Trident – The Issues

What is the thinking behind Trident and what keeps it relevant?

The following page is very long and we apologise for its complicated nature. Suffice to say, we at TNPP are in favour of keeping Trident for the foreseeable future until such a time as the thinking of our neighbours and allies has grown enough to warrant removing Trident from our shores. This page highlights the common view of Trident as superfluous in the current era, and even though the obvious high-level idea behind nuclear missiles being no more a deterrent than hanging was, we think it is in our best interests to keep Trident active for one more term.

Please read on and make up your own mind. The above is not to say that a referendum on Trident by the people would not see us keeping it in place should public opinion be against this.

Since 1969, according to government documents, a British submarine carrying nuclear weapons has always been on patrol, gliding silently beneath the waves, somewhere in the world’s oceans.

The logic is to deter a nuclear attack on the UK because, even if the nation’s conventional defence capabilities were destroyed, the silent submarine would still be able to launch a catastrophic retaliatory strike on the aggressor, a concept known as mutually assured destruction.

The submarines carry up to eight Trident missiles. Each can be fitted with a number of warheads, which can be directed at different targets.

Each of the four submarines carries a sealed “letter of last resort” in the prime minister’s hand, containing instructions to follow if the UK has been devastated by a nuclear strike and the government annihilated.

What is Trident’s history?

It was acquired by the Thatcher government in the early 1980s as a replacement for the Polaris missile system which the UK had possessed since the 1960s.

Trident then came into use in the 1990s. There are three parts to Trident – submarines, missiles and warheads. Although each component has years of use left, they cannot last indefinitely. The current generation of four submarines would begin to end their working lives some time in the late 2020s.

Work on a replacement cannot be delayed because the submarines alone could take up to 17 years to develop. Only one submarine is on patrol at any one time and it needs several days’ notice to fire.

What will MPs be voting on?

The motion to be moved by Prime Minister Theresa May supports:

  • The government’s assessment that the UK’s “independent minimum credible nuclear deterrent” based on continuous at-sea deployment will remain essential to the UK’s security;
  • The decision to take the necessary steps required to maintain the current posture by replacing the Vanguard Class submarines;
  • The importance of the replacement programme to the UK’s defence industrial base and in supporting thousands of highly skilled engineering jobs;
  • Government commitment to reduce its overall nuclear weapon stockpile by the mid-2020s and press for “key steps towards multilateral disarmament”.

Where do the political parties stand?

Conservative Theresa May said shortly before she became prime minister that there should be a vote in the House of Commons on replacing the Trident fleet before the summer recess and it would be “sheer madness” to give up the UK’s nuclear weapons because of the threat posed by other countries including Russia. Renewing Trident would show Britain was “committed” to working with Nato allies after voting for Brexit, she added. Replacing Trident was a Tory manifesto pledge in the general election.

Labour Most Labour MPs are expected to vote for the Commons motion on renewal – although the party’s stance has been overshadowed by long-time opponent of nuclear weapons, Jeremy Corbyn, becoming its leader. Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry, who conducted the party’s review of the nuclear weapons issue, has said the party’s view of replacement is “in flux” and criticised the government’s decision to hold a vote without a “proper response” on cost and other concerns.

The SNP, which has 54 MPs in the House of Commons, opposes Trident renewal. During the election campaign it described Trident as “unusable and indefensible – and the plans to renew it ludicrous on both defence and financial grounds”.

The Lib Dems, who insisted on no final decision being taken while they were in coalition, have always been sceptical about a like-for-like replacement and insisted on a value for money review. They back a “step down the nuclear ladder” with a smaller nuclear weapons system providing a “minimal yet credible” deterrent.

How much will replacement cost?

According to Rusi’s Andrea Berger the government says it needs £31bn over the lifetime of the programme, including adjustment for inflation over that period, and an additional £10bn as a “contingency”.

Campaign group Greenpeace claims it will run to at least £34bn once extra costs like VAT are factored in. The Lib Dems say ordering fewer submarines would save up to £4bn in the long term but Conservatives have rejected this – saying the savings made would be “trivial” in respect of the Ministry of Defence’s annual £34bn budget.

Labour’s shadow defence team have called for more transparency in the government’s estimates, including what the £10bn “contingency” cash will be spent on.

Currently, the government is spending around 6% of its annual defence budget on Trident, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) has confirmed.

What are the alternatives?

Trident’s ballistic missiles have a long range, of up to 7,500 miles. One alternative that has been suggested is using cruise missiles based on different submarines. But cruise missiles have a far shorter range, of over 1,000 miles, and are slower and vulnerable to being shot down. The government review concluded this would actually cost more than renewing Trident in its current form, since the UK might have to bear all the research and development costs of its own programme.

