Britain’s inevitable renewal of the Trident II system, the sole weapon in its nuclear deterrent, is perhaps the most contentious issue in British defense policy.
At a time of budget cuts across nearly all government departments, the Ministry of Defense has faced difficult decisions. Among a myriad of cuts, it has phased out the Harrier and Nimrod aircraft without replacements; is in the process of slashing the numbers of serving personnel and has overseen the reduction of the Royal Navy to a similar size as maritime heavyweight Italy.
The commitment to Trident was never at risk, however, despite Liberal Democrat involvement in the coalition government.
The continuous at-sea deterrence posture has been in place since the first Resolution class boats, armed with Polaris missiles, went on patrol in 1968.
The system relies on four submarines rotating between patrol, refit and maintenance and training. This has become the basis of the British deterrent. At least one ballistic missile submarine is always at sea, ready to rein fire and brimstone on those who have struck British interests, presumably with the weapons of mass destruction that we should all stay awake in fear of.
The first Vanguard submarine armed with Trident II undertook its maiden patrol in 1994. Three more submarines followed and each is armed, while on patrol at least, with sixteen Trident II missiles. They are believed to carry a maximum of 48 warheads per boat, ranging in yield to allow a flexible response to all eventualities.
This assumes that the United Kingdom has an independent launch capability. There is some speculation as to the independence of the deterrent and while there is no confirmation on whether Britain could use the missiles at will, it is widely believed that systems exist to prevent launches that might conflict with American interests.
So does Britain need to renew the Trident system, would it be better off adopting a different deterrent posture or should it unilaterally disarm?
Supporters of the renewal argue that Trident offers a guaranteed second-strike capability and that, as a result, it would be foolish in an ever uncertain world to abandon its deterrent.
Concerns over Iran’s alleged nuclear weapon program and scaremongering over its potential missile developments are often at the forefront of this argument. Prime Minister David Cameron also used North Korea’s latest test as evidence to support this case. Others yet argue that China and Russia are developing newer and more advanced weapons. Britain, then, cannot fall behind.
Among numerous counterarguments to this stance, one must question why any of the aforementioned “pariah states” should wish to launch a nuclear attack on Britain, why it is assumed that Britain’s NATO allies would opt to sit back and accept the attack and not respond and what the effect of Britain’s measly 48 warheads in response could be — assuming that it can respond independently?
It is also argued that Trident is far superior to any other deterrent option. A submarine silently operating at sea could lurk within thousands of miles of any potential target and remain completely undetected prior to launching its payload. The missiles are allegedly immune to countermeasures as well as anti-ballistic missile technology while alternate forms of delivering a nuclear warhead could be countered.
While it is undoubtedly a capable system, Trident is not without its flaws.
There is nothing to say that China or Russia won’t develop a competent and robust anti-ballistic missile system in the future that will negate Britain’s meager deterrent, undermining a multibillion pound investment and rendering the country impotent to respond to threats from those countries.
At this point Britain could always carry out a Chevaline-esque update, though based on the experience of this Cold War project it would likely deliver minor improvement at significant cost.
Moreover, there is no way to recall or self-destruct Trident missile after launch, meaning any mistake on launch is irreversible. With cruise missiles or aircraft there would be a way to prevent a disastrous accident.
Perhaps the most important reason for renewing Trident, in typical British fashion, is jobs.
With the Astute submarine program coming to an end after what seemed like an eternity of problem plagued design and construction, British submarine building will be at a loose end.
While France and Germany have highly competitive products on offer for export, Britain has chosen to build for its domestic requirements alone. As a result, obscenely expensive, long-delayed, error-strewn designs have sufficed through a lack of alternatives and BAE Systems has a monopoly in the national submarine industry. Thousands of jobs depend on the company churning out boats for the Royal Navy. If the government decided against renewal, the industry would die.
This is not unusual.
Rather than buy its Apache helicopters direct from America’s Boeing, the British government decided to pay more than three times the market price for the helicopters in order to employ less than a thousand workers.
The A400M transport aircraft swallows up vast sums of taxpayers’ money for little return but crucially employs less than a thousand workers at Filton.
When it comes to safeguarding jobs in manufacturing, cost and capability mean very little. One need look no further than the Eurofighter project for proof.
So we have seen the arguments for Trident and some of the counterarguments. What of the arguments against it?
Largely these revolve around cost. Realistic figures for the project haven’t been published. Estimates range from £15 to over £100 billion.
However, a lawmaker recently claimed that the deterrent costs 5 percent of the current defense budget, or £1.7 billion per year. A replacement will remain in service for at least 32 years, although this assumes there are no delays — and there probably will be.
Operating costs alone are thus at least £54.4 billion. Factoring in the costs already paid, designing the boats — likely to cost several billion pounds — this figure begins to creep closer to £80 billion.
In the United States, price escalation is threatening the Ohio replacement project. Quite how Britain expects to be able to do what the United States is struggling to financially justify is mystifying. Perhaps both countries could cooperate in a bid to drive down costs.
Other options, such as inserting a missile compartment into an Astute, cutting the fleet down to three instead of four submarines or basing the deterrent on cruise missiles have all been discussed, however, the government is keen to have a like-for-like replacement, presumably to safeguard jobs at Barrow.
Other arguments against renewing Trident are the moral and legal aspects. Under what legal justification could Britain possibly use its deterrent? There is no justification to undertake a first strike against an enemy, there is no debate on this and it is abhorrent to suggest that there ever could be.
Moreover, Britain is committed under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty to move toward disarmament. By deciding to renew its deterrent, it may undermine the very treaty that it is so keen to hold Iran to account over. Why should it listen to another country that is saying nuclear weapons are dangerous and unnecessary when it refuses to disarm itself?
The most commonly discussed alternative to Trident is loading nuclear cruise missiles on Astute class submarines. Tomahawk is the missile of choice for the Royal Navy. It can also be fitted to the Daring class destroyer and perhaps the upcoming Type 26 frigates.
However, cruise missiles are easily countered by modern air defenses, are known to crash into terrain, miss their targets or be spoofed by ever-advancing countermeasures.
Developing a new missile would be expensive and fitting a British-designed nuclear warhead to a Tomahawk may prove problematic.
They also wouldn’t safeguard the thousands of jobs at Barrow and Britain’s submarine-building capability would be forever damaged.
There is also the option of the so-called “bomb in the basement” stance whereby all the components required to produce a nuclear weapon are safely stored ready for assembly as and when the situation requires it. Critics might argue that this undermines a deterrent posture as the assembly facility could be destroyed in a first strike or that an assembled weapon must then be transported to theater for use, something that could prove time-consuming.
The other alternative is unilateral disarmament. This would save Britain tens, if not hundreds, of billions of pounds in the long term. Its security situation wouldn’t be unduly affected. No longer feeling the need to interfere in foreign countries, the threat to Britain, assuming one even exists, dissipates and nobody’s lives are ultimately affected, except from the workers at Barrow and the shareholders of BAE.