The UK Trident programme encompasses the development, procurement and operation of the current generation of British nuclear weapons, and the means to deliver them. It was announced in July 1980 and patrols began in December 1994. Its stated purpose is to provide “the minimum effective nuclear deterrent as the ultimate means to deter the most extreme threat”.
It has also been described by former Vulcan squadron commander (the UK’s original nuclear deterrent) and current vice-president of CND, Air Commodore Alastair Mackie, as Britain’s “stick-on hairy chest”.
And yet other than “We should/shouldn’t get rid of it”, it’s rarely the subject of any serious debate or investigation. And as it’s the summer close season for politics, this seemed like a good time.
We know that it costs Scotland £163 million in running costs each and every year. We also know that only 520 civilian jobs at Faslane and Coulport (formally and collectively called Her Majesty’s Naval Base Clyde) near Helensburgh are directly dependent on Trident, despite claims by various Labour politicians that the system supports up to 22,000 jobs.
Of those 520 jobs, 159 are employed by the MoD and 361 by contractors Babcock Marine and Lockheed Martin. The remaining jobs cited by the No campaign are based on the military and security personnel present on the base for standard duties, but even here it’s estimated that 85% of base personnel do not live locally but travel south when not on duty, thereby contributing little to the local economy.
However as alert readers may recall, Faslane is intended as the home base of the Scottish Navy and as such the base, its personnel and associated economic benefits would remain active post-independence; with the main difference being the switch to a conventional defence role rather than nuclear deterrence.
But what exactly is Trident, what does it do, and how does it do it?
Trident is a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) equipped with multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles (MIRV). The Fleet Ballistic Missile (FBM) is armed with nuclear warheads and is launched from nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs, which if you were scratching your heads as we were actually stands for “Ship, Submersible, Ballistic, Nuclear”).
The UK system is based on the operation of four Vanguard-class submarines: Vanguard, Victorious, Vigilant and the tellingly-named Vengeance. At least one submarine is always on patrol to provide a continuous at-sea deterrent; with the others scheduled to maintenance, leave or training.
Each is armed with Trident II D-5 ballistic missiles (built by Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Sunnyvale, California); which is a three-stage rocket, each stage containing a solid propellant motor. Each missile is able to deliver thermonuclear warheads from multiple independent re-entry vehicles up to 7,840km away if fully loaded, or 11,300km if carrying a reduced load (coincidentally the exact distance between Glasgow and Buenos Aires in Argentina).
Since 1998, Trident has been the only British nuclear weapon system in service, following the retirement of the WE.177 tactical nuclear weapon (below).
Vanguard-class submarines can carry up to sixteen missiles with a maximum of twelve warheads per missile (192 warheads in total), with each warhead having a yield of 100 kilotons (kt). However under the terms of the UK 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review, each Vanguard boat is only armed with a maximum of eight missiles and forty warheads (five per missile).
At over six times more powerful than the bomb which destroyed Hiroshima, each warhead is more than capable of causing immense damage, yet is still significantly smaller than the warheads on the R-36M (SS-18) ICBM deployed by Russia, which can carry up to ten 750kt warheads per missile or alternatively one massive 20 megaton warhead (20,000kt – equivalent to 1,250 Hiroshima bombs).
The high American content means that the system is not in reality independent. According to a US diplomatic telegram released by WikiLeaks, President Obama handed over the unique serial numbers of the UK’s missiles to the Russians as part of an arms reduction deal, despite the strong objections by the UK Government. As a result the Russians now know exactly what the UK has and what it can do.
The UK government maintains that the warheads used in the Trident system are “designed and manufactured in the UK at the Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE), Aldermaston“. The final warheads have been assembled at the AWE facilities near Aldermaston since 1992, and are transported to the Royal Naval Armaments Depot (RNAD) Coulport in Argyll (part of HMNB Clyde) storage facility by overland convoys.
Trident is ostensibly designed to be used in three possible ways:-
- First Strike – A pre-emptive attack that annihilates the enemy outright, hopefully before they have a chance to retaliate.
- Counterforce – A pre-emptive attack that targets the enemy’s military and thereby disarms them by destroying their capability to fight.
- Second Strike – Primarily as deterrence, by threatening their use in retaliation should an enemy attack the UK with nuclear weapons first. This is the MAD principle (Mutually Assured Destruction) and was the basis for the Cold War nuclear strategy of the USA, UK and other allies
However there are numerous issues with each of these proposed uses.
Strategy 1 – First Strike
The tiny red dots on the map above are all the damage that Trident can inflict on Russia, based on the present eight-missile, 40-warhead load-out and the single operational submarine at any given moment.
But even then it’s not clear Trident’s missiles would hit their targets in the first place. The Russians have a missile defence system, the ABM-3 Gazelle, designed in the 1980s for the Cold War but which only came into service in 1995.
The ABM-3 Gazelle program has around 50 missiles that carry a single 10kt nuclear warhead which travel at speeds of Mach 17 (about 3.4 miles per second) and act as a shield up to a radius of 100km. They’re designed to track incoming nuclear MIRVs, get close and then detonate, hopefully destroying the incoming threat. Only Russia and the United States have this defensive capability.
The degree to which Trident could operate as a successful first-strike system, then – certainly against a large country like Russia – is zero. Russia has far more than 40 military targets which would have to be taken out for a first-strike victory, even assuming every warhead hit its target (some of which are very small or even mobile). All it could achieve would be to get the Russians really, REALLY angry.
