentication command from government to launch because Trident is designed as a second strike weapon system; this means that the captain along with his executive officer must have launch authority to be able to fire at an aggressor following their attack on the UK even if it has destroyed the entire country. The result is nuclear war driven by spending cuts. It is not just the UK that could find itself instigating a budget driven war, but every other nuclear weapons nation can end up in the same situation. They must all accept the folly of putting so much destructive power in the hands of so few people and at the end of such a fragile communication channel, which is of course the essence of all nuclear forces. Likewise, they should accept the folly of forcing other nations to do the same.
The US Navy’s Congressional Liaison Office admitted that with the cooperation of only three other officers a Trident skipper could launch an unauthorized attack - an attack equal to 6,500 Hiroshimas. Given the confined environment and the morbid atmosphere that can dangerously distort reality on a nuclear submarines at the best of times, this situation can be made very much worse when it is operating in a sub optimal environment driven by economic collapse.
The technology race that characterises the strategic environment that attack and ballistic nuclear submarines operate within will drive exponentially increasing defence budgets as it is relatively feasible for a new aspect of stealth or sensor technology to be deployed by one side that totally negates the entire investment of the other. A UK submariner has already claimed that on one occasion a Trident submarine was unable to be put to sea because the track of a Russian attack submarine was lost in the Atlantic; thus for the next generation of Tridents to be a truly effective deterrent a massive increase in anti submarine warfare capability will be needed at a time that such cost increases would become increasingly impossible. Step changes in technology are so unpredictable that establishing any long term budget with meaningful accuracy is impossible. Thus Greenpeace’s £100bn estimate for the Trident programme could be a significant understatement in the event of a technological step change by any potential aggressor.
This forces recognition of another of the unpleasant disconnects from reality associated with nuclear weapons; the purpose of the defence forces of countries with nuclear weapons are not to protect the populations against a nuclear attack from an opponent, but to provide protection for their own nuclear forces so they can attack the enemy. The impossibility of providing any worthwhile protection against a nuclear weapon attack makes this unpalatable truth unavoidable. If Russia was determined to launch a nuclear attack on the west, it can do so at any time. Its triad of nuclear forces is as effective as NATOs in achieving this terrifying objective. Even if by some miracle all its nuclear ballistic submarines were sunk within minutes of hostilities breaking out, its aircraft and mobile strategic ballistic missile launchers can still rain down enough nuclear weapons to destroy the Western economy. Scale alone, combined with the target rich environment of a complex industrial society, ensures the objective of providing total destruction can always be met; out of the thousands of warheads at their disposal it takes only a few these to reach their targets to cause sufficient mass destruction to bring any opponent to the point of surrender. Likewise, NATO and the west can bring the same degree of destruction to Russia. The trillions of dollars that the two economic blocks have poured into "defensive" technologies such as interceptor aircraft, anti-submarine technology and missile defences will be wasted if only a few warheads gets through. At best all these will do is ensure that some nuclear forces on either side are preserved for a final retaliatory attack to ensure the ultimate extinction of all life. At worst the perceived threat they cause to their opponent, who will be stuggling to maintain nuclear parity with the economic collapse that climate change will drive, makes the likelihood of a premature launch more likely.
Of all the nuclear weapons states, the UK is probably in the worst possible position. The disproportionate impact that its small nuclear force will cause to the military industrial complex as it builds the defence forces and the submarines themselves will bleed the finances of the country at a time when the economy will also collapse as its oil and gas fields of the North Sea start depleting. When this is combined with the scenario above of putting all the nuclear eggs in a single basket, the law of unintended consequences potentially comes to the fore. But other unpalatable scenarios are equally easy to envisage when the money runs out. A terrorist attack is not beyond the realms of reality. In April 2014, protesters amazed themselves by discovering how easy it was to get onboard a nuclear attack submarine at Faslane and start destroying equipment. It is one thing to have people getting on board who are committed to peacefully challenging the legality of nuclear submarines, but if they can do so using little more than a couple of wire cutters then a disciplined band of terrorists armed with Kalshnikovs would be able to do much more and at times when security is breaking down the opportunities for their attacks escalate. The other scenario is the simple one of mechanical or human failure that are nearly always the eventual result of cost cutting programmes, or as managers and politicians like to call them, efficiency programmes. But worse, is that because all three of the scenarios considered here have the same root cause, they happen together in various and unpredictable ways which make the consequence of any one of them more serious.
Against the background, it is inconceivable to imagine that the costs of safely maintaining a nuclear weapon system from either accident or attack can be met such that a credible deterrent can be maintained over the planned operational life. The collapse when it comes, will come quickly and be severe. It means that it is more likely than not that within a timescale of a few weeks the affordability of safely operating nuclear submarines is lost. All this will happen while the nation's decent into economic collapse is simultaneously accelerated by the cost of maintaining nuclear parity.
Within all societies, the debate should be raging about the illogicality of pursuing nuclear weapon systems that will outlast the society they are supposed to be protecting. Like many things associated with nuclear weapons, it is a debate that no one really wants to have. However, the evidence to support a collapse during the operational life time of these submarines is overwhelming, on the contrary the evidence to support the idea that the economy can continue over this time is virtually zero.