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UK Defence – Reminders of the Importance of Trident Replacement By Howard Wheeldon, FRAeS, Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd.


tridentThe decision by those that plan and agree what is to be debated at the Labour Party conference to side-step a possible discussion on maintaining and replacing Trident Nuclear deterrent capability or, as some have put it, to avoid a real showdown on Trident, is a timely lesson that not only are those engaged in UK defence very firmly behind Trident replacement but that so too are the vast majority of politicians of both main political parties.


I make no apology whatsoever for continuing to believe that the UK needs to be able to build, operate and maintain strategic nuclear deterrent capability and that it should maintain as it has for the past six decades complete autonomy over its potential use. Even so it is a given that the UK would never use nuclear weapons capability in its possession without knowledge that it has the support of its NATO allies. That we would never use our nuclear capability as a means of aggression unless previously attacked is also a given.


The Trident missiles themselves are manufactured and maintained in the US and my present understanding is that planned life extension of the current Trident ll (D5) weapons pool by the US takes this out to 2042. The UK Trident Nuclear capability force operated by the Royal Navy consists of four Vanguard class SSBN (Ship, Submersible, Ballistic, Nuclear) submarines built by Vickers Shipbuilding and Engineering, VSEL at Barrow in Furness and which, now being part of BAE Systems, remains the UK’s centre of excellence for submarine build. The first of Class SSBN vessel built at Barrow, HMS Vanguard deployed for the first time in December 1994. The second vessel, HMS Victorious deployed in January 1996, the third, HMS Vigilant deployed in February 1998 and the fourth and last, HMS Vengeance deployed first in March 2001. Each vessel is powered by a second generation Rolls-Royce partnership built pressurised water nuclear reactor and has the ability to carry 16 Trident 11 D5 ballistic missiles.


The four Vanguard class SSBN vessels are based at the Clyde Submarine Base at Faslane and the Royal Naval Armaments Depot at nearby Coulport and which are operated on behalf of the Royal Navy by Babcock International. HMG has recently announced a significant upgrading of the Faslane facility and BAE Systems has similarly announced plans to upgrade its Barrow-in-Furnace facility that is currently building the Astute class nuclear powered submarines, ahead of building ‘Successor’ the planned replacement for the existing Vanguard Class SSBN’s and which the company and its partners are currently engaged in developing.


With ‘Initial Gate’ on Successor programme having been achieved in May 2011 the Ministry of Defence, BAE Systems and its partners including Rolls-Royce are well advanced in planning and development of the replacement SSBN vessels that will carry the UK’s Trident nuclear deterrent capability forward. According to the NAO, MOD plans currently envisage £4.2bn (broken down as £900m for the concept phase and £3.3bn for the assessment phase) being spent on Trident submarine replacement development before the UK parliament will be asked to give final approval and go-ahead for the programme, to decide on whether we go for three or four replacement vessels in order to maintain full continuous at sea deterrent capability and that, following a vote in the House of Commons, would then allow the Successor programme to progress to ‘Main Gate’ sometime during 2016. Assuming this occurs the plan is for the first new vessel to enter service in 2028.


The Ministry of Defence estimates the cost of the Successor programme to fall within the 2006 White Paper estimates of £15-20bn, including £11-14 billion for the new submarines (at 2006-7 prices). The MOD believes the in-service costs of the UK’s nuclear deterrent amount to approximately 5-6% of the defence budget.


With the concept and assessment phase now very well advanced and being most likely less than a year away from completion to the point when Parliament will be asked to make the final project approval one may conclude that the Conservative Government will remain fully committed to Trident replacement and also that with the official Labour Party policy on Trident will most likely continue to be aligned with that of HMG. If that is so and despite opposition from minority parties in the House, and not wishing to pre-empt the views of the House of Commons I believe that the ‘Successor’ programme will move through from the development to build stage next year and rightly so. At what stage the Government would consent to actually ordering and how this might be done may depend on the outcome and recommendations of SDSR 2015, the next defence and security review whose outcome will be known at the very end of November this year.


Even though the Scottish Nationalist Party and the handful of Liberal Democrats remaining in the House of Commons are against it seems to me that with Labour’s new leader having failed to get Trident replacement onto the Labour conference agenda that those in the party who are opposed to the UK maintaining a nuclear deterrent capability and to replacing Trident have recognised that within the party there are major elements that will refuse to allow official party policy supporting Trident replacement to be changed. That the Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn is opposed to Trident replacement is perhaps of far more concern in relation to the damage he might be able to do to public perception than it is in my view to what might emerge from the final parliamentary vote on the issue next year.


