What is Trident?

A Trident Missile being launched

During the campaign, Trident was, during the hustings at least one of the big issues in Ceredigion. On the doorstep it was a little bit different, I only remember fielding a handful of questions about it. But those questions raised within me a major worry, most of those asking actually had little idea what Trident did, or what its role is. So I figured I’d eventually do this post and explain what Trident is, what it does and why I’m opposed to that role, because unlike many who are against Trident, I’m not opposed based on ideological or ethical concerns about the utilisation of such weapons. I’m opposed because I don’t think that it does the job very well.

What is Trident?

The first thing to note is that Trident is not actually a nuclear weapon. Trident is used interchangeably to refer to both the UK’s Nuclear Weapons Capability and is also shorthand for the UGM-133 Trident II, or Trident D5, which is a submarine launched ballistic missile. It is essentially a long range, submersible launched weapons delivery system.

Britain owns and operates 58 of these missiles, each of which can carry I believe up to 12 warheads, although how this actually operates in British service is some information. to which I am not a party. In US Service, due to SORT (Full Name: The Treaty Between the United States of America and the Russian Federation on Strategic Offensive Reductions), the Trident II carries just 4-5 warheads of either 475 kilotons or 100 kilotons. For reference purposes, the bomb dropped on Hiroshima (Little Boy) had an explosive force of somewhere between 13 and 18 kilotons (FYI a kiloton is equivalent to 1000 tons of TNT) and the bomb dropped on Nagasaki (Fat Man) carried a yield of 22 kilotons. So theoretically a single Trident delivery system can carry 12 475kt warheads for a total tonnage of 5,700kt, or 271 “Fat Man” bombs.

Gordon Brown announced before the election that Britain owns around 160 warheads, although the exact proportions of the tonnage of these warheads is not known. Either way, Trident can potentially launch a serious level of nuclear firepower against a hostile power.

The Trident missile operates fairly simply, it is launched from a submarine whilst its still underwater, meaning that in order to launch it doesn’t have to expose itself and can easily dive and evade any hostile countermeasures deployed against it should she be detected. The missile can also utilise the multiple warheads to hit multiple targets or to provide a very wide impact area for maximum coverage.

What do we need to support Trident?

The Vanguard class Submarine

The first element supporting Trident is of course the Vanguard class Submarine. The Vanguard class is a Nuclear Powered submarine, which entered service in 1993. Thanks to it being Nuclear Powered, its range is virtually unlimited, up until the reactor begins to deteriorate and that is of course provided its human crew can be resupplied. She has a cruising speed of about 25 knots, or about 29mph, meaning she can cover about 700 miles in a day, meaning it would take a Vanguard class Sub about 26 days to circumnavigate the globe. She carries a crew of 135, 14 officers and 121 enlisted personnel, which because Women are not allowed to serve on Submarines is all male.

In addition to the 16 missile tubes, each containing a Trident II missile, the submarine is also armed with 4 21inch torpedo tubes to engage other submarines & ships, should it come to that.

In addition to the submarine carrying the missiles a comprehensive anti-submarine warfare package is required to protect Trident from engagement by enemy attack subs and indeed surface vessels. Included in the package is the Type 22 & 23 Frigates (to be replaced by the Type 26 Frigate by around 2021) the Merlin Helicopter, the Nimrod MRA4 (replacement for the now notorious MR2), Britain’s three classes of Attack Submarines (SSNs), the Swiftsure (soon to be retired), Trafalgar and Astute class, which is currently under construction and will begin replacing the ageing Trafalgar class submarine.

The HMS Somerset a Type 23 Frigate

Of course in the event of a nuclear war, in order for Britain to retaliate, this package must function perfectly to defend the submarines and their ballistic missiles. But all of these are big ticket items in the Naval budget and let us not forget, these aren’t traditionally counted as a part of the Trident package, yet they are integral to its operation. Certainly the RN will require an anti-submarine warfare package, Trident or no Trident, but perhaps elements soon to be ordered, such as the Type 26 Frigate, which could probably see a reduction in numbers from the projected 18 vessels and cutbacks in other elements, such as the MRA4, which if not needed to defend the Vanguard class submarines from hostile attack submarines could definitely be scaled back from 9 aircraft, a pretty big saving when you consider each MRA4 costs approximately £400m per aircraft (£3.6bn for all 9).

Trident’s Role

A nuclear explosion

Trident is what is referred to as a second strike weapon. What that essentially means is that unless Britain were to come under attack by another nuclear power, using “non-conventional” ie Nuclear weaponry (but theoretically also biological or chemical weapons), Trident will never be utilised.

