Trident: why parties are rowing over nuclear deterrent

Apr 9, 2015

Tories claim Labour would 'barter away' Trident in a bid to secure power through an SNP coalition

The Labour Party has been forced to defend its plans for Britain's nuclear weapons programme after the Conservatives claimed Ed Miliband would "barter away" Trident to win the next election.

Opinion polls show that the SNP, which wants to scrap Trident, could win more than 40 of Scotland's 59 seats, indicating that Miliband's path to power might involve a deal with the Scottish nationalists.

The Tories, who have committed to building four new nuclear missile-armed submarines, have pointed out that the SNP is not willing to negotiate on its plans to scrap Trident. In a speech in London, Defence Secretary Michael Fallon is expected to say that Miliband is "so desperate for power he is ready to barter away our nuclear deterrent in a backroom deal with the SNP".

But Labour's shadow defence secretary Vernon Coaker accused the Tories of "resorting to the language of smear" and said Miliband had already "made crystal clear, national security is not a matter for negotiation". Coaker confirmed that Labour supports "renewal of Trident along with a renewed focus on multilateral disarmament". Nevertheless, Labour has said it would consider renewing just three of the four submarines if the continuous at-sea deterrence (CASD) can be maintained.

So what do the other parties think about Trident and what are the alternatives?

What is it?

Trident is a round-the-clock submarine-based nuclear missile system. 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 some time in the 2020s.

Where is it?

Trident is based at Faslane on the Clyde. The site currently employs 6,800 military and civilian workers, although not all of them work directly on Trident.

How much does it cost?

Annual running costs of Trident are said to be nearly £3bn, an average of 9.4 per cent of the total defence budget, while a like-for-like replacement is expected to cost at least £20bn to build and £100bn over its lifetime.

What do other political parties think?

The SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Greens want 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 say the Trident submarines are a relic of the Cold War and that most threats now come from terrorist groups, not communist countries with nuclear weapons. The party says it would be "expensive and unnecessary" to replace all four submarines and proposes to replace three or fewer, with an end to round-the-clock patrols. Ukip backs Trident but wants a review into the UK's nuclear deterrent.

What are the alternatives?

Options 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 two 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?