In his excellent paper entitled ‘Nuclear Disarmament Verses Peace in the 21st Century’ published in the April 2006 edition of the RUSI Journal. Mr. Julian Lewis MP who now chairs the House of Common Defence Select Committee, said that the possession of the [nuclear] deterrent may be unpleasant, but it is an unpleasant necessity. This is a view that I have throughout my adult life and particularly through the many years that I have engaged professionally in support of maintaining strong UK defence capability both from a conventional and nuclear stance have shared. In his concluding remarks in that article Mr. Lewis reminded “that the purpose of a British nuclear deterrent remains what it has always been: to minimize the prospect of the United Kingdom being attacked by mass destruction weapons. It is not” he suggested “a panacea and it is not designed to forestall every type of threat. Nevertheless, the threat which it is designed to counter is so overwhelming that no other form of military capability could manage to avert it. The possession of the deterrent may be unpleasant” he said “but it is an unpleasant necessity, the purpose of which lies not in its actual use but in its nature as the ultimate ‘stalemate weapon’ and, in the nuclear age, stalemate is the most reliable source of security available to us all”.


Again I share those views and consider that throughout the six decades of our having had possession of an independent nuclear deterrent capability I am in no doubt that we have acted with total responsibility in all respects. Just as the fleet of Polaris submarines had done since that programme was first announced in 1962 so too have for the past twenty five years the four-strong fleet of Vanguard Class SSBN Trident submarines operating on the basis of a ‘continuous at sea’ strategy by the Royal Navy, meaning one vessel at sea at all times, have these provided the nation with the nuclear deterrent capability that we required. So too is it that while during that time and most often combined with our NATO allies we have been engaged many conflicts using conventional weapons capability that our nuclear capability has provided the deterrence effect that it was designed to do.


Maintaining nuclear deterrent capability cannot and should never be seen as being replacement of need to maintain strong conventional weapons defence capability but as the ‘ultimate weapon’ it is there to deter others that may also be in possession of similar weapons. Without it we have little to offer the would-be aggressor. Never has Britain threatened to use its nuclear weapons capability and never has it abused the power that it has in its possession. Nor would we ever do so unless and until we find ourselves faced with an equal threat.


I accept that not all are in favour of our maintaining an independent nuclear deterrent. Some have argued over the past twenty five years that the demise of the Soviet Union as the main potential adversary has removed the justification for its retention. Former Labour Foreign Secretary, the late Robin Cook argued back in July 2005 that “the justification for both Polaris and Trident was that we faced in the Soviet Union a great, hostile bear bristling with nuclear claws. The missiles were put on submarines precisely because the ocean bed was the only place they could hide from Russian firepower. But those are calculations from a long-vanished era. The Soviet Union has disintegrated, its satellites are our allies in the European Union, and the west is now”.


My answer to that is, as we witnessed in the United Nation last night and as we have seen in the continuing increase in Russian aggression in Ukraine that while I can hardly argue that the Soviet Union era has ended it has been replaced by Russian aggression on an unprecedented scale. Russia of course remains a very significant nuclear power. I am not sure who it was who said around the same time that “no other credible nuclear threat has stepped forward to replace the Soviet Union as a rationale for the British [holding on to] nuclear weapons capability” adding that while “two or three other nations have emerged with a crude nuclear capability but none of them has developed the capacity or the motivation to attack Britain” but with Iran, North Korea and potentially soon others in possession of nuclear weapons capability I can hardly be expected to agree such sentiments. Again, the same person argued that “the collapse of the ‘cold war’ has removed even the theoretical justification for our possessing strategic nuclear weapons”.  With apologies but I beg to differ.  As we see all around us the growth of new economic powers such as China and who just as Russia and other potential aggressors have and are spending more and more on defence together with the growing uncertainties in the Middle East tell me that we must at all cost maintain strong defence and both conventional and nuclear deterrence.


HMG rightly contends that while threats to the UK have evolved, maintaining strong nuclear defence capability remains a very important part of the country’s force balance. As Dr. John Reid, the Secretary of State for Defence commented in January 2006: “it is perfectly true that there are new threats arising from terrorism, but that does not mean that the old threats have disappeared. It is equally true that the type of forces that we would need to develop to counter terrorism, such as special-forces, extra surveillance and extra mobility, are not necessarily nuclear weapons. That nuclear weapons are not a response to the threat of terrorism does not mean that we should, for instance, get rid of special-forces because they are not a response to the threat of nuclear weapons – the truth is that we need a range of responses to a range of threats.


The upcoming 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review will I believe correctly reiterate the requirement to both maintain and to replace the existing fleet of Trident nuclear submarines. If so it will not only have the backing and support of a majority in Parliament next year but also in my view a majority of the public. It will of course also have the backing of trade unions who understand the need to maintain sovereign capability and important design and engineering skills here in the UK. They also recognise the importance of safeguarding thousands of defence jobs long into the future. Views such as this may be none defence related but they are nonetheless very important. Whatever, the prospect of not having trade unions on side has certainly made Mr. Corbyn think twice about holding a debate this week on Trident.


Of course, in an ideal world it would be nice to consider the prospect of all nations gradually reducing strategic nuclear weapons capability but in my view I can see no prospect of moving further down the road of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaties over the next twenty years. From the aspect of national security I for one believe that maintaining effective independent nuclear deterrent capability in the UK remains an absolute priority.


CHW (London – 29th September 2015)

Howard Wheeldon FRAeS


Tel: 07710 779785




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