That means Trident’s primary role is one of deterrence. It essentially says other powers, if you attack me, I will be able to attack you back. And you won’t do very well out of it. It is what is more commonly known as MAD or Mutually Assured Destruction (although the actual reality of Trident is that it probably couldn’t launch enough kilo-tonnage in reply to a Chinese or Russian attack to do any realistic damage. Key cities might get destroyed but it wouldn’t be parity with the destruction wreaked on Britain.

Do we need Trident?

Moving first to the strategic rationale, that Trident would serve to deter another nuclear power from attacking the UK. There are realistically only two nuclear powers with the capability to hit the United Kingdom with a Nuclear weapon. Russia & China. And despite David Cameron’s best efforts to convince us all otherwise during the Prime Minister’s debates, barring a massive breakdown in relations, that seems pretty unlikely to me.

The other rationale is that North Korea, or Iran could potentially launch a nuclear strike on the UK. North Korea’s current longest range missile, the Taepodong I Missile has an estimated range of 2000km, well short of the UK. They have other systems in development with a longer range, but at the end of the day we’re a pretty unlikely target for North Korea, since their primary foreign policy goal is reunification and the USA is the primary obstacle to that, a nuclear attack on the UK would make little sense in furthering that goal.

As for Iran, their longest range missile has a maximum range of around 2000km, with the enhanced Shahab 3, Gadr 110, Ashoura and Sajjil missiles all apparently capable of this range, but as yet Iran doesn’t even have a working bomb, let alone a nuclear warhead capable of being mounted on any of these missiles, or I believe a missile system capable of reaching the UK. At any rate, Israel is Iran’s primary target and rhetoric aside, the rationale for Iran to launch a Nuclear strike on the UK seems to be lacking, as with North Korea they would gain little. Seemingly the only function for an Iranian Nuclear Deterrent would be to deter us from making a conventional attack on them and to secure its own borders, as well as strengthen her diplomatic position vis-a-vis the United States & Israel as well as within the Middle East, notably with the major Arab powers and put in a dominant position over Syria.

There is also an argument that follows that a submarine launched nuclear deterrent would deter terrorists from launching a nuclear attack on the UK. To my mind there are two problems with this theory. The first is the likelihood that a terrorist group would first be able to acquire a working nuclear device, second move it into the country and indeed this country, since the US is a more high profile target anyway and thirdly have the capability to actually detonate the bomb, since they are all equipped with safeguards to prevent unauthorised use. There is also a practical issue. If a terrorist detonated a nuclear device in the UK, how exactly do you retaliate? You can hardly nuke Syria and call it quits. There is no clear retaliation target for a terrorist group, hence rendering the nuclear retaliation option basically impotent.

In short, the threats for Trident to deter barely exist. Potentially these could develop in future, but of course it would probably be cheaper in the long run for Britain to maintain its nuclear weapons infrastructure and perhaps even its stock of nuclear devices, without Trident or the associated submarines & elements of the anti-submarine warfare package and should the need arise, this could be reactivated. Not fantastically rapidly admittedly, but it shouldn’t be too difficult to acquire the necessary infrastructure from the Americans and build the submarines here in this country, provided we maintain our own homegrown manufacturing capability for these submarines. It does seem to me however that maintaining this highly expensive deterrent system when there is no clear strategic threat for it to be deterring against. Certainly the money spent on Trident could be redeployed within the MODs budget and massively improve our conventional warfighting capability (something we know to be lacking from Iraq & Afghanistan), as well as the quality of life for servicemen & women and of course any improvement to our warfighting capability and thereby equipment would go a long way to reducing deaths in Afghanistan, a conflict in which Trident is of no use.

-Greg Foster

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3 Responses to What is Trident?

  1. Linby says:

    Its great to see a nicely rounded article on the issues surrounding Trident. There’s no doubt for all sides it’s an uncumfortable issue as it’s a status symbol which grants certain benefits in negotiation terms but at what price? It’s long past due that we take our place as a Britain that is broken with some respect and dignity and think positively on how we align ourselves with new foreign markets and rebuild our economy at home.

  2. BigFoz says:

    As a second strike weapon it’s pointless, we’d all be dead or severely compromised before it got fired. No UK politician would be prepared to push the button. Most importantly, the cold war is long over, there are no more viable targets for Trident. Bin it, save the money.

  3. Frank Little says:

    If a terrorist detonated a nuclear device in the UK, how exactly do you retaliate? You can hardly nuke Syria and call it quits.

    Moreover, 9/11 showed that a terror attack is most likely to be mounted by dissidents from Saudi Arabia, Egypt or another “friendly” state.

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