Nonsense at the heart of Britain's 'independent' nuclear defence

A secret review into the future of our nuclear deterrent is underway - and it's time to face some home truths

Column LAST UPDATED AT 07:32 ON Fri 2 Mar 2012

FINGERS on buzzers - your starter for ten. In the phrase 'British independent nuclear deterrent' – how many of the words are actually true? Just one, in fact – 'nuclear'. The rest are baloney. 

The system is certainly not British: the 58 Trident II D-5 ballistic missiles operated by the Royal Navy (from four Vanguard-class submarines) are as American as Dolly Parton and apple pie. The Americans make them, maintain them and provide the satellite intelligence to target them.

This also means the system is not independent, obviously. No one knows for sure, but it's probably not independent in an even starker sense. The Americans certainly believe that the system belongs to them rather than to the Brits.

According to a US diplomatic telegram released by WikiLeaks last year, 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 of Her Majesty's Government. As a result the Russians now know exactly what we have got and what it can do. Sucking up to Putin is clearly more important than the 'independence' of the British deterrent.

Given the complexities of the US designed electronics and computer programmes embedded in every aspect of the Trident system it seems unlikely that a British prime minister could launch them – unless the US President gives his own authorisation. If David Cameron ever had to press the button a light might flash on President Obama's bedside Teasmade but that would be all.

Even if you buy into the theology of deterrence, this means that the system has little deterrent value. Intelligence officials in Beijing or Tehran must know this. I am surprised President Kirchner of Argentina hasn't used it in her recent bitchy exchanges on the Falklands.

Is this what the country needs in an uncertain world? Our last line of defence is a bluff that cost the taxpayer in 1994 £14.9 billion (in 2005 prices) and costs another £2 billion a year to run.

The missiles will be good for many years yet but the submarines carrying them were only designed to last 25 years and so will have to be replaced by 2020 at a probable cost of £25 billion.

The decision will have to be made by the coalition government, which is currently awaiting the results of a secret review of our nuclear deterrent needs.

The Liberal Democrats to their credit have come up with an alternative and cunning plan. Why not build, say, three extra Astute Class hunter-killer submarines (nuclear powered but not currently nuclear armed) and equip them with nuclear-tipped cruise missiles? It would cut the cost of replacing Trident by half.

There are military disadvantages to cruise missiles. They don't have the range of ICBMs (inter-continental ballistic missiles) so the submarine has to sail closer to the target, increasing the risk of detection. Travelling at the speed of a commercial jet-liner they are also much slower and easier to shoot down.

And there would still be one major snag – all the missiles would still come from the United States and only the Americans currently produce a suitable warhead. Still the Liberal Democrats are on to a winner - a £12 billion bluff offers better value than a £25 billion one.

As currently constituted, our deterrent is more of a status symbol, a designer accessory to bolster the status of British politicians and admirals rather than a convincing weapons system. It's the last bauble from a lost Empire.

The mystique of nuclear weapons surrounds the office of prime minister. On entering 10 Downing Street for the first time as prime minister, David Cameron's first action, excitedly reported on television and in the press, was to sign 'letters of last resort' - his personal instructions to the captains of our four Trident-equipped submarines in the event that the government can no longer function after a nuclear attack on the UK.

Some suggest that these orders tell any surviving subs to sail to Australia as in Neville Shute's 1957 novel On the Beach where exactly this happens after the UK is destroyed in a nuclear war. But no one knows.

It would make a great episode of Yes, Prime Minister. Politicians and civil servants conspiring as ever to bamboozle the long-suffering British public. Except it's more important than that.

The original decision to go nuclear was taken just after the war by politicians and officials deeply shocked by our narrow escape from invasion in 1940. They wanted a last ditch back-up in case anything similar happened again. From then until 1998, when the last aircraft-delivered nukes were dropped from the inventory, we did enjoy the protections - such as they were - of an 'independent' system.