Others have suggested using a land-based delivery system, to avoid the cost of building new submarines. That has been rejected in the past as too vulnerable to attack and impractical although the 2013 options review said this could potentially be mitigated by having fewer “silo” sites that were more strategically located.

Some say it would be cheaper to launch missiles from a long-range aircraft. However, the shorter range would again be an issue – and the aircraft could be brought down. The review said “much more work” would be needed on such an idea.

How do Britain’s nuclear weapons compare with others?

The UK is the only nuclear weapons state that deploys submarines as its sole nuclear weapons delivery platform.

Other countries use multiple platforms. The United States has all submarines, bombers and silo-based Continental Ballistic Missiles.

France has planes and submarines; China has a mix of road mobile missiles as well as a backup role for nuclear aircraft, and is moving towards deploying submarines in the future as well.

Are Britain’s nuclear weapons independent?

Past prime ministers have always stressed Trident’s independence, saying its firing does not require the permission, the satellites or the codes of the US.

However, critics argue Britain is technically so dependent on the US that in effect Trident is not an independent system. For example, the British Trident missiles are serviced at a port in the Georgia, US, and some warhead components are also made in America.

As part of the renewal, common missile compartment systems that could be fitted into both UK and US submarines are set to be developed as a means of saving money.

It could be argued that having a powerful nuclear ally in the US, Britain does not need an atomic weapons system of its own.

But Andrea Berger of Rusi says some believe the decisions taken by an adversary are made harder if countries which are allied and have common strategic outlook are nevertheless able to take decisions independently.

The Case Against – from CND’s web site

The government wants to buy new nuclear weapons to replace the current one – Trident – at a cost of at least £205 billion. This money should be spent on jobs, homes, education and health, improving the lives of the British people without threatening the lives of others.

Trident is made up of four submarines – one of which is on patrol at all times – carrying up to 40 nuclear warheads on board. Each of these warheads is eight times more powerful than the atomic bomb which was dropped on Hiroshima.

Former Prime Minister Tony Blair, one of the biggest supporters of replacing Trident in 2007, has admitted that the only purpose of maintaining the nuclear weapons system is to give Britain status.

Trident and legality

These weapons have no legitimate purpose: their use would be illegal under almost every conceivable circumstance, as huge numbers of civilian casualties would be unavoidable. That is why the International Court of Justice ruled in 1996 the threat or use of nuclear weapons would be contrary to the rules of international law.

Trident and security

Not only are these weapons immoral, potentially genocidal and strategically irrelevant in the face of the realistic threats we face today, they are also hugely expensive. The Government’s National Security Strategy identifies international terrorism, cyber-attacks and natural hazards as greater threats than nuclear war.

Trident and its cost

The government is in favour of replacing Trident at a cost of at least £205 billion. This money would be enough to improve the NHS by building 120 state of the art hospitals and employing 150,000 new nurses, build 3 million affordable homes, install solar panels in every home in the UK or pay the tuition fees for 8 million students.

Trident and the election

Trident was a major point of debate in the 2015 General Election, with the spectactular gains of the Scottish National Party (SNP) a stark indicator of opposition to nuclear weapons in Scotland. The Scottish people are joined by millions all over the UK who want to see an end to Trident.

These Five Arguments are being Ignored by the Media

by Lori Inglis Hall

The renewal of Trident looks set to become the political melodrama of this Parliament. On one side is the PM, defender of our land, arguing that the need for a nuclear deterrent has actuallyincreased since the end of the Cold War. He’s supported by a large proportion of the Parliamentary Labour Party.

On the other side is Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, Vice President of CND, long-time Pacifist and, if certain sections of the Press are to be believed, the most dangerous man in politics, intent on disarming our borders, destroying all that is good and true about this beloved Nation of ours, and launching us headfirst into a 1970’s dystopian cold war world in which we will all be forced to speak Russian, or live under Sharia Law. Or something.

That is if we haven’t all been obliterated in a nuclear apocalypse and all because we gave up our independent deterrent.

Corbyn is supported by the Greens and the SNP, the latter rubbing their hands together in glee at the mere thought of the spat this is already causing in the higher echelons of the Labour Party.

We’ve all seen the headlines, and the spin from Conservative HQ. We live in an increasingly dangerous world and the only thing standing between us and oblivion is four vanguard submarines floating about off the coast of Scotland. But as with anything, this is not a clear cut issue. Here are five arguments against Trident the mainstream press are trying to ignore.

