Blog: The Impact of Emerging Technologies on the Future of SSBNs

Share

On the 13th September, BASIC, British Pugwash and the University of Leicester hosted a conference at the National Liberal Club, London on emerging undersea technologies and how they could affect the operation of ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs). Experts from science and technology, the defence and security community, think tanks, civil society and the media were all invited to contribute to discussions about how the latest advances in acoustic and non-acoustic detection and unmanned vehicle technology could affect sea-based deterrence strategies.

The conference ended with no clear consensus on the issues, though some trends began to crystallise. Further, while BASIC’s interest on emerging undersea technologies initially took root around the idea that they might pose a potent hazard to (or even render obsolete) the new Successor SSBN programme, which Parliament recently voted through to replace the Vanguard-class, engagement with the issues at stake has thrown up new avenues for research.

This outcome was anticipated: the conference was designed as an interdisciplinary and pluralistic space, in which an issue that rarely makes it into public discourse could be seriously and properly interrogated. As technology advances at a breakneck pace, this conference and the ideas it sparks should be considered not the end of the matter, but the start of a new course of public engagement with SSBN vulnerability. That emerging undersea technologies were able to draw such interest and attention in a UK conference should also serve to prove that similar discussions in other nuclear-armed states would be fruitful and cross-pollinating.

A full outcome document will be available in the coming weeks, and therefore, this blog post will not detail the various arguments and technologies presented. It will draw together some thoughts on just two arguments: that emerging technologies will affect the Successor-programme, and that they will affect strategic stability.

Vulnerability of the Successor-class:

Most panellists seemed unconvinced that emerging undersea technologies would be a ‘make or break’ issue for the Successor-programme, and some expressed that even if highly-sensitive, highly-autonomous technologies were to be developed, SSBNs would remain the most secure nuclear weapons delivery platform. The Successor-class will be among the hardest submarines to find, exhibiting exceptional stealth technologies and manned by commanders trained in the UK’s world leading ‘Perisher’ programme. By contrast, Russia has shown limited capabilities in unmanned vehicle technologies, and while China has shown greater capabilities, its efforts have been primarily concentrated on defending coastal waters.

Nevertheless, there was general consensus that emerging undersea technologies have the potential to be highly disruptive and should be closely monitored, both by government and civil society. That a suspected Russian submarine was spotted in waters near Faslane last year demonstrates that, even at present, Britain’s sole SSBN base can be held at risk; smaller unmanned craft would surely be even less detectable. The deep anxieties about SSBN vulnerability to emerging technologies in the last two decades of the Cold War demonstrates that the concepts of SSBN ‘invulnerability’ and ‘invisibility’ has been socially constructed in the last 30 years, as political device designed to sell nuclear weapons to the British public. These concepts are psychically comforting, whether or not one believes that nuclear weapons have salience.

High levels of classification and the inaccessibility of the technical material make it difficult for civil society to monitor SSBN vulnerability. However, experts from the nuclear weapons establishment at the conference made it clear that SSBN invulnerability is generally not taken for granted, but factored into a wider calculus of risk management. Likewise, the armed forces and arms companies are perpetually engaged in developing innovative ways to preserve stealth, detect opponents or counteract detection. Public discourse in academia and the media should reflect this, with a paradigm shift in thinking that switches the assumption from SSBN ‘invulnerability’ to ‘potential vulnerability’.

Implications of emerging undersea technologies upon strategic stability:

Emerging undersea technologies could also pose hazards when used ‘by us’. The US leads in undersea technologies, the benefits of which will be felt by other NATO states; the UK, for instance, will likely be able to import many US technologies at a bargain price, as it has previously. An alternative approach, therefore, is to question how states such as Russia could feel threatened by deployments of these technologies by NATO, and how they could affect strategic stability. Political tensions would be likely to rise if autonomous trailing platforms are produced in large numbers and set to trail Russian SSBNs, particularly in the context of other technologies that Russia perceives damage its strategic parity and secure second-strike potential, such as NATO missile defence systems in Eastern Europe. The growth in popularity of the ‘strategic superiority’ doctrine in Washington offers little comfort that these technologies will be given exclusively defensive deployments.

Similar tensions could arise from US deployments in the Pacific Ocean affecting China; Chinese deployments in the South China Sea affecting surrounding countries and the US; Chinese deployments in the Indian Ocean affecting India; Indian deployments in the Indian Ocean affecting Pakistan; and Japanese or South Korean deployments in the Sea of Japan, affecting the DPRK. Assessing the technical capabilities of these states, and how these situations could play out, offers a wealth of research potential.

Conclusions

BASIC will continue to nourish a healthy debate about the relative vulnerability to emerging undersea technologies of the UK Successor, and seek to inspire similar conversations about the US SSBN(X), the future French Triomphant replacement, and other states’ SSBNs. Even if these technologies do not change the game in an obvious way in the next two decades, the pace of technological change, the ongoing proliferation of these technologies in the civilian sphere across the globe (which could easily find military applications), and the decreasing costs of production will certainly warrant serious vigilance and investigation.

It is hoped that attendees who came with hard ideas about SSBN invulnerability left with a more realistic and nuanced assessment of the risks and felt positively about citizen engagement, and that others felt that evidence-based concerns about vulnerability were acknowledged. The kind of cooperation and engagement exhibited at the conference between the state and the public, with a topic predominantly discussed behind closed doors, offers opportunities to improve and democratise decision-making on security policy. As the discourse develops, it will be important to flesh out the catch-all of ‘emerging undersea technologies’, and focus not only upon the technology itself but also deployment patterns, countermeasures and state behaviours.

UPDATE: Read the full reports by clicking the images below:

     

 

About the author(s)...
  • Sebastian Brixey-Williams, Project Leader is a Project Leader at BASIC.
  • Click the author's name to view their profile and content