John Harbour Talk

Trident in a MAD World

Commander John Harbour RN Retired, hit the ground running with his talk on the UK’s ‘Continuous at Sea Deterrent’ (CASD); ie our nuclear submarine Trident defence force.  To give authority to his talk, John briefly explained that he had joined the Navy as a boy at 16, had been around the world twice and had served in most parts of the Navy.  Nonetheless he admitted that his first two week acquaintance course on a diesel submarine early in his career made him declare that he’d leave Her Majesty’s Senior Service if ever asked to serve in one of these vessels again!  John’s subsequent successful career showed that this hadn’t done any harm to his promotion prospects.  Thus having established his naval credentials, he sketched out the history and context of our CASD.

John showed a map of the unstable parts of the world.  This flagged up places like North Korea, Pakistan, Iran, many countries in Africa, Venezuela and Bolivia.  While the ‘hotspot’ map didn’t surprise, when John started addressing national military budgets, it was a revelation.  North Korea spends 25% of its GDP on its military as against 2% for the UK, 3% for the USA and 4.5% for Russia our post war adversary.  So it is hardly a surprise that the people of North Korea are impoverished.  Without dwelling on it, John demonstrated that the world is a dangerous place and there is a continuing need for a military defence.

Post WW2 military strategy was largely dictated by the Cold War.  For us Russia was the immediate enemy faced by NATO of which the UK was part.  Britain’s early contribution in the 1950s was its V-Bomber force of Victor, Valiant and Vulcan Bombers.  John revealed that the US stopped sharing nuclear technology after the war but, once Britain successfully exploded a hydrogen bomb in the Pacific, the US let us into the ‘Club’.  Nothing stands still, however, and by the 1960s surface to air missile technology and intercontinental ballistic missiles were becoming much more sophisticated and accurate.  This increasingly made aircraft and missile bases vulnerable and led to the development of a submarine sea based system which could launch missiles underwater against any target in the world.  In 1962 the McMillan government did a deal with the US for their Polaris System.  The US Holy Loch base was part of that deal.  This system provided the UK with a ‘Second Strike’ capability.  That is, a supplement to tactical or battlefield ‘First Strike’ capability in Europe.

Still, even the Polaris System became challenged over time as the Russians developed ever more sophisticated anti-missile systems.  This resulted in the need for regular upgrades over time until Polaris was replaced with the Trident System in the 1980s.  Although the CASD, driven by financial considerations, relies on US missile systems, the UK have designed and developed its own warheads and nuclear submarines.  Here John put to bed the myth that Britain has to get US permission to launch its nuclear missiles. Basically the missiles are owned and operated by the UK without interference.

As the end of the 1980s approached, the unexpected happened, Perestroika! John called it a ‘nice disaster’.  It was accompanied with a sense of relief that the Cold War was over.  The new era even heralded visits by Russians to NATO HQ.  Something unimaginable a few years before.  The ‘Peace Dividend’ was visible in the disappearance of the Holy Loch Base and the withdrawal of troops from Europe.  Even the submarine fleet’s missiles had to be de-targeted.

A time then to abandon nuclear weapons?  John had made the point that once the nuclear genie was out the bottle, there is no going back.  However, it’s clear that the issue of the validity of such weapons of mass destruction in a civilised world lingers on in members’ minds.  On this point John observed that one never knows when there’s going to be another ‘nutcase’.  This author could immediately picture Donald Trump’s meeting with Kim Jong Un as well as Iran’s present rush to get nuclear material for weapons.  However, this discussion resonated with John’s observation that the UK’s current policy position hinges on multilateral disarmament.  Perhaps a classic example of there’s no right answer.

So the Royal Navy continue to provide a Continuous at Sea Deterrent.  One Trident nuclear sub is always on patrol with 16 multiple head missiles with a range of 4,500 miles while another undergoes maintenance and the other two are on standby.  Each patrol lasts an average of 15 weeks and the sub is submerged for the whole voyage.  Surprisingly most of the men have no idea where they are.  However, a lot of effort goes into to maintaining the men’s morale at sea – games, movies, tombola, good food and Tunnock’s caramel wafers and tea cakes.  One further key morale booster is the regular telegram-like 50 word messages from family received through the 3 kilometre long aerial trailing behind the submerged sub to receive radio signals.

We are reassured that a nuclear missile can only be launched on the authorisation of the Prime Minister (or his designated survivor) and that three people on board are needed to actually carry out the launch.  In the event hostilities have broken out and no communication received from base, the Captain must follow a set range of options.  These include doing nothing, retaliating or ‘something else’ but John hinted that he’d have to kill us if he told us any more!

There’s no time here to capture all that John had shared.  Torpedoes with a range of 40 miles (a bit different than the 1500 yards on WW2 Das Boot type subs!), Gatling Guns capable of firing a wall of lead at incoming missiles, the Commanding Officer’s challenges on patrol not being greatly different from Admiral Nelson’s day, underwater contour line navigation, the arrival of women in the crew, the growing influence of China, the advantages of Faslane being close to deep water and family farewells from Rhu Spit when the nuclear sub sets off on patrol.  John’s talk was extremely interesting and spoken with conviction.

Finally John shared with us that he is an active tour guide in his retirement.  With the lockdown cramping his activities he has created virtual tours.  So if anyone is interested in joining John on a trip around Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park on 26th or 27 February, then they can find tickets to the event here :  There is a small charge which goes towards the video and drone footage that is shot by a professional cinematographer.  See also John’s Exclusive Scottish Visits website :

John Harbour Talk