Post General Election Analysis

Amalgamated from articles first published on | 'Odin'


The UK’s nuclear deterrent sails on… for now

So, the United Kingdom’s nuclear deterrent force lives on. If Labour had secured a victory in the General Election then Vanguard Class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) may have continued to prowl the sea but they would have been instantly emasculated. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s admission to the world that he would never press the red button meant that in effect, it was game over as soon as he crossed the threshold of 10 Downing Street.

With Jeremy Corbyn replacing Theresa May as Prime Minister the programme to construct four new Dreadnought Class future SSBNs would probably have been cancelled within weeks, if not days. This would have left the construction yard at Barrow-in-Furness, refit centre at Devonport in Plymouth and home base on the Clyde bereft of work and the nation naked of a nuclear umbrella for the first time since 1968. In any event, the Tories secured the most seats in the House of Commons, though not an overall majority, so Mr Corbyn’s unilateral nuclear disarmament was not enacted.

The day Theresa May announced her intention to limp on as PM, propped up by the ten MPs of Ulster’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), was the 58th anniversary of the US Navy’s – and the world’s – first SSBN being launched at Groton. The USS George Washington was packed with 16 Polaris missiles, representing a quantum leap in naval destructive power. The Russians had already sent short-range ballistic missiles to sea but in diesel-electric boats, which were easily detected and forced to the surface. The Soviet Navy’s Hotel Class boats (the first of which was not launched until October 1959) were SSBNs but carried only three missiles.

From that time on the missile-carrying submarines of the USA, UK and France and Russians played a key role in maintaining the balance of terror, via Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). Their deployments prevented the outbreak of another world war that could have killed tens of millions, although, should they ever have launched missiles, they would probably have wiped out all humanity.

With the Cold War over, for more than 20 years the SSBNs of the Royal Navy and other fleets have continued the Continuous at Sea Deterrent (CASD), as have those of the other nuclear submarine nations, while the Indians and Chinese are today also sending SSBNs to sea. Along with land-based Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM) and air-launched nukes the SSBNs still maintain an uneasy balance of terror though not quite on the same knife-edge as exhibited during the Cold War.

While maintaining UK Government commitment to new Dreadnought Class SSBNs, Theresa May seems publicly not overly concerned about the alarming decline in the rest of the Royal Navy, a key part of the UK’s conventional deterrence. The British fleet is carrying the burden of introducing two new massive aircraft carriers into service with fewer sailors and Royal Marines, along with reduced budget, weakened escort and submarine forces. It is an imbalanced fleet lacking critical mass though it does have some impressive capital ships.

If Mrs May is to retain any credibility on defence matters she must restore some balance to the UK’s navy and that means a fully-fledged, carefully thought out warships construction strategy rapidly implemented. After all, if Australia and Canada can in the past few weeks introduce ambitious plans for naval expansion, why can’t Brexit Britain?

Victorious Labour politicians must wear a crown of thorns

While there was much talk about the votes of students and other young people being essential to the election of Labour MPs in Plymouth and Portsmouth there had to be another factor, too. In both those English south coast cities Conservative MPs lost their seats to vigorous Labour opponents committed to a strong naval base and dockyard in each city, displaying a more energetic awareness of naval matters.

Luke Pollard, the new MP for Plymouth Sutton and Devonport – born in the city with a submariner father who worked in the dockyard after retiring from the Service – said in the warm glow of his election that he would fight to ensure the Labour Party leader gives up his anti-Trident stance. While it is Labour Party policy to retain and regenerate the sea-based deterrent force, it is hard to imagine that Mr Corbyn would not expend every effort if he ever becomes PM to get rid of Trident.

With tens of thousands of jobs in Plymouth, the South West of England and elsewhere in the UK depending on SSBN refit work at Devonport Mr Pollard is compelled to fight for Trident. However, Mr Pollard faces a tricky dilemma: To get elected he pursued the vote of young people who were born well after the Cold War and mostly abhor nuclear weapons.

Should Labour ever become the party of Government it will probably disband the deterrent force, destroying economy of Plymouth and making many people redundant in a part of the world where skilled, highly paid jobs are already thin on the ground. Many of those who voted for Mr Pollard will applaud such a move while others will not. One way of course for the Devonport MP to ensure the city does not suffer quite so much pain if Trident is axed is to fight for more frigates to be built for the Navy. It needs more than the eight Type 26s and five Type 31s promised by the May government. Devonport Naval Base has always traditionally been the main home for new frigates, so surely stands to benefit most (especially with Portsmouth getting the new destroyers and carriers and Clyde the new submarines).

Even so, building more frigates – with probably some based in Hampshire – would also help Portsmouth survive the loss of the new super-carriers Queen Elizabeth and Prince of Wales, which will surely be on the hit list of Mr Corbyn should he ever become PM. The two new 65,000 tonnes strike carriers are designed to project the kind of raw destructive power Mr Corbyn wants Britain to never use. He famously desires bombing of all kinds by everybody on the planet to stop, which in an ideal world is a laudable aim (as is getting rid of all nuclear weapons). Sadly the world doesn’t work that way and sometimes strike carriers are very useful in defending a nation from overseas foes by bombing them. There is every chance the new MP for Portsmouth South, Stephen Morgan, could find himself fighting to keep Portsmouth Naval Base strong while Prime Minister Corbyn seeks to scrap the very ships that make it so.

These are complex and interesting times in the UK and the Royal Navy remains fundamental to safeguarding the seas along with British interests and citizens around the world. What kind of Navy Britain might have by the end of this year remains very much to be seen. Should a weak Mrs May be evicted as Tory leader and another General Election result in Labour victory, the much prized vessels the new Labour MPs in Portsmouth and Plymouth must fight to preserve could well be on the chopping block.

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