On New Year’s Day 2013, management of our nuclear bases will be handed over to the private sector. The debate on a Nuclear UK continues and after 30 years it seems to remain stuck between two factions which are stereotyped as ‘pinko-commies’ and ‘right-wing warmongers’.

Even within the Labour Party, those opposing Trident are often seen as weak, pacifists ideologues and those supporting are seen as pandering to the Tories. I confess, I joined CND in 1987, but am no pacifist and believe we must maintain a strong Defence strategy, which works in tandem with a strong diplomatic and development strategy. It is a balancing act, with influences such as budgets, jobs, security, environment, alliances and ethics pulling from all angles.

Trident renewal remains a political ‘hot potato’ and is a significant wedge within the coalition government. However, national public discussion and comprehension of the arguments is limited. Here is a quick review.

The Trident programme is a system of four Vanguard class submarines armed with Trident II D-5 ballistic missiles able to deliver thermonuclear warheads. The system is operated by the Royal Navy at Clyde Naval Base in Scotland. The submarines are built in Burrow-in-Furness and fitted in Plymouth.

The submarine reactors are built in Derby, while the missiles are leased from the US with key components such as the firing device purchased from the US. Terms of the missile lease arrangement states the United States does not have any veto on the use of British nuclear weapons. While the warheads are made in Aldermaston, they are stored in Faslane. The existing submarines’ life span extends to 2024 and new submarines will take 17 years to develop and build.

An amount in the region of £700 million has been allocated to R&D . This supports 130 staff at the MoD, 1,100 jobs in Burrow-in-Furness and 100 in Plymouth. Meanwhile, 520 civilian jobs are directly impacted by Trident at Faslane.

Around £1 billion has been committed to refurbishing the Rolls-Royce plant at Raynesway in Derby, to produce pressurised water reactors for nuclear submarines. £3 billion has been spent already and yet the final decision is due in 2016. The total replacement cost is estimated at £83.5 billon (BASIC cross-party review of Trident).

The Trident programme was designed to provide an on-going, independently-controlled deterrent against major threats to the security of the United Kingdom and NATO. At the time, the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact Allies were considered potential threats.

Each submarine carries 8 warheads, with each warhead being eight times more powerful than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, which resulted in the loss of approximately 166,000 lives within four months. The missiles have a range of 7500 miles and are fired from sea. One submarine constantly patrols the Atlantic Ocean in silence for 3 months with a crew of 160.

The key questions for renewal of the programme are:

  • 1. Is the Trident System fit for purpose for 21st Century warfare?
  • 2. Is it a cost-effective deterrent considering the new post-cold war threat matrix?
  • 3. Are there new technologies which could provide more targeted, ‘cleaner’, long range weapons?
  • 4. Is Trident too expensive to cancel / can we afford Trident?
  • 5. How many jobs will be lost, can these be realigned to other industries?
  • 6. Is it ethical for the UK to remain a nuclear power, while asking others not to develop nuclear technologies?
  • 7. If the UK is not a nuclear power, will we have any influence in global geo-political decision making?

The British American Security Information Council (BASIC) has initiated a review of the Trident Programme. This has cross-party support and an impressive range of members and contributors. The final report is eagerly awaited. Meanwhile, we, the LFIG Defence Group, have commissioned the Truman Project to present a review of alternatives to Trident. This will be circulated in late January.

The Nuclear Question is easy to answer when we look through the lens of ideology and humanity, however, the reality is more complicated and requires brave leadership. The Americans are developing long range non-nuclear weapons, and technical skills utilized in the Nuclear industry could be repurposed to support the growing global renewable energy sector as our threat matrix has changed significantly.

It is complicated, however, with our national security at stake and the enormous costs involved, and so the public should be consulted. This 30 year debate needs closure and should not be used as a political football.

The decision has been pushed back to 2016, however, the Tory-led Coalition government is already signing long term Trident-related contracts and spending considerable amounts of taxpayers’ money.

And significantly with Faslane as the nuclear submarine base, the Scottish referendum has forced an open public debate on this issue. It is essential we have the same discussion across the rest of the UK without fear of being branded. Watch this space, we will keep you posted.

Sonia Klein is Chair of the Defence Group at LFIG. She writes here in a personal capacity

Trident Renewal, UK Nuclear Deterrence and Security in an Uncertain World
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