Trident: The Question No One Asks


24 November 2015


Today the House of Commons debates Trident. That is the shorthand.  MPs will put forward or debunk the arguments for having a so-called nuclear deterrent.  The purpose is to endorse or oppose the government’s programme to modernise the system.

But the hard question is not in the Parliamentary motion. The background to asking the toughest question is in the system itself.

The Trident system is four Vanguard-class submarines each of which carries up to 16 submarine-launched ballistic missiles.  The missiles carry nuclear warheads some the size of the weapon that razed Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 to some big enough to make a small country depopulated and barren for decades.

The system took over from the then updated Polaris-Chevaline boats in 1994. The missiles are American.  The warheads are British.

The debate to renew Trident is primarily about the submarines. They have been in service since the mid-1990s.  By the time of replacement they will be about 30 years. So it is the boats not the missiles and warheads that need the nod to replace.

However when building new boats – the cost will be somewhere in the region of £40billion – the engineering and firing configuration will be different.  Therefore the missiles will be replaced. In theory the US Navy Trident will still do the job. The warhead is being updated all the time so that is not an issue.

On top of all this the debate in the Commons centres on the value of Trident as a deterrent.

The truth is that there is no evidence that Trident was ever a deterrent to a nuclear attack by the USSR.  The argument that there has never been a nuclear war and therefore British deterrence worked is clearly shabby scholarship.

If deterrence did work then US nuclear missiles and not the British and French stopped war between America and the Soviet Union.  There is no evidence that the UK and French nuclear systems established  any deterrence whatsoever.

The UK and France have nuclear weapons because in the 1960s every military scenario was convincing enough that both nations as part of their status as permanent members of the United Nations Security Council regarded the submarine launched missile as the best weaponry and so built them.

The land fired and air launched nuclear programme was vulnerable to attack and had no guarantees of getting through Soviet defences. But the submarine could hide and by the introduction of Trident could hit Moscow from the depths of the South Atlantic – 6,000 miles away. Polaris and then its successor Trident were perfect for the job  – or so it was argued.

When in the 1960s HMS Resolution went into service carrying sixteen UGM-27 Polaris A3 missiles the deterrence case was overwhelmingly successful although it did inspire the formation of nuclear protest groups.  But by and large the case seemed reasonable.

But today, the case is not so easily argued.  Instead successive governments and oppositions present the case for renewing what the UK has already – the so-called Successor Programme and it is here that we come to the question that if answered truthfully would destroy the government’s case for Trident renewal.

Having asked six former Defence Ministers on both sides of the House, the late Denis Healey onwards, the view has been there is no sure evidence of deterrence and few would ever “press the button”. The military is the only group that would ever recommend “nuclear release” and probably starting at the battlefield level.

In short, the UK bought Trident for the right reasons.  It is renewing it for the wrong reasons.

Therefore, no one in today’s Commons debate asks the hardest question:

If the UK did not have Trident would it go out and buy one?  It is not asked because the answer is No, it would not.





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