Pros and cons of Trident: MoD and Osborne in 'tug of war'

Nov 12, 2015

Chancellor reportedly trying to seize control of programme to replace the UK's nuclear deterrent

A "tug of war" has broken out between Chancellor George Osborne and the Ministry of Defence (MoD) over the UK's nuclear weapons system Trident, according to a senior defence industry source.

Osborne is apparently trying to seize control of the programme to build four new nuclear-armed submarines amid fears that the MoD "lacks the skills" to ensure they will be completed by 2028, reports The Times.

If the deadline is missed, the UK would be left without a continuous nuclear deterrent at sea for the first time since 1969.

"That is the tug of war going on between Osborne [and the MoD]," a senior defence industry source told the newspaper. "Everyone in defence wants to keep it inside defence. Anything that is novel and different is perceived as a threat."

The chancellor has allegedly told David Cameron that he will only support funding for the project if it is given to a new body reporting directly to the Treasury and the Cabinet Office.

"The Treasury has the money for the submarines but what they cannot have is a lack of confidence in delivery," said the source. "The MoD has a poor record on delivering submarines on time."

The move will be seen as the "latest sign of Mr Osborne's consolidation of power over the domestic policy agenda" and "in effect, clips the wings of a department that has irritated his officials", says The Times.

A government spokesman said: "While we are not prepared to comment on the contents of a leaked document, the government remains committed to maintaining a continuous at-sea deterrent, and to replacing the current Vanguard class of nuclear armed submarines with four Successor submarines."

What is Trident?

Trident is a round-the-clock submarine-based nuclear missile system based at Faslane on the Clyde. There are four submarines, each carrying missiles with nuclear warheads. Only one submarine is on patrol at any one time and it needs several days' notice to fire. Trident's ballistic missiles have a range of up to 7,500 miles and their destructive power is the equivalent of eight Hiroshimas, says the BBC. Trident patrols began in December 1994. But none of the components can last indefinitely. The current generation of submarines will begin to end their working lives in the 2020s.

How much will a replacement cost?

The Ministry of Defence has previously said a like-for-like replacement is expected to cost up to £23.4bn to procure, but the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) claims it will cost around £100bn to run and service over 40 years. A major defence review, to be published on 23 November, is expected to clarify the pricetag.

What do the political parties think?

The Conservative government plans to follow through on its manifesto pledge to replace Trident, arguing that the UK's nuclear weapons work as an "insurance policy" against attacks.

Trident is a sticky subject for Labour. The party's leader Jeremy Corbyn, who is currently vice-president of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), has called for an end to the nuclear weapon system and said that if he was prime minister he would not be prepared to "press the nuclear button". However, the party's national policy currently supports Trident and Labour MPs have voiced their support for the deterrent.

The Scottish National Party is resolutely opposed to renewing the weapons and has urged Corbyn to join its fight. In its May manifesto, the Green Party also said it wanted to cancel the renewal of Trident, arguing that it is wasting tens of billions of pounds at a time when "families can't afford to put food on the table".

The Liberal Democrats said the Trident submarines were a relic of the Cold War and that most threats now come from terrorist groups, not communist countries with nuclear weapons. The party said it would be "expensive and unnecessary" to replace all four submarines and proposed to replace three or fewer, with an end to round-the-clock patrols. Ukip backed Trident ahead of the election but wanted a review into the UK's nuclear deterrent.

What are the alternatives?

Options raised have included cheaper submarines, land-based deterrents and abandoning round-the-clock patrols. Different submarines could be armed with cruise missiles. But these weapons are of far shorter range, slower and easier to intercept than the ballistic missiles they would replace. A land-based delivery system would avoid the cost of building new submarines but has previously been rejected as too vulnerable to attack. Both options have been criticised as not necessarily cheaper than the current Trident programme.

The pros and cons of Trident

These are some of the general arguments made for and against a nuclear deterrent:


  • Nuclear weapons have guaranteed our security for generations. They remain the ultimate deterrent to any aggressor, and the best means of ensuring peace.
  • Time-lag in development means the decision to replace Trident can't wait. The world is still dangerous. Nobody can tell how much more dangerous it will be when Trident is obsolete.
  • It is desirable to check nuclear proliferation, but probably impossible. So it would be folly to scrap our nuclear weapons when potentially hostile states might acquire a nuclear capability.
  • Possession of nuclear weapons gives us clout. Unilateral nuclear disarmament would "send a Foreign Secretary naked into the conference chamber" (Nye Bevan, 1957).
  • Every British government since 1945 has seen the necessity of having a nuclear deterrent.


  • Nuclear weapons are immoral. We must prevent their proliferation. The more states that have them, the more certain it is they will be used. Britain can set an example by unilateral nuclear disarmament.
  • Maintaining our nuclear arsenal is too expensive, particularly at a time of austerity. It takes a disproportionate share of the nation's defence budget.
  • We are more likely to be engaged in low-level warfare in which nuclear weapons are irrelevant. To meet the challenge of asymmetric warfare, such as in Iraq and Afghanistan, we should spend more on conventional forces and properly equip them.
  • Possession of nuclear weapons is an outmoded virility symbol. Countries like Spain, Canada and Australia do without them and have as much global influence as Britain.
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Oh Cameron - just shut up! If you want to keep Trident tell the truth, do not take advantage of the ludicrous 'threats' emanating from N Korea.

I agree we should keep trident but yeah it is a bit lame and opportunistic citing North Korea when they can't hit a big target 3000 miles away let along a much smaller one 5000 miles away I.e the UK

If Cameron's arguments are bogus, as suggested, isn't there another option? Get rid of them altogether. Why do we need a nuclear bomb at all? If you held an unbiased opinion poll that's the response you'd get. How come it doesnt feature in the article? Says a lot about The Week's attitudes doesn't it!

Do what? The results of an opinion poll that never happened are not included in the article, which makes it biased? What are you on?