The Trident Debate: UK’s Strategic Nuclear Deterrent

31 Dec, 2012    ·   3784

Debak Das highlights the implications of UK's nuclear reconciliations

Debak Das
Debak Das
Research Officer
Stuck in a world order where it represents the lower rung of the club of ‘Nuclear Weapons States’, the United Kingdom’s (UK) now delayed decision to upgrade its Trident submarine nuclear missile system raises some important questions.

What does the deterrent mean for the UK and what is the need for it now? And secondly, what are the implications of the upgradation of this missile system along with the new £315 million pound deal to work on the replacement of the Royal Navy’s Vanguard class of submarines?

Why does the UK need the Nuclear Deterrent?

The Vanguard class of submarines and the Trident submarine missile systems are a relic of the Cold War. David Hastings Dunn, of the University of Birmingham points out, the Royal Navy’s nuclear deterrent in the Cold War days had played the role of keeping Moscow at bay. It was the ‘Moscow Criterion’ (assured penetration to strike Moscow at will) that the Trident’s SLBM’s (Submarine Launched Missile Systems) were important for. Doctrinally, the ‘Continuous At-Sea Deterrence’ (CASD) that the four Vanguard class of submarines provided the Royal Navy has been maintained since the 1970’s. Its utility and need naturally diminished greatly with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Geostrategically, the post-Cold War scenario has effectively left Britain no one to ‘deter.’

Why then the deterrent? The answer to this question lies in two propositions. First, the nuclear deterrent is a symbol of the ‘great power’ that Britain once was. Coming to terms with the fact the recalibration in the world order has left them at best, fence sitters in the new world order is difficult. Giving up the prestige associated with the status of being a ‘Nuclear Weapons State’ would perhaps be unacceptable to British sensibilities. Second, 'a non-nuclear Britain' would be immediately relegated to the status of becoming a junior partner to France in the NATO and the EU. In a world where nuclear weapons still represent the hard currency of power, this would be an unacceptable state of affairs for the British.

The House of Commons Defence Committee’s 2007 white paper on ‘The Future of the UK’s Strategic Nuclear Deterrent’, states that the UK government views nuclear weapons as strictly weapons of ‘self-defence.’ It also clarifies the UK’s commitment to a ‘minimum deterrent’. If anything, the UK’s policy on nuclear deterrence reflects one of ‘assured retaliation’ which its CASD doctrine ensures at any given point of time. Meanwhile, the white paper also clarifies the government’s stance that their nuclear deterrent shall continue to be assigned to NATO. This raises two questions. Firstly, if the costs of upgradation are so high and there is no nuclear weapons state that is hostile to the UK’s strategic environment, why can the UK not exist under the larger nuclear umbrella of the NATO? Interestingly, the NATO has a nuclear doctrine that does not rule out the first use of nuclear weapons. Secondly, given that the UK’s strategic weapons are greatly tied to the strategic defence of other NATO countries, the role of the NATO in the UK’s decision to either upgrade or do away with its nuclear deterrent, will be central.

Another question that needs to be addressed is whether it is even possible for the UK to unilaterally denuclearise. Surely the status of being the US’ primary ally in the continent comes with certain strategic constraints, which may not allow the British to be as unilateral as they would like to be.  

Upgrading the deterrent
As Dunn points out, the BBC sitcom “Yes, Prime Minister” once described the Trident missile system as the, “Rolls Royce of nuclear weapons, the sort one would buy from Harrods.” A possible replacement of the current Trident system would entail an approximately £100 billion expenditure. Compounding the problem is the £160 million pounds per annum Scottish contribution to this missile system, which would rather be spent by them to employ all 300 Scottish origin naval personnel on conventional duties. The Scottish National Party, vehemently opposed to the stationing of the British nuclear deterrent on British soil, has also vowed to make nuclear weapons illegal should Scotland vote for independence in 2014.

Additionally, given that the Vanguard class of submarines will retire only by 2024, a new set of next-generation deterrence deliverers can only be inducted into the Royal Navy by 2028-2029. This considerably weakens the British Navy, which will be without carrier-strike capability for a decade (as per current developments), given that the HMS Ark Royal was decommissioned in 2010 due to defence cuts. A worry that this generates along with the possible decommissioning of the Trident class submarines, is whether a weakened UK Navy may consequently lead to the Malvinas/Falklands problem re-arising with Argentina. 

The UK government’s postponement of the final decision to post-2016, is typical of the government delaying its decision in trying to ensure that it does not disadvantage itself by letting the conservatives claim that ‘stepping down the nuclear ladder’ is a sign of national weakness. On the other hand, given that more than a 1000 people are already trying to develop a successor to the Trident submarine system, it would seem that the debate may not really mean much and that the UK is already well on its way to a successor system.