UK nuclear weapons

By   April 26, 2015

Submitted by Chloros.

The Trident debate has largely centred around whether the UK should have an independent nuclear arsenal. This is an important question (Green Party policy is to unilaterally disarm – other parties vary on their support for these weapons of mass destruction), but it’s not the only question.


Trident is the direct replacement for Polaris, a submarine-launched missile system leased from the USA, which was developed to replace bomber-launched missles (Robert Macnamara, JFK’s Secretary of Defense brokered a deal between the UK and US to lease the technology for the missiles; we would build our own warheads and submarines). After this first iteration, all three of the submarines, missiles and warheads have been completely refreshed into today’s fleet of Vanguard submarines, Trident missiles and nuclear warheads.

The plans haven’t been finalised, but the current policy from the main parties is to replace Vanguard submarines with a new fleet of 3 or 4, but keep the missiles and warheads. An expensive refurbishment should ensure their viability until 2042.

Are submarines the best choice?

One of the reasons given in the choice of Polaris was that the enemy would not be able to target the entire UK stockpile if at least one sub were patrolling the seas at all time. This reasoning works only if you assume that there are no other alternatives and that the enemy doesn’t know where our submarines are.

In today’s world, anti-submarine technology is advancing far faster than that of the subs themselves. Earlier this year the UK had to ask for the US’s help in tracking Russian submarines. The story in the media is that we shouldn’t have cancelled our Nimrod programme, but the real story should have been Why do we assume our subs are invisible when we have technology to find the Russian’s?

Our government will try and argue that today’s technology is good enough, but we have to keep these subs for another 30+ years. Do we really think that the latest inventions today will still be viable in three decades?

Another vector for finding the submarines is through corruption or incompetence in the information systems governing the movements of subs in the first place. As our systems become more and more interconnected (not necessarily the primary, highly defended systems, but more the secondary systems (think Admiral’s email account rather than weapons control systems)), so too does the sophistication of the ‘enemy’. In the 80s it was only traditional large nation-states that could have afforded a cyber warfare team. Now any crackpot with a few hundred followers can attract hacker firepower.

Remember two things: Firstly we have to protect ALL our information vectors – the enemy just needs to find a way into one. Secondly the whole decision around Trident hinges on keeping a secret submarine at sea at all times. If this becomes impossible then we’ve just wasted £100bn.

Finally – why do we need to keep our stockpile protected, or at least some of it? This strikes to the heart of why nuclear weapons are a bad idea… we need to keep the stockpile distributed so that if an enemy were to strike our primary weapons store, then we would be able to strike back. It is not the threat of first strike therefore that has kept world peace for 70 years, but the threat of REVENGE!

Greater alliances

There is a better way – if you assume for a moment that we need at least some nuclear weapons, it would be better to be in an alliance with other nuclear powers to agree a retaliatory contingency. Indeed we already are – NATO! Why not agree to share nukes with France. This means we end up with at least two independent stockpiles.

We could even go one further – establish a multi-key system whereby we house some nukes on British soil, but so too do the major NATO allies. To launch the nukes would require a minimum number of agreements rather than just one individual country. The argument here is that if something happens that is so catastrophic that the only response is nuclear Armageddon, then surely we can find a few allies to agree with us. It also has the benefit of preventing our own government from even performing a first strike against a parochial enemy.

In all likelihood, there will not be a Green Party majority after the 7th May, but the MPs elected could hold critical influence in defense policy and the direction of the trident replacement in particular. The question of the UK nuclear arsenal is being presented as an all or nothing dilemma, or at best a ‘3 or 4 submarines’ choice. To not invite wider debate on this most serious of decisions would be a betrayal of the electorate.


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