Opinion: It’s time to scrap Trident

The world is a better place because of the role Britain plays internationally through aid, diplomacy and, when necessary, using force sanctioned by international law. It is worth remembering the many Libyans and Sierra Leoneans who are alive today because of the actions of Britain’s forces.

Yet at a time when the government is preparing to spend at least £25 billion on replacing our Trident nuclear weapons, it is making cuts to the conventional forces that make such interventions possible. There have been £74 billion of defence cuts to date, with another £3-5 billion due to be announced before the Easter recess. Unless something changes the Trident programme will go ahead without any serious debate, even though the Soviet Union which provided its rationale collapsed more than two decades ago.

We should be grateful that as a result of Liberal Democrat insistence, the primary investment decision on Trident (‘Main Gate’) has been postponed until 2016. It is also good news that Nick Harvey has successfully pushed for a study of the alternatives to Trident. We believe this study should be significantly expanded to explicitly consider the alternative of getting rid of Britain’s nuclear weapons altogether.

Whether Britain needs nuclear weapons is the subject of a new CentreForum report ‘Dropping the Bomb: a post Trident future’, launched this week.

Our conclusion is that there is no credible threat to the UK now or in the foreseeable future where British Trident missiles would make a contribution to our security. In our analysis, this is as true for Iran, Pakistan and North Korea as it is for Russia and China. Reasonable people can differ about whether there was a need for Trident in the depths of the 1980s Cold War, but there is simply no strategic (much less financial case) for replacing Trident today.

We examine in detail the alternatives to Trident, including the cruise missile option, and find that they are either technically unproven, fiscally uncosted, militarily ineffective, strategically destabilizing or a combination of all four – as the Sunday Times pointed out a fortnight ago.

There are essentially two options: a like for like replacement of Trident with ‘continuous at sea deterrence’ (known as CASD) or non-replacement. And if we don’t need to replace Trident in 2028 because it fulfils no strategic role, why waste money on it until then?

What do we propose instead?

We propose a costed plan of eight interlocking recommendations, which withdraws Trident from service immediately, refocuses AWE Aldermaston’s work on disarmament verification technologies, and invests in the conventional forces to allow the UK to meet its global commitments. As part of this we propose converting the existing submarines to carry conventional cruise missiles to bridge the long range strike gap to the new carriers. It would provide a balanced UK military to maximise our ability to be a force for good worldwide. In the very unlikely case of a new Cold War, it would provide us with the option to return to fielding nuclear weapons.

We keep hearing that “to govern is to choose”, and as Lib Dems, I’m delighted that we choose through vigorous debate. So let’s have the debate about moving beyond the Cold War and focusing our defence spending where it can make a real difference..

Toby Fenwick is author of the CentreForum report ‘Dropping the bomb: a post Trident future’

* Toby Fenwick is a Research Associate of the British American Security Information Council (BASIC), has written extensively on the UK Trident programme, and served on the party’s last Trident Working Group. This article is written in a personal capacity.

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This entry was posted in The Independent View.


  • Gareth Jones 8th Mar '12 - 5:48pm

    I don’t support the replacement of Trident but I do support using any money saved for the construction of more SSN’s – that is nuclear powered attack submarines. The reasons are simple;
    1) To maintain the skilled work force and ability to produce nuclear submarines you have to have a regular order (I read somewhere one every 22 months but don’t quote me on that). The construction of the 7th Astute is being stretched to cover for the delay in ordering the V-class replacement. This is going to cost so much it that apparently it would have been cheaper to order an 8th Astute.
    2) The current fleet of SSN’s is shrinking fast and the planned 7 Astutes, although individually very capable, will be too small in number to perform all the roles required of them. The modern nuclear attack submarine is the “battleship” of the fleet, as well as providing over capabilities such as intelligence.
    3) A continuation of the current Astute design would be the simplest option but we could also consider a Astute “Batch 2” with vertical launch tubes for cruise missiles. As the article says, cruise is not a good nuclear deterrent but is an excellent conventional deterrent, as well as being usable in support of British troops/interests.

    Soft power is crucial but so is hard power. 12 SSN’s will be an affordable, significant piece of hard power, which can support our troops abroad whether on humanitarian operations or defending our interests. By all means cancel the V-class/Trident replacement but replace it with more submarines.

  • Richard Church 8th Mar '12 - 7:08pm

    A simple question remains. Can you conceive of any occasion when the British might wish to independently use a nuclear weapon of any kind? Are we likely to throw a missile at Moscow or Tehran or Damascus or anywhere else without American consent? Of course not.

    A weapon is only a deterrent if it stops someone else and it is only independent if it would be used alone. Would Trident or its replacement stop someone exploding a dirty nuclear bomb on Trafalgar square? Of course not.