1. TRIDENT IS NOT A DETERRENT 

Back in 2009 Field Marshall Lord Bramell, former head of the Armed Forces, and two senior Generals wrote to The Times and denounced Trident as ‘completely useless against modern warfare’, calling instead for the money to be spent on much-needed conventional weaponry.

    “NUCLEAR WEAPONS HAVE SHOWN THEMSELVES TO BE COMPLETELY USELESS AS A DETERRENT TO THE THREATS AND SCALE OF VIOLENCE WE CURRENTLY FACE OR ARE LIKELY TO FACE, PARTICULARLY INTERNATIONAL TERRORISM … OUR INDEPENDENT DETERRENT HAS BECOME ­VIRTUALLY IRRELEVANT, EXCEPT IN THE CONTEXT OF DOMESTIC POLITICS.”

It’s a similar argument to the one used by Jeremy Corbyn in his controversial interview with the BBC’s Laura Kuenssburg, in which he stated he would not be prepared to use nuclear weapons if he became PM.

“WE ARE NOT UNDER THREAT FROM ANY NUCLEAR POWER. WE ARE UNDER THREAT FROM INSTABILITY, YES, THERE IS A TERRORIST ISSUE AROUND THE WORLD. LISTEN, THE NUCLEAR WEAPONS THAT THE UNITED STATES HOLD, ALL THE HUNDREDS IF NOT THOUSANDS OF WARHEADS THEY’VE GOT WERE NO HELP TO THEM ON 9/11.”

What’s more, former Conservative Defence Minister Michael Portillo has made pretty much the same point.

2. TRIDENT IS NOT INDEPENDENT

Ah yes, Britain’s ‘independent nuclear deterrent’ – how many times have we heard that? And it is, as turns out, yet another triumph of spin over substance.

While the Trident submarines are produced by BAE Systems in Scotland, and the warheads produced at the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment in Berkshire, the actual missiles are manufactured in the USA.

The maintenance programme is also run by the US, with a pool of missiles held at the US Strategic Weapons facility at King’s Bay, Georgia, USA, from which the US itself and Britain draw serviced missiles as required.

So operationally independent – perhaps – we don’t know unless we launch one and we’d have to be bonkers to do that. But we are completely dependent on the USA for the most crucial part of our ‘independent’ nuclear deterrent.

Which is absolutely fine as long as the UK keeps lolloping alongside US foreign policy like an eager puppy, anxious for a pat on the head. But what happens if the UK Government ever decides to take a divergent route? (Stop laughing, it could happen.)

3. TRIDENT IS A WASTE OF MONEY

We heard earlier from Lord Bramell, who argued in 2009 that the renewal of trident was a £20bn ‘waste of money’, an argument supported by former Conservative Defence Minister Michael Portillo.

Figures released this week show that the cost of renewing Trident has risen to £176bn, according to IMF growth forecasts, almost double previous estimates. That’s £25bn for four new submarines in a like-for-like replacement, plus maintenance of the system over its lifetime, which would eat up a whopping 6% of the annual defence budget. And lest we forget, Minsters have pledged to hold at 2% of GDP.

To put this into context, the annual NHS budget for 2015/6 was £115.4bn.

4. JUST HAVING A NUCLEAR DETERRENT PUTS US AT RISK

Especially as we don’t appear to be particularly good at securing it.

Earlier this year, Whistle-blower William McNeilly revealed serious security breaches around Trident. In his published dossier, McNeilly exposed a grave lack of security measures at the Scottish base, such as such as the failure to check passes, or to search contractors entering the supposedly secure base.

He also revealed a serious sense of complacency amongst the crews of the vanguard submarines, with one missile compartment used as a gym, despite the close proximity of nuclear weapons, and spoke of personnel deviating from set procedures because they can be “long and winding.”

Which begs the question, who is really at risk from Britain’s nuclear weapons?

5. SPEAKING OF RISK….WE’RE OUTSOURCING OUR NUCLEAR INFRASTRUCTURE TO CHINA

Security sources and Conservative Politicians were among those raising concerns at plans to use Chinese funding towards the building of a new nuclear power station in Somerset (in partnership for French energy giant EDF). The deal, the brainchild of Chancellor George Osborne, would pave the way for further Chinese investment in Britain’s nuclear infrastructure

The deal will give China, well known for its cyber espionage, a unique insight into the vulnerabilities of one the UK’s most sensitive industries, with senior UK defence and security sources reportedly anxious that the Chinese could insert ‘backdoors’ into IT systems, allowing them access to classified information.

What say you, the British public?