If we believe in a British nuclear deterrent, Trident is our only option

by Alan West

The debate over the future of Trident is coming to the public fore. This is an emotive issue and our starting point must be to respect the strength of feeling on all sides.

It is important, however, that the debate is based in fact and evidence.

This leads me personally to conclude that maintaining the present Trident ballistic missile system is the best option if UK is to remain a nuclear weapon state. Numerous studies over the past 40 years have reaffirmed that.

I have been involved in a couple of those studies.  Having looked at other options in detail it is quite clear that none of them are as cheap or practical as their supporters claim.

Recently the benefits of going for a cruise missile option carried in Astute class submarines have been articulated.

The first thing to remember about this is that no appropriate cruise missile exists. The UK would have to develop, test and bring into service a new weapon. Even allowing for the “triumph of optimism”, such a programme would be complex, fraught with risk (we have not developed such a missile before) and extremely expensive.

We would have to embark on a new warhead development programme for a nuclear package that would be capable of fitting into other weapon delivery systems. The design and production of completely new warheads would be hugely expensive.

The new missiles and weapon system would have to be regularly and rigorously tested on all measures of performance. This would involve the development of further new technologies and new associated assets. At present the US provide all the facilities for Trident test firings, so all of this would be a further cost to our exchequer.

We then come on to the operational issues.

What range should these missiles have? How many missiles should we have? How many cruise missiles should each Astute carry? Should all Astutes carry nuclear tipped missiles? How many Astute class submarines would be required?  The answers to these questions have implications for cost and capability which I do not see evidence of having been thought through by proponents of this model.

There is a measurable failure rate of cruise missiles and crashed missiles have been recovered by the enemy.  Cruise missiles can be and have been shot down—when it comes to nuclear weapons we need to fire those with a guarantee of success.

Furthermore, cruise missiles have less of a range than Trident missiles and therefore an Astute submarine carrying cruise missiles would have to get closer to a target, with consequent risk of detection and destruction.

There are implications of this plan also for proliferation.  Nuclear-tipped cruise missiles would constitute a growth in our stockpile of weapons ready to fire and could be seen as a reversal to our steady downward pressure on weapon holdings.

If all deployed submarines carried them then how would this impact on submarine deployments?

Nuclear submarines deploy to the Falkland Islands at present but of course do not carry nuclear weapons. The Antarctic is a nuclear exclusion zone so would we remove missiles from submarines on various types of deployment?

This would have a huge impact on the flexibility of these expensive assets and perhaps even our obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

Assuming a nuclear warhead could be “mated” with a cruise missile, what are the implications for the weapon storage in the submarine? The weapon storage area has to carry torpedoes, mines, Tactoms (‘Tactical Tomahawks” – precision missiles) and other weapons. Security will be very difficult.

Also, rather than mitigate against or lessen risk this could heighten perceived danger.  If an Astute class submarine fired a Tactom how would an enemy know that the cruise missile was not a nuclear variant?

Would he wait to find out?  What would be the impact on visits to ports worldwide for the Astute class if there was an assumption they were nuclear armed?

I have highlighted a number of the problems associated with the cruise missile option. It is significantly more expensive than replacing the Vanguard class submarines.  It risks the UK being accused of proliferation. And there are a huge number of operational implications.

I fear that the current study being undertaken at the behest of the Lib Dems (when so many have already been done) is playing politics with a crucial part of the UK’s security.

I am up for a debate about how we best meet our security needs while advancing counter-proliferation goals, but this must be based in fact about what is best in terms of our security and our finances.

Lord West of Spithead was First Sea Lord in the last Labour government

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9 Responses to “If we believe in a British nuclear deterrent, Trident is our only option”

  1. swatantra says:

    Hate to say it, but absolute nonsense. Scrap Trident now, along with the nuclear arsenal that we hold. Lets set n example for the rest of the world to follow.
    1 Who is the enemy? ‘The Studies’ are simply mindless Warames and simulations of hypothetical situations that are never going to happen.
    2 And why would they want to invade/subjugate us. We have no resources?
    Experience shows that an ‘occupation’ simply does not work. The resistance to an illegal invasion poses more problems than its worth.
    3 The Defence Industry is only there to keep people in jobs
    4 If there is a conflict then it will only be resolved by conventional weapons.
    5 The Nuclear Arsenal has not detered any aggressors in recent times; the Argies weren’t put off by it.

