Renewing Britain’s Nuclear Blanket

Post Cold War British nuclear capabilities have hinged on a single fundamental principle; deterrence. Supporters claim that possessing nuclear weaponry leads to “enhanced security” and “political status”, something I intensely agree with.  Upon the defrosting of relations in 1990, the United Kingdom has condensed its nuclear arsenal to one system – Trident. Trident is a submarine-launched ballistic missile that is armed with nuclear warheads capable of striking multiple targets anywhere in the world. A fully armed Vanguard-Class submarine, concealing up to 16 Trident missiles, is operational at all times in a policy postulated by the government as a “continuous–at–sea deterrence”.  This way there is no pre-determined location of British nuclear stockpiles and it therefore cannot be targeted, further serving its purpose of deterrence. Any nuclear strike on British soil will inevitably be responded to by a retaliation strike from an unknown, at sea, location. That is not to say, however, that Trident missiles will only be used in response to a pre-emptive attack; the government does not rule out “using nuclear weapons first in a crisis”.

Critics estimate that the upkeep of the whole system could cost over £125bn over its 30 year lifespan, a figure set to increase upon its replacement. Similarly, the Trident defence system has been morally and ethically challenged. Many argue that its existence has no legitimate purpose and its use will be fundamentally illegal. Nuclear weapons, they argue, are genocidal, will devastate area for generations after use and will contribute to catastrophic levels of climate change if ever used on a large scale.

These reasons are precisely why Britain needs to renew its nuclear capabilities, for the simple fact that it minimises the chance of the above consequences occurring on British soil.

A White Paper released in 2006 laid out the intentions and preparations for a swift replacement of the Trident nuclear weapon system upon its end of service in the 2020s. It was estimated that to design and build the next generation of Trident missile carrying submarines could take up to 17 years, and thus a decision must be made well in advance. A 2007 vote in Parliament was passed and it was decided that Britain would renew its Trident defence system until at least the 2060s. A “concept” phase was passed and work alongside the US began for the new design of submarines. The 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review extended the lives of the current Vanguard class of submarines by an extra four years; they would decommission 2028 rather than 2024. Despite this, Trident renewal is well underway. The previous Labour government and indeed Cameron’s coalition have made it quite clear that the renewal process will not involve an expansion of capabilities of any sort. Nor will it lax efforts for talks on nuclear disarmament under the Non-Proliferation Treaty. The Liberal Democrats call for a rethink. No longer does Britain need such a sophisticated nuclear striking system designed to hit the Soviet Union in several locations and instead must be toned down to the realities of today. The Conservatives and Labour, however, back proposals for the maintenance of a 24/7 deterrent; four new submarines carrying the Trident missile with one always at sea. A like-for-like replacement of the current system.

But why do we need to renew our nuclear capabilities? The Soviet Union crumbled under its own weight. The nuclear threat has ceased to be, I hear many argue.

Well, the future is uncertain and there is no guarantee of world peace in 40 or 50 years time. Vast nuclear stockpiles exist across the world; from stable allies including France and the United States, to rather unsteady nations like Pakistan and Israel. Not to mention the perceived nuclear threat of Iran and the very recent outburst from North Korea. To reduce Britain’s nuclear deterrent in this climate without a verifiable international disarmament programme is therefore simply inconceivable. What is more, conflicts across the world hinge not solely upon states anymore but around stateless organisations; terrorists; criminal cartels and groups. There is nothing to say that one of these organisations will not obtain nuclear capabilities this century. Britain therefore needs confirmation that it will not be blackmailed, coerced or otherwise threatened in the future. Trident also stands to protect its NATO allies, promoting peace across the democratic world. We cannot simply relax under the umbrella of the United States and must possess the capabilities to defend ourselves and allies as an independent centre of nuclear decision making.

The UK must preserve its nuclear deterrent as long as other nations possess nuclear weapons. As long as there is a region, a nation, or an organisation that threatens the UK, the Trident nuclear defence system must remain.


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