Trident nuclear submarine fleet could be reduced without danger, says analyst

Royal United Services Institute report suggests effective British nuclear deterrent could be maintained but at a lower cost

Britain could achieve billions of pounds in savings by breaking with tradition to cut its Trident nuclear submarine fleet from four to three, according to a report published on Friday by one of the country’s leading military think-tanks.

For the past 45 years, the accepted view in the British military has been that the minimum number of nuclear submarines needed to act as a credible deterrent is four: one at sea, one being refitted, one engaged in training and one in reserve.

But Hugh Chalmers, in a 24-page report, argues that Britain could maintain a credible deterrent with just three submarines.

A government decision is to be made within the next few years about whether to replace Britain’s ageing nuclear submarine fleet at an estimated cost of £20 billion, rising to about £80 billion over their lifetime.

The run-up to the decision will be marked by a debate about whether Britain needs a nuclear option at all.

Both the government and Labour are committed to replacing the existing four-submarine fleet but even within the military there are senior voices arguing that at least some of the money might be better channelled towards a fast-reaction conventional force.

Dropping from four submarines to three offers a compromise that would see Britain remain a nuclear power while cutting back on the massive budget.

The US, France and Russia all have a “continuously at sea” policy. Chalmers, a research analyst at the Royal United Services Institute, argues that it may not be necessary to have at least one submarine continuously at sea in order to create uncertainty in a potential aggressor.

“Thus while continuous patrolling probably enhances the credibility of the UK’s nuclear forces, it does not embody it. It is not immediately apparent if Russia, China or, indeed, any other state would feel any less threatened by the UK’s nuclear forces were they occasionally unavailable,” Chalmers says.

In the report, A Disturbance In The Force: debating continuous at-sea deterrence, he says: “While many of the UK’s allies would be taken aback by such a change in its nuclear posture, with proper presentation and integration into Nato’s nuclear structures it could still make a useful and reassuring contribution …”

The Liberal Democrats argue that, post-cold war, a four-submarine nuclear fleet is no longer necessary, prompting defence secretary Philip Hammond to accuse them of naivety.

Chalmers argues that a reduced fleet could still make a potential adversary think twice. “If it were seen to be capable of deploying its nuclear forces in a crisis, the very existence of such a force could have the effect of dissuading a potentially hostile state from threatening or blackmailing the UK and its allies,” Chalmers says.

The fleet could cancel sustained patrols during periods of lower tension.

“An inactive fleet would be vulnerable to a no-notice strike, and could neither protect itself against nor respond to an attack under these circumstances. However, such an attack seems highly unlikely without prior indication or provocation, …read more    

Army assesses task on flood-hit Somerset Levels

Relief among residents after government orders army to help, with more rain and high tide due at weekend

Military planners are carrying out a recce on the Somerset Levels after the government ordered the army to help flood-stricken residents and businesses, the Ministry of Defence has said.

Experts are spending the morning surveying the Levels and working out how they can help the emergency services, local authorities and other agencies. Once that assessment is complete they will sit down with county council chiefs and draw up a plan.

The government has said soldiers may help to deliver food and supplies, ferry around stranded villagers, and lay out more sandbags in preparation for the weekend, when more rain and a high tide could cause more flooding.

There was relief among residents that the army was on the ground, but also anger that it had taken so long for the government to take notice.

“We’re grateful that something is being done,” said Bryony Sadler, a hairdresser and mother who has endured weeks of flooding. “I’m thankful someone seems to be listening at last. But it’s been such a long time coming. It’s been total mismanagement so far.”

Retired major Mark Corthine, whose farmhouse was flooded for four months last year and who is facing months of disruption again this winter and spring after his home was inundated with sewage-infected water, said he was pleased. “But in reality it’s come two weeks too late,” he said. “I’m sorry it’s taken a disaster for the Environment Agency and the government to take notice of what is happening here.”

Corthine said soldiers could help to hand out more sandbags, and amphibious vehicles could help communities that remained partially cut off. He said he feared for what could happen at the weekend as more rain sweeps into the west of England and coincides with high tides. “I’m worried that water could come pouring in and more homes be flooded,” he said.

Local political leaders have been calling for help for weeks. David Hall, deputy leader of the Conservative-controlled Somerset county council, said he was pleased that the army might be able to alleviate pressure on local authority workers and the emergency services, who have taken the lead in operations such as ferrying stranded villagers in and out of their communities.

Hall said it was also comforting to know that the army and its equipment would be close at hand if there was more flooding at the weekend.

On Wednesday the environment secretary, Owen Paterson, said: “The Ministry of Defence and the Department for Local Government are discussing how we could deploy specialist vehicles which could help some of those villages which have been cut off, to help people travel backwards and forwards, to get fuel and food in and out, and to help with transport from dry land. And secondly, there will also be help with sandbags which could help prevent further flooding.”

Paterson was met with hostility when he visited Somerset on Monday, with farmers, politicians and church leaders demanding immediate action to alleviate what furious …read more    

How do I become … a harbourmaster

You’re advised to decide on this career early, in order to gain the required experience – but with a dearth of young seafarers perhaps the criteria will change

Mark Sansom’s outlook on life changed at the age of 10 when his parents left the Home Counties to run a hotel on top of a 300-foot cliff in Tintagel, Cornwall. From its windows, where he could watch storms whip up the Atlantic, he conceived a passion for the sea which decided his career path. “My earliest memories of the ocean are spending a lot of time underneath it when I fell off my surfboard,” he says. “I used to watch the ships going past and knew I wanted to be on them one day.”

Now, as harbourmaster at Falmouth, Sansom oversees the ships that so beguiled him as they enter and leave the port. Their safety is his main responsibility and, during the recent storms, he has ensured a safe haven in Falmouth’s sheltered waters for vessels unable to reach the battered port of Milford Haven. “The job involves a high level of routine work, but things can go wrong and wrench you out of it,” he says. “Recently, we had to admit a fishing vessel that was ablaze and presented serious safety challenges.”

Sansom’s odyssey to the post began at the age of 16 when he left school and enrolled as a deck cadet with the Royal Fleet Auxillery. This launched him into the dangers and thrills of seafaring. “My first trip was to the Bay of Biscay where we encountered a 70-foot swell,” he says. “It was completely outside anything you could prepare yourself for, but because the rest of the crew seemed pretty confident I was less alarmed than I might be now, and concentrated on the logistics of getting round a ship that was listing at 45 degrees.”

During his three-and-a-half-year cadetship Sansom, now 53, was schooled in navigation, bridge-watching, ship maintenance and the legal requirements of entering ports – skills which equipped him for his current role. “At sea you have to learn resourcefulness, which is a good education in its own right,” he says. “You’re not protected by an elite officer corps – the ship’s crew came from all sorts of background and nationalities and everyone had to work together to cope with what the ocean might throw at us, and even as a junior officer you have to learn to make snap decisions yourself rather than deferring them upwards.”

At the end of his training Sansom was promoted to third officer and embarked on three years of globe-trotting. “We went everywhere the navy went and were fully at liberty to go and explore when we arrived in different ports. We supported the Royal Yacht Britannia during the Commonwealth Games tour in 1982 and when a gun was fired by a marksman at precisely 9am when the Queen awoke that would be our signal to start refuelling the yacht.”

Three years spent working for the Sultan of Oman honed his knowledge …read more