    Britain’s supposedly independent nuclear deterrent is cold war hangover which has no meaningful application in the 21st century. Not replacing it in 2016 will free up cash to spend on something worthwhile.

  • Richard Dean 8th Mar '12 - 7:51pm

    I can’t imagine a scenario where there would be no alternative but Trident. But I realise I am no military or political expert, so I have some simpler questions:

    1. If Trident is scrapped, how long would it take to rebuild a similar capability if we thought we needed one?
    2. How far ahead would we be able to see in order to make the decision to rebuild in time?
    3. Can we see that far ahead?

  • Why would we want to build more nuclear SSNs (than are already planned)? If we are going to build more small reactors, we may as well power our cities with them rather than subs?
    If we have to have nuclear weapons, lets have something cheap like nuclear capable cruise missiles. Cheap as chips by comparison and you can still hide them on subs. Trident is overkill. Replacing Trident like for like is overkill. We aren’t the British Empire anymore.

  • As the most realistic nuclear threat to the UK seems to be from non National source I fail to see who we would point any nuclear weapon at. For example, if Islamic terrorists managed to detonate a nuclear device during the Olympics. Do we pick a country at random ?

    We are no match for Russia or China unlikely to be in range of Iran or North Korea and have good relations with the US and Israel. So if we are attacking none of those, using a nuclear weapon would be like removing a tooth with a JCB. The Tooth would come out but the head (in fact the whole body) would be destroyed….

    MAD was always mad and they are now more pointless than ever….

  • Interesting in the discussion “Europe” hasn’t been mentioned, even in passing…
    Yes I know that we (GB) seem to like doing the “hokey cokey” when it comes to Europe, but both our role in Europe’s and Europe’s role in our defense needs to be factored in.

    In tandem, the decision regarding nuclear weapons should take account of ‘our’ (GB and other nations) nuclear power strategy. Currently, ‘our’ nuclear industry is Uranium-based, a legacy from the development of the atom bomb and the need to have a capability to produce weapons grade materials – the primary reason for concern over Iran et al. Hence as Chernobyl and Fukushima show, you don’t always need nuclear weapons to cause nuclear damage to a country.

    However, we know that nuclear power can be generated more safely from Thorium-based fuels, which can’t be converted into weapons grade materials. So a decommissioning could free up Uranium focused R&D etc. to develop Thorium (the main problem with Thorium is that R&D was diverted onto Uranium, to enable the building of weapons, the Cold War then perpetuated this R&D bias.). Given that (largely because of Fukushima) the world is reassessing their (uranium-based) nuclear power programmes and that GB is about to commence on a nuclear building programme, now would seem to be a good time to be making these hard decisions.

  • I think there’s also the issue of whether you need a strategic nuclear deterrent in the post Cold-War world, vs whether you remove all nuclear weapons entirely.

    Trident is designed to be the minimum strategic deterrent – 4 subs; one on station, one on the way out, one on the way back, one in dock. The “enemy” doesn’t know where it is and so can’t hit it before it can launch its missiles . You could have a tactical nuclear deterrent based on tomahawk cruise missiles. They are more vulnerable than trident because they have to be launched from ships or aircraft, which are easier to find and take out with a first strike. But would be sufficient deterrent for more limited nuclear powers than those with ICBMs.

    These days global reach would seem to be the imperative, and that means aircraft carriers and the means of moving troops and their equipment about quickly.

  • Just to add to and close off my digression into Thorium, the article http://www.resourceinvestor.com/2006/02/07/thorium-an-alternative-to-uranium provides a very level headed view of Thorium including it’s potential role in the disposal of weapons grade nuclear materials.

    I agree with Tabman, global reach has been important, as demonstrated by the various conflicts we’ve seen and been involved in since the Falklands in 1982 and has probably become more important as the role of the military has increasingly become that of first line law and peace enforcers in conflict zones. And with the massive advance in military technology we’ve seen in the last 30 years alternatives to Trident maybe viable.

  • @Tabman, you can launch a cruise missile from a submarine. If you couldn’t they would be a completely ineffective alternative to Trident. They are vastly inferior as they can be shot down and they can’t travel as far so the sub has to be closer to the target. They also would not be as destructive.

  • @Toby – Europe: Anglo-Franco operation
    I’ve quickly skimmed through the paper and one thing that comes out is that the reasons for ruling out French involvement effectively also apply to an EU defense scenario. Hence I would take it that (for the foreseeable future) you are also against any arrangements that would give the EU control over the deployment of the UK’s forces.

  • Toby Fenwick 12th Mar '12 - 1:02pm

    @jedibeeftrix: A fair point, which is why we’ve stressed the interlocking nature of the recommendations; you can’t cherry pick between them.

    @Roland: I’m not per se against EU-led operations, indeed quite the reserve where they are appropriate. But it is clear that NATO has the organisational capacity and expertise to be the hub of out military planning in the foreseeable future.

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