Britain’s ultimate phallic symbol – useless, expensive Trident nuclear missile
many defence experts now argue that a replacement deterrent is something that the UK neither needs nor can afford
the role of Britain’s nuclear deterrent is linked to the political and military establishment’s perception of the country’s place at the world’s top table “more a matter of national virility than national security”
UK nuclear deterrent plan triggers divisions Announcement of an extra $565m for improved nuclear weapons capacity worries critics in an era of austerity. Aljazeera, Simon Hooper 06 Nov 2012 London, UK – At an unknown location somewhere deep beneath the world’s oceans, a British submarine sits primed to launch up to 40 nuclear warheads with a collective destructive power almost 300 times greater than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945.
Since the late 1960s Britain’s nuclear deterrent strategy has required that at least one of the Royal Navy’s four-strong fleet of Vanguard submarines be operational and fully armed at all times, providing, according to the navy’s website, a “round-the-clock insurance policy”.
Only a British prime minister has the authority to order a nuclear attack. But, in the event that a submarine commander loses radio contact and suspects his homeland has been wiped off the map, orders contained in an onboard safe reputedly offer a choice to either “let them have it”or “sail to New Zealand if it’s still there”, according to documents unearthed by Peter Hennessy, a veteran historian of British state secrets.
Conceived in response to the perceived threat of a surprise Soviet
assault on western Europe, Britain’s deterrent remains a classic
throwback to the nuclear brinkmanship of the Cold War.
Yet, two decades after the Soviet Union’s collapse, the UK government
this week took a big step towards replacing its current
submarine-launched Trident missile system with a like-for-like
successor that would take to the seas by 2028 High costs
“Our nuclear deterrent is the ultimate safeguard of our national
security. We have made a clear commitment to maintain that deterrent,”
said Philip Hammond, the British defence minister, announcing an
additional $565m in spending – on top of $4.8bn already committed to
the project – for design work on a next-generation replacement for the
Hammond’s announcement immediately stoked divisions between his own
ruling Conservative Party and their Liberal Democrat coalition
partners by seeming to fly in the face of government policy postponing
the final decision on a replacement until 2016, pending the results of
a Liberal Democrat-led study into possible alternatives.
“Defence chiefs are under concerted political pressure to cut
spending, even with the armed forces already overstretched by the war
in Afghanistan and other commitments.”….
Nick Clegg, the deputy prime minister and leader of the Liberal
Democrats, responded by questioning the wisdom of “spending billions
and billions of pounds on a nuclear missile system designed with the
sole strategic purpose of flattening Moscow at the press of a button”.
Hammond also drew the ire of nationalists in Scotland by presuming the
continuing presence of a British nuclear arsenal at the Faslane naval
base on the country’s west coast beyond a 2014 referendum on
With the Scottish National Party committed to banning nuclear weapons
in the event of it winning power after a split from London, a
parliamentary committee warned this week that the UK’s deterrent could
be “unilaterally disarmed” within days of secession.
Yet, even disregarding the immediate political fallout, many defence experts now argue that a replacement deterrent is something that the UK neither needs nor can afford.
Defence chiefs are under concerted political pressure to cut spending,
even with the armed forces already overstretched by the war in
Afghanistan and other commitments.
Limited defence resources
Meanwhile, the 2005 London bombings and similar attacks against
western targets seemed to point to a new paradigm in which the main
security threat comes from nebulous networks rather than rival nation
states, rendering traditional deterrent strategy as redundant as the
While the government has estimated the cost of a replacement system at
about $32bn, critics argue that the final bill could be upwards of
five times that amount.
“In the land of serious policy planners it’s very hard to argue for us
remaining in the nuclear weapons business,” added Ritchie. “You have
to ask, is this the best way to spend limited defence resources?”
“There is a strong sense that for us to be a nuclear weapons state is
almost part of who we are on the international stage.”
-Nick Ritchie, Lecturer in international security at the University of York
Others argue that the money would be better diverted instead to
bolstering public services struggling under the weight of the
government’s austerity measures. “Obscene that government plans to
spend hundreds of millions on nukes, while slashing welfare &
benefits,” tweeted Caroline Lucas, a Green Party member of parliament.
Yet the role of Britain’s nuclear deterrent is linked to the political
and military establishment’s perception of the country’s place at the
world’s top table. It’s a matter of pride for some that the UK is one
of five recognised nuclear-armed states in the Nuclear
Non-Proliferation Treaty along with four other permanent members of
the UN Security Council: the US, Russia, China and France.
Returning from a bruising encounter with the US secretary of state in
1946, and perhaps feeling acutely conscious of Britain’s fading status
as a world power, Ernest Bevin, the British foreign minister, declared
that the UK had to have the bomb at any cost, adding: “We’ve got to
have the bloody union jack on top if it.”
The same sentiment can be perceived 60 years later in a passage in
Tony Blair’s memoirs in which the then-prime minister admitted that he
could clearly see the “common sense and practical argument” against
renewing Trident even as his government laid out plans to upgrade the
system in 2006. “In the final analysis I thought giving it up too big
a downgrading of our status as a nation,” he concluded.
“There is a strong sense that for us to be a nuclear weapons state is
almost part of who we are on the international stage,” said Ritchie.
“That’s not a sentiment that’s held by the British public. But
certainly in the upper echelons of the security and defence
establishment I would say there is a feeling that if we were to
relinquish a nuclear capability we would somehow not be Britain
Dominic Sandbrook, author of a series of histories of Britain since
the 1950s and presenter of a forthcoming television series on the Cold
War, agreed that the UK’s possession of nuclear weapons had long been
“more a matter of national virility than national security”. He
pointed out, however, that the Trident system and its predecessors’
dependence on US technology, including the missiles themselves, belied
the idea of an entirely independent British deterrent….
Kate Hudson, the general secretary of the Campaign for Nuclear
Disarmament (CND), said that opinion polls showed a majority of the
British public opposed replacing Trident and said proposals to spend
“ludicrous sums” on a new system at a time of “acute economic
hardship” had served to reinforce opposition.
“Scrapping Trident is a vote-winner waiting to be seized by a party
with the initiative to see beyond the dogma of nuclear deterrence,”
said Hudson. “Labour must be bold in rejecting entirely a weapons
system which serves no purpose but to threaten civilian lives
internationally and destroy public services domestically.”
Sandbrook, meanwhile, sees irony in the continuing debate over the
future of Britain’s nuclear deterrent even as other vestiges of the
country’s Cold War military defences, such as the secret bunkers to
which key workers would have retreated in the event of a Soviet
attack, have been consigned to the past.
“The Cold War infrastructure has become part of our national heritage,
part of our history,” he said. “It’s extraordinary at the very time we
are converting these sites into museums that the very idea of our need
for these weapons has not become a museum piece in itself.”
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