The Trident Dispatches No. 1: An overview of the debate

By Rebecca Johnson | February 4, 2007

Does Britain need to replace its nuclear weapons? The current system, which comprises four nuclear submarines, around 50 U.S. Trident D5 ballistic missiles, and up to 200 warheads similar to the U.S. W76 (around 100 kilotons each), is good to go until well into the 2020s. So why is British Prime Minister Tony Blair so keen for a decision before he departs office?

Does Britain need to replace its nuclear weapons? The current system, which comprises four nuclear submarines, around 50 U.S. Trident D5 ballistic missiles, and up to 200 warheads similar to the U.S. W76 (around 100 kilotons each), is good to go until well into the 2020s. So why is British Prime Minister Tony Blair so keen for a decision before he departs office?

The issue was initially framed in terms of just replacing a few aging submarines, but the assiduous lobbying of a handful of nongovernmental organizations has turned it into a full-blown debate on the role of nuclear weapons in defense and security for the twenty-first century.

After receiving strong criticism from the Parliamentary Defence Select Committee for not cooperating in its inquiry into the issue last year, the government finally issued a white paper, entitled "The Future of the United Kingdom's Nuclear Deterrent," to the House of Commons on December 4, 2006. Introduced personally by Blair, the white paper argues that an early decision must be taken to procure new nuclear submarines to carry British nuclear weapons well beyond 2050. A vote is expected in March, although the government has done little to facilitate the full debate and consultations with experts and civil society that had been promised.

When even former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger is arguing that Cold War notions of deterrence won't work in today's security environment, the white paper gives the impression of being stuck in a time warp. Instead of addressing the fundamental challenges to nuclear deterrence that Kissinger and others have acknowledged, the British government avoids the question by labelling British nuclear weapons "the independent nuclear deterrent," or simply, "our deterrent." The subliminal message is meant to reassure the British people that this isn't a weapon that might be used, but something more benign, to prevent use.

The constructed illusion slips when the white paper states that Britain's "nuclear deterrent" can be launched only on the prime minister's authority. This reassurance was required to refute concerns that U.S. decision makers will actually determine when and how Britain's weapons will be used, since the missiles–along with other technology and components–come from the United States. However, you can't launch a deterrent–the euphemism is defeated by its own logic. If circumstances arise in which someone decides to authorize Trident's use, the nuclear weapons can't have been a real deterrent in the first place! (Calling your cat "Dog" does not confer the ability to bark.)

As the debate heats up, it appears that much of the Labour Party and a majority of British people believe that Blair is pushing the wrong decision at the wrong time for the wrong reasons. The issue is particularly contentious in Scotland. Despite opinion polls showing that more than 70 percent of Scottish people are against nuclear weapons in any form, Trident is deployed near Glasgow from the Clyde naval base. In conjunction with the nuclear submarines' home port on the Gare Loch at Faslane, the warheads are stored at the Royal Navy Armaments Depot at Coulport, a few miles away. Requiring frequent refurbishment, the warheads are regularly transported to Scotland from the nuclear laboratories at AWE Aldermaston and Burghfield, near London.

Blair's determination to base the next generation of nuclear submarines in Scotland is turning into a political liability for the Scottish Labour Party, which has already seen one minister resign over the issue. With elections for the Scottish Parliament in May 2007, the Labour Party may lose its majority to the Scottish National Party (SNP), which wants to get rid of Trident. Lacking the constitutional power to determine defense and foreign policy decisions, the SNP has said that if Trident stays in Scotland, it will charge the British government £1 million (almost $2 million) for every nuclear warhead that is transported to Coulport and Faslane on Scottish roads.


The white paper considered four options: air-launched cruise missiles, Trident missiles on surface ships, a land-based Trident system, and a submarine-based Trident system akin to what is currently deployed. There was little surprise when the government decided to go for a slightly reduced submarine-based system with U.S. Trident D5 missiles, which it hopes to convince Lockheed Martin to keep in production for the projected lifetime of the British replacement, a decade longer than the Pentagon currently envisages for the U.S. Trident system. To give the appearance of complying with Britain's obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, Blair promised a small reduction in the ceiling of the "stockpile of operationally available warheads"–160 rather than the present 200–and the possibility (not yet decided) of paying for three rather than four submarines.

