The UK has voted to renew its nuclear deterrent. On July 18, British lawmakers approved replacing the country’s fleet, which consists of four Royal Navy submarines armed with Trident missiles in service since the 1990s.
Despite opposition from the pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP), the House of Commons voted, 472 to 117, to build new submarines. Although Labour’s official policy is to maintain Trident, a large number of anti-nuclear activists have voiced their opinion in the party’s ranks. The Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP), which holds 54 of the 650 House of Commons seats, firmly opposed renewing the Trident fleet, which is based on Scotland’s west coast. Other parties supported the decision.
The government estimates the cost of the new subs at up to $54 billion over 20 years. The vote was not on full approval for the new submarines as the government has opted to approve the investment in stages in an effort to control costs.
Asked if she be willing to order a nuclear strike, Prime Minister Theresa May didn’t hesitate to say «Yes». It was her first address to parliament since taking office. Obviously, the Prime Minister sought to rally the Conservatives after the bruising and divisive EU referendum campaign and her sweeping reshuffle of the cabinet. Theresa May said shortly before she became Prime Minister that there should be a vote in the House of Commons on replacing the Trident fleet before the summer recess and it would be «sheer madness» to give up the UK’s nuclear weapons because of the threat posed by other countries. Renewing the potential would show Britain was «committed» to working with NATO allies after voting for Brexit, she added. Replacing Trident was a Tory manifesto pledge in the general election.
The motion stated that Britain’s nuclear forces «will remain essential to the UK’s security today as it has for over 60 years» and the House of Commons «recognizes the importance of the Successor class submarines to the UK’s defence industrial base and in supporting thousands of highly skilled engineering jobs». The current generation of four submarines would begin to end their working lives some time in the late 2020s. Work on a replacement cannot be delayed because the submarines alone could take up to 17 years to develop.
The Trident program includes the potential replacement of the four submarines stationed at Faslane naval base on the west coast of Scotland. The submarines carry up to eight missiles and can be fitted with up to 40 warheads. At any time at least one submarine is on patrol. Trident’s ballistic missiles have a range of up to 7,500 miles. Currently, the government is spending around 6% of its annual defence budget on Trident. The vote allows to proceed with building a fleet of Successor-class submarines, to be operational by the 2030s, thereby renewing the Trident system and extending its life until the 2060s.
Construction on the first of these is planned to begin in Barrow-in-Furness in autumn 2016 in order to be operational by 2028. The four Vanguards are scheduled to be phased out by 2032. Trident II D-5 missiles are expected to continue in service until at least 2040 following an upgrade.
The idea to have Trident submarines in the Navy’s inventory is substantiated by the fact that the boats cannot be detected. This reason d’etre is being undermined by new technology, including underwater drones, surveillance of wave patterns and other advanced detection techniques that could make the submarines redundant by the time they are operational.
The decision is taken at the time the defense budget is under strain. The money on Trident comes out of the same pot used to pay for the rest of the British military. The money can be directed towards conventional forces. This is the time when the British surface fleet has been drastically reduced. Nuclear weapons have shown themselves to be completely useless as a deterrent to the current threats, particularly international terrorism.
Britain’s nuclear deterrent is not independent. The Trident program cuts to the heart of the US-UK special relationship. It serves more the interests of the US than the UK. While the Trident submarines are produced by BAE Systems in Scotland, and the warheads are produced at the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment in Berkshire with the help of US know-how, the actual missiles are manufactured in the United States. The maintenance program is also run by the US, with a pool of missiles held at the US Strategic Weapons facility at King’s Bay, Georgia, USA, from which the US itself and Britain draw serviced missiles as required. The United States controls the software for firing, targeting and detonating the missiles.
It makes Britain completely dependent on its North American ally for the most crucial part of its supposedly «independent» nuclear potential effectively controlled by the US, while being paid for by the British taxpayer.
According to the report of the independent all-party Trident Commission, «The UK is dependent on the United States for many component parts of the guidance and re-entry vehicle, and for the Trident ballistic missile system itself».
Just before the vote, the US retired high-ranking military published a letter in the Times in an evident attempt to influence the outcome. «Every US Administration from both parties since 1958 has valued the UK’s independent deterrent, and we urge the UK to continue its vital contribution to transatlantic security», the letter says.
Besides, unlike the French, the British nuclear weapons are specifically pledged to operate according to NATO plans. Except in an undefined emergency situation, Trident is assigned to NATO and under the command of a US general. If the purpose is to guarantee the security of other states, then why should the UK shoulder the financial burden alone?
The vote in favor of Trident’s renewal leads to the splintering of the United Kingdom as the majority of Scotland wants Trident removed. It is highly likely that the Scottish National Party (SNP) will launch an independence referendum. If Scotland leaves the UK, the government will have to spend huge sums on building a naval base for strategic submarines.
Nuclear weapons are not a guarantee against an aggression. Britain was attacked in the Falklands, despite having nuclear weapons. Israel has been attacked, despite having nuclear weapons.
Countries like Japan, Germany, Canada, among many others, do without nuclear potentials and have as much global influence as the UK.
A new, multilateral Nuclear Ban Treaty now looks plausible, and could come into force under International Humanitarian Law as early as 2020. This is the potentially transformative diplomatic development that has been missed by practically all mainstream coverage of Trident replacement.
Finally, by maintaining the nuclear potential, Britain remains to be a target for retaliatory strike.
There is each and every reason to doubt the wisdom of the decision to renew the Trident program. One thing is certain – the parliament’s vote is fraught with serious implications. All the reasons against the program pale, probably, because the government and the lawmakers, who voted for the program, don’t view Trident as simply a weapon but rather as a symbol of power, projected across the globe – a hangover from bygone days of influence and clout.