Britain's Trident submarines will last until 2025. Should they be renewed or can we survive without them?by Lewis Page / August 27, 2006 / Leave a comment
Published in August 2006 issue of Prospect Magazine
30th June 2005
Labour returned to power pledging to settle the future of Britain’s nuclear deterrent. Our Trident submarines will last until 2025. Neither of the main parties is likely to opt for disarmament and the electoral oblivion that would follow. Thus the real debate is about what nuclear weapons should follow Trident.
The bombs themselves are no problem. Many countries build them: Britain, the US, France, Russia, China, Israel, India, Pakistan; three proper liberal democracies, and five other regimes ranging from a little bit worrying to quite bad news. By 2025 the club will be bigger, and the new members are likely to be the wrong sort.
Nuclear bombs alone, however, are not a deterrent. We also need a delivery system, such as aeroplanes (or robot planes, misleadingly termed “cruise missiles”). But the trouble with aeroplanes, manned or robotic, is that they are easily shot down. Air defence equipment is freely available. The Iranians have recently acquired some effective Russian anti-aircraft gear. Syria has a solid air defence network. Planes or cruise missiles cannot reliably attack such nations today, and they will be even less able to do so in 2025. Enemy air defence systems can be taken out, but this requires a powerful air force. We don’t have one, and we certainly wouldn’t after a nuclear attack. Planes and cruise missiles, then, aren’t much of a deterrent.
The proper way to deliver nuclear weapons is by a ballistic missile, a rocket. This cannot realistically be shot down, so ballistic nukes offer real deterrence. All the nuclear bomb countries have at least basic rockets, and so do a lot of aspirants: North Korea, Syria and Iran, for instance.
We gave up trying to make rockets some 40 years ago. Since then we’ve imported them from America. This has a disadvantage: we need US support to keep Trident operational. If the Americans ever became really angry with us, they could cut off that support; two or three years on, our missiles would no longer be useable. But there is also an advantage: buying the missiles from America is far cheaper than making them ourselves.