This sounds good, and indeed, several diplomats have already commended Britain on reducing its nuclear arsenal. But they need to read the small print to avoid being conned: This carefully worded offer does not commit Britain to reduce the nuclear weapons that are actually deployed, continuously armed, and ready to launch. Moreover, the white paper explicitly rejects the notion of de-alerting or reducing operations and patrols. Quite the reverse, the Ministry of Defence insisted that the British posture of deterrence requires the maintenance of fully armed, continuous at-sea patrols. It believes that this will be possible now with three submarines because the new design of the on-board nuclear reactor will not require such extensive refits.

Why Now?

The government is pushing for a March decision on the grounds that "it will take around 17 years to design, manufacture, and commission a replacement submarine." In fact, as pointed out in a memorandum by U.S. nuclear experts Richard L. Garwin, Philip E. Coyle, Theodore A. Postol, and Frank von Hippel, the current Vanguard-class submarines have a longer life expectancy than the 25 years currently claimed by the government.

The Liberal Democrats and Conservatives in Parliament have criticized the artificial sense of urgency and haste. The Acronym Institute has been at the forefront of arguing that the question of Trident renewal be placed in the context of a comprehensive security and defense review. This review should start with a reappraisal of Britain's role in the world, evaluate the security challenges relevant to the twenty-first century, and combine the perspectives of foreign affairs, defense, nonproliferation, and international law.

To date, more than a hundred MPs from all major parties have signed an Early Day Motion–a kind of Parliamentary petition–calling for the decision on Trident replacement to be delayed until there has been a full and relevant consultation. If the government ignores such concerns and puts its white paper to a vote in March, it may face an amendment remitting the vote to a later date, until there has been a genuine process of debate and consultation. In any case, the fact that Trident replacement is being so closely identified with Blair's legacy makes it likely that the debate will continue past any decision taken in March, and that future leaders will be expected to revisit the issue and reconsider Britain's nuclear policy in light of real security needs.

Growing Public Opposition

Opposition to Trident, as well as its replacement, has been steadily growing. Statements calling for Britain to take the lead in nuclear disarmament on moral, legal, and security grounds have been issued by the great and the good, including the Catholic Bishops and the Anglican Churches. Last September, the moderator of the Church of Scotland, Alan McDonald, and the leader of the Catholic Church in Scotland, Cardinal O'Brien, joined a walk from Faslane to Edinburgh to hand a petition against Trident to the Scottish Parliament.

Thousands of people have participated in civil resistance and demonstrations against Trident in various cities and at Faslane and Aldermaston. Hundreds have been arrested and detained for protesting against the nuclear deployments and preparations for the next generation of nuclear weapons at these bases. In one such initiative, since October 1, the civil resistance group Faslane 365 has brought a wide range of Scottish, British, and international groups together to disrupt the nuclear submarine base in a continuous series of blockades that are expected to last for at least a year. Among those arrested at Faslane in recent weeks were six members of the Scottish and European Parliaments, a Dutch MP, and various ministers and priests, as well as eminent professors, doctors, authors, musicians, and students.

With the protesters adamant that their nonviolent actions are intended to uphold international law and raise awareness of the critical implications of the Trident decision for global nonproliferation and security, as well as for Scotland and Britain as a whole, the Scottish courts have been reluctant to prosecute Faslane blockaders. However, in England, protesters at Aldermaston have been threatened with arrest under laws ostensibly enacted to deal with terrorism.

Far from being about parochial British politics, the decision about renewing Trident could affect the course of international nonproliferation and security for decades to come. As noted by commentators as different as Kofi Annan, Hans Blix, and George Shultz, the nuclear weapon states need to marginalize and eliminate these weapons of mass destruction themselves in order for there to be any chance of preventing the spread of nuclear weapons to more countries in the long term. At the very least, they should start by foregoing the modernization and further development of their nuclear arsenals. The British decision could therefore play a critical role in determining whether nuclear weapons are revalued or devalued in the coming years–a choice between proliferation and disarmament.

Over the coming months, these weekly dispatches will provide a personal and political commentary on developments in the British debate, covering both Parliament and civil society.

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Topics: Nuclear Weapons

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