Smart Defense: A Eurosubmarine

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Trafalgar Class submarine SSN (Ship Submersible Nuclear) HMS Triumph. Photo: Ben Sutton/UK Ministry of Defence

Amidst the financial crisis, European nations have attempted to consolidate resources to tailor their defense capabilities to more efficiently meet the emerging security challenges. Cooperation has become the buzz-word in Europe, with the EU’s Pooling and Sharing Initiative and NATO’s Smart Defense both emphasizing the notion of “doing more with less.” In his opening remarks at the NATO Defense Minister’s meetings in October, Secretary General Rasmussen outlined more multinational teamwork as the solution to spending scarce resources more effectively. On NATO’s Industry Day, he called for industry to propose multinational solutions, instead of individual ones. Yet despite the high level guidance, effective cooperation on long-term capabilities remains elusive.

Albeit long-term capabilities pose significant challenges, cooperation on them is not implausible. The British ballistic nuclear submarine fleet is in need of replacement, and France’s fleet will soon follow course. In today’s resource-scarce and cooperation-prone environment, their futures could converge into a single co-produced platform. This “Eurosubmarine” might initially be designed to fully replace each nations fleet in an economical way, but if the political climate changes, it could emerge as a shared platform, housing two sovereign sets of nuclear missiles, or even as a joint European nuclear deterrent.

Defense cooperation between France and the UK is not unheard of; in fact, the two kick-started the EU’s common security and defense policy with their declaration at St. Malo. Former French President Sarkozy went further by claiming that threats to the vital interests of one country are also threats to the vital interests of the other. Even though the idea of joint patrols of nuclear submarines was not backed by political will two years ago, severe economic constraints, new high-level political guidance, and the growing strength of the nuclear abolitionist movement warrant a review of this policy.

Co-production of the replacement nuclear submarine is a logical solution. Design and production could be done jointly by French DCNS and British BAE Systems, and costs split between British and French defense budgets. As the French and British fleets were launched within three years of each other and followed similar production timelines, the Eurosubmarines would be able to alternate in replacing those closest to retirement. If the nations decide to adjust their deterrence posture and share submarines, further cooperation would offer multiple benefits: reinforcement of France’s and the UK’s commitment to decreasing their reliance on nuclear weapons; display of meaningful commitment to the pursuit of a world free of nuclear weapons; and further political integration of Europe. The co-designed Eurosubmarines would provide more production and implementation options at any level for future political leaders.

As both fleets currently deploy four active submarines, with no changes in deterrence postures, eight new replacement Eurosubmarines would have to be built. Any level of sharing would bring about a reduction in that number. At an intermediate level of cooperation, the two states may maintain separate fleets of two-to-three submarines and only share those not on patrol, only drawing on shared submarines in case of technical difficulties with primary submarines. Multiple variations of this primary-secondary submarine fleet can be envisioned, depending on national cost-benefit analyses. Additionally, a shared submarine could also entail the sharing of the platform, with the submarine carrying both French and British nuclear missiles under the sovereign command of their nations. Finally, cutting total production in half, the United Kingdom and France could embark on a joint nuclear submarine fleet that would serve as the deterrent force for both nations.

Cooperation of such magnitude, despite its advantages, faces significant challenges both on the national and international levels. Even though the NPT does not prohibit sharing of technology between nuclear weapon states, other prestige considerations might impede France and the UK from doing so. France is currently not part of NATO’s Nuclear Planning Group, but France’s goal of creating the conditions necessary for a world without nuclear weapons is aligned with the 2010 NATO Strategic Concept and British defense policy statements as well. France and Britain also currently deploy different missiles and warheads, but the Euro-submarine could be made to launch both, or a replacement Euro-missile could be designed. All these, and other technical and procedural differences, are surmountable challenges but must be weighed against the benefits of cooperation.

Whichever route the two nations and NATO at large decide to pursue, a co-produced nuclear submarine is a logical, cost-effective measure to take within the motto of Smart Defence that is able to accommodate future political realities. The endeavor requires myriad technical and political compromises before implementation, but the possibilities within the Eurosubmarines are sufficient to match the challenges. The question remains whether France and the United Kingdom, and NATO in general, are satisfied with the nuclear status quo or are looking to take steps to shape our nuclear future.

Balazs Martonffy is a recent graduate of the University of Denver and currently an intern at NATO. The views expressed are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent official opinion or policy of member governments, or of NATO. This article was originally published by and is republished here with its generous permission.

For additional reading on this topic please see:
In Search Of Smart Defense in the Euro-Atlantic Area
EU Defence Policy after Chicago: Going Smart?
The EU between Pooling & Sharing and Smart Defence

For more information on issues and events that shape our world please visit the ISN’s featured editorial content and Security Watch.

One reply on “Smart Defense: A Eurosubmarine”

There will be issues around how the build would be split between the two countries for starters. Both will want as much of the work as possible and if, for example, only 5 or 6 submarines are built, there will be less to go round than if both built 4 each. This could be a particular problem for the UK as the Trident replacement submarines are meant to bridge the gap between the Astute SSN and future SSN programmes. If they are only going to build 2-3 new boats instead of 4, there may not be enough work to keep the build stream going. This is less of a problem for France as they build SSKs for export.

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