One critic of Trident has called it the UK's 'stick-on hairy chest'. My view is that we need such a thing in an uncertain and dangerous world. But we need one that can be stuck on, in extremis, by a British prime minister.  · 

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This is an appalling revelation which prime ministers past and present have never revealed to the British public who rely on the 'deterrent' affect of owning nuclear missiles. I wonder if the Russians and the Chinese need to go 'cap in hand' to someone else for the 'unlock code' to fire their missiles like we do?

Remember how insanely Blair was trying to get the next 75Bn of spending on Trident sorted out just before he left office - He sure liked them Yanks, huh?

If I was American I would be wanting to slowly deskilled other allied countries in the field of Nuclear Weapons. With the UK they have done a good job. We should reintroduce a few tactical nuclear bombs ( strapped to storm shadow missiles ) - just to keep our enemies guessing.

A weak argument. Trident is the most important capability we have and is as independent as anything else. In the Falklands, for example, we relied upon US built and supplied Sidewinder missiles, aviation fuel, ordnance and parts, surveillance and intelligence information and many other things besides. Without this support we could not have won. We are reliant on the US to some extent in all areas of defence as they are our key ally. This has been true since the 1950s and will continue to be the case.

As to Britain not being able to use Trident without US permission and support, this is another long-standing myth. The manual firing procedure is regularly practised and would work in the highly unlikely event of it being required to be used. Oh, and the "unique serial numbers" supposedly handed over to Putin are completely worthless. They don't tell the Russians anything that they didn't already know.

Opting for a nuclear cruise missile is a non-starter. It wouldn't have the range or speed to be viable, and three additional Astutes would be inadequate given the limitations of the system. At least an extra five would  be needed. It would end up costing almost as much and still not be able to fulfil its its intended role. Either full replacement with a like-for-like system or nothing at all are the only options, and the latter just isn't going to happen.

What you also do not seem to appreciate is that £25 billion actually represents good value compared to most other platforms. We are spending almost £10 billion on two new Queen Elizabeth Class aircraft carriers, and only one will see service. Under normal conditions no more than 12 jets will be embarked, and initially there will only be 6. Once the cost of the F35 jets is taken into account, we are looking at close to £20 billion! Almost the cost of Trident for a platform which any serious opponent would be able to neutralise relatively easily. I know where I would want my taxes to be used. I can assure you that the Trident replacement programme has been underway for some time, even though no "official" decision has been made.

no not a stick-oin hairy chest because it doesn't even look impressive and no-one is daunted. It doesnt demonstrate power but the opposite - weakness - subservience to the USA. We pay £25 billion to look pathetic. Stick-on tits more like it. . 

This article is spot on!  Read it & be disgusted with the UK's political toads....

My view is the the £25billion British independent nuclear deterrent is no such thing. It is clearly NOT British, it is NOT independent and who does it deter from doing what? Is Meister, (the 'most important capabilty we have') writing from the Ministry of Defence, or Conservative Party Central Office?

An "unlock code" is not required as the missiles are not code locked in the first place. If we want to achieve more independence from the US, the only way is to increase defence spending and put considerably more resources into R&D. Which, of course, no one is prepared to do.

You appear to have swallowed this inaccurate article hook, line and sinker.

As all the emerging powers are falling over themselves to develop/acquire nuclear weapons, what, in your opinion, does demonstrate power?

If you think this article is "spot on" you are sadly misguided.

Trident replacement?
We can't afford to build it or keep it.
We can never afford to use it.
When it reaches the end of its useful life (together with Trident and Polaris), we'll have to pay the ever increasing cost of storing it.
Other nations can do without it.
So, why have it?

Thank god, someone who speaks sense at last. I agree with you completly although I know nothing of the manual firing procedures, I find the idea that britain could not use its warheads independantly frankly disgraceful and unlikely although stranger things have happend. I do think that the Queen Elizabeth Carriers are important as these days being a member of the "carrier club" does matter.

 Inocrrect, its the best value detterant for the uk, and despite what you may say nukes do demonstrate power, because guess what they are bloody powerful, hence why every emerging power in the world is attempting to aquire them.

 This article is not accurate, there are numerous claims that are simply not true :S