Strategy 2 – Counterforce
In nuclear strategy, a counterforce target is one that has a military value, such as a launch silo for ICBMs, an airbase at which nuclear-armed bombers are stationed, a homeport for ballistic missile submarines, or a command and control installation. The intent of a counterforce strategy is to disarm an adversary by destroying its nuclear weapons before they can be launched, thereby minimizing the impact of a retaliatory second strike.
This is a task for which Trident is even more poorly suited.
Firstly, the Russian Strategic Rocket Forces are estimated to have 311 operational missile systems, including missiles that can carry 1078 warheads. These include 185 silo-based and 126 road-mobile ICBM missiles like the Topol-M ICBM.
The Topol-M is a silo- and mobile-based ICBM put into service in 1998. The missile has a range of 10,500km – easily capable of hitting the UK from almost anywhere in Russia – and carries a single 550kt warhead. They are designed to be mobile to avoid detection and destruction in the event of a first strike or counterforce situation.
Secondly, the Russian strategic fleet includes seven SSBNs that can carry 112 missiles with nuclear warheads. Five of the submarines are based in the Northern Fleet with the other two based out of the Pacific Fleet base.
Just like the Trident system they’re designed to be on constant patrol, avoid detection and initiate a first strike, counterforce or second strike on an enemy. Once out to sea they’re essentially undetectable.
Thirdly, Russian strategic aviation consists of 66 bombers that carry an estimated 200 long-range cruise missiles and bombs. In order to neutralise these threats, the air bases would need destroyed before any plane could get airborne, which with advanced Russian early warning systems is unlikely.
So again, the problem for Trident is that there simply isn’t anywhere near enough of it to target all of Russia’s nuclear arsenal. In addition it can’t track the mobile parts, meaning that the missiles in silos and bombers would be able to get airborne and exact their retaliation on the UK.
Strategy 3 – Second Strike
A second-strike capability is a country’s assured ability to respond to a nuclear attack with powerful nuclear retaliation against the attacker. For the UK this is Trident, hidden below the Atlantic waters 365 days a year waiting to launch.
To have such an ability (and to convince your opponent of its viability) is considered vital in nuclear deterrence, as otherwise the other side might be tempted to try to win a nuclear war in one massive first strike against your nuclear forces.
Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) is a doctrine of military strategy and national security policy in which a full-scale use of high-yield weapons of mass destruction by two or more opposing sides would cause the complete annihilation of both the attacker and the defender.
It’s based on the theory of deterrence where the threat of using strong weapons against the enemy prevents the enemy’s use of those same weapons. The strategy is a form of Nash equilibrium (better known as a Mexican stand-off) in which neither side, once armed, has any incentive to initiate a conflict or to disarm.
However as we’ve already seen, the destructive force of Trident is not sufficient to ensure total annihilation of the enemy. But more crucially for Trident is the fact that unlike the Russians, it’s our only nuclear force, and there’s only ever one active sub, meaning the entire deterrent could be compromised by the loss of a single vessel.
In 2010 an adapted Russian Akula class submarine was caught trying to record the acoustic signature made by the Vanguard submarines in order to allow the Russians to track the Vanguard’s location. At the time the Navy commanders ordered a Trafalgar-class hunter-killer submarine to protect the Vanguard, with a senior Navy commander reporting to the Telegraph that:
“The Russians have been playing games with us, the Americans and French in the North Atlantic. We have put a lot of resources into protecting Trident because we cannot afford by any stretch to let the Russians learn the acoustic profile of one of our bombers as that would compromise the deterrent.”
So on a standalone basis Trident is insufficiently powerful to uphold the MAD principle, is vulnerable to attack, and in any second strike scenario would almost certainly be retaliating pointlessly against the enemy long after the population of the UK has gone up in smoke.
It’s therefore difficult to escape the conclusion that Trident doesn’t meet the needs of any of the three strategies for nuclear weapons. In fact, only through NATO – with the United States providing the main nuclear deterrence – has MAD ever been viable, and Trident makes no difference whatsoever to MAD, its piddly 40 warheads an insignificant contribution alongside the American stockpile of almost 8,000.
So given that Trident can’t be effective as a standalone deterrent and is incorporated into a NATO system that would work just as well without it, why do we need it? Wouldn’t the UK be better off transferring the money to conventional defence and providing more support to NATO in a conventional role?
It’s a question that’s cropped up before. Last year the New York Times claimed that:
“While the United States would like to be able to rely more on its European allies, many experts doubt that even the strongest among them, Britain and France, could carry out their part of another Libya operation now, and certainly not in a few years”
Before quoting a senior American official as saying:
And this line of thinking isn’t new either, with the US having called for the UK to ditch Trident as far back as 1995. Interestingly, at the time the UK government regarded 96 warheads per submarine as the “minimum credible deterrent”, yet each boat now carries a maximum of well under half that number – suggesting that it’s nowhere near a credible deterrent now, if it ever was.
Trident is a chocolate teapot: completely useless for the purpose intended, and more likely to see the user burned should it ever be utilised. It’s an unaffordable folly, openly acknowledged as such by both Tony Blair and former UK defence secretary Michael Portillo, yet all three Westminster parties are committed to not only retaining it but upgrading it, at a cost of tens of billions of pounds Britain just can’t spare.
September 18 is Scotland’s only chance to release itself from this madness.