  2. aragon says:

    No suitable missile: BGM-109A Tomahawk Land Attack Missile – Nuclear (TLAM-A) with a W80 nuclear warhead.

    Development of new missiles are necessary for conventional strike like the Indian/Russian Brahmos (with extended range) or the US Minion/Minotaur.

    Operational issues are not a show stopper.

  3. Robin Thorpe says:

    I note that the title of the article is “if we believe in a British nuclear deterrent”; I’m with Swatantra that we don’t need a nuclear deterrent. Other, more informed people, are also of the opinion that we should at least review the necessity of a nuclear capability. Speaking on Radio5 in January 2010 General Sir Richard Dannatt suggested that in the long term the UK may not need to replace Trident, and that the defence budget should instead be focussed on increasing ground troops.

    Although Dannatt said it was justified to keep Trident in the short term, he accepted that its costs, estimated to be up to £130 billion, meant the programme should be “constantly under review”. http://www.politicshome.com/uk/article/4958/keep_need_for_trident_under_constant_review_says_dannatt.html

    In this context it is useful to remember that the Navy, the Army and the Air Force are always in disagreement about the budgetary share for the individual forces, yet I can’t help but think that history tells us that boots on the ground are more important for RESOLVING conflicts then tactical long-range weaponry.

  4. uglyfatbloke says:

    Swatantra is absolutely right. In the simplest terms, thee is no defence application for Trident. Also, the RAF have a very different view about he affordability of other nuclear options.
    And of course here may be wider problems with retaining a nuclear force at all (it’s not a deterrent, just a force) if Salmond wins his referendum. It’s all very well Welsh Labour saying they’d be happy to have Trident in Wales, but that would surely do the Welsh party a lot more harm than good,
    The whole point of trident is to make politicians and diplomatic types feel important

  5. Chris says:

    I admire the posters here who are able to hold such an unequivocal opinion.

    Nukes are expensive, unlikely to ever be used, and it seems difficult to justify the huge costs when so many other areas of spending are being cut back.

    But…..some of the most loony or unstable regimes in the world seemingly are intent on possessing their own nukes (I don’t know about anyone else, but the idea of a nuclear-armed Iran scares the cr@p out of me), or already possess them (North Korea).

    Did the concept of MAD prevent nuclear war in the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s? I don’t know. Does anybody? All we know is that there hasn’t yet been any full-scale conflcit between the nuclear powers. History suggests though, that the threat of nuclear war made Kruschev blink in Cuba.

    So, on balance, and very reluctantly, I am forced to the conclusion that it would be foolhardy in the extreme to get rid of our nukes.

  6. Chris says:

    PS – Swatantra says “Scrap Trident now, along with the nuclear arsenal that we hold. Lets set n example for the rest of the world to follow”.

    Sadly, I don’t share this faith in human nature.

    I don’t believe the Ahmadinejad is going to say – oh look, Britain’s just canned all its nukes. What a good and noble thing to do. I’m going to cancel our plans to get our own bomb.” Nor will the Americans, South Africans, Russians, Chinese, Pakistanis, Indians, Israelis or any other governments with nukes get rid of theirs just because we have.

    All that would happen is that in any future conflict we would be going to the gunfight armed with a stick.

  7. Mike Homfray says:

    A white elephant which cannot be afforded

  8. ex-Labour voter says:

    “It is important, however, that the debate is based in fact and evidence.”

    When have the supporters of nuclear weapons ever done that? British nuclear weapons are not independent and there is no evidence that they are a deterrent.

    Anybody who wants to help stop Trident replacement should ask their MP to sign EDM 96:


  9. Cordobese Armadilo says:

    Chris: South Africa relinquished its nukes in the 90s and and are arguably safer as a result. we would do well to follow their lad and spend our money on ways to counter the realistic, genuine threats to our security.

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