The Real Reason for Replacing Trident Submarines

May 19th, 2007 - by admin

David Morrison / Labour & Trade Union Review – 2007-05-19 23:11:57

LONDON (May 2007) — On 14 March 2007, the House of Commons approved the following Government motion by 409 votes to 161 [1]:

“That this House supports the Government’s decisions, as set out in the White Paper The Future of the United Kingdom’s Nuclear Deterrent (Cm 6994), to take the steps necessary to maintain the UK’s minimum strategic nuclear deterrent beyond the life of the existing system and to take further steps towards meeting the UK’s disarmament responsibilities under Article VI of the Non-Proliferation Treaty.”

Some 87 Labour backbenchers joined the Liberal Democrats and the Scots and Welsh nationalists in voting against. Earlier, an amendment which sought to delay the decision was defeated by 413 votes to 167, with 95 Labour backbenchers voting for it.

The steps set out in the White Paper [2] to “maintain the UK’s minimum strategic nuclear deterrent” were
(a) to build a second generation of nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines to come into service from 2024 onwards, and
(b) (b) to participate in the US Navy’s programme to extend the life of the US-built Trident missiles, for which these submarines serve as launch platforms, to around 2042.

The “further steps” set out in the White Paper “towards meeting the UK’s disarmament responsibilities under Article VI of the Non-Proliferation Treaty” are the reduction of the UK’s operational warheads from 200 to 160 (having reduced them from 300 following the 1998 Strategic Defence Review [3]). This is due to be completed before the end of 2007.

Key Question
The key question for those who assert UK’s right to possess nuclear weapons is how can they deny that right to any other state in the world. The White Paper says that the UK needs nuclear weapons: “to deter and prevent nuclear blackmail and acts of aggression against our vital interests that cannot be countered by other means” (Paragraph 3-4)

Obviously, this reasoning applies with even greater force to weaker states, like Iran, that are threatened by stronger ones, like the US and Israel. Indeed, on the basis of this reasoning, it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that every state should get nuclear weapons, if it can possibly afford them.

Surprisingly, this question got a good airing in the debate — and, since the question is unanswerable, the Government wisely decided not to attempt an answer.

Unfortunately for William Hague, speaking in support of the Government, as the Conservative spokesman on Foreign Affairs, he had to attempt to do the impossible, because he foolishly allowed Liberal Democrat MP, Phil Willis, to intervene and ask him: “… the logic of [your] position is that if every single state in the world were given a nuclear weapon, the world would be safer. That is nonsense, is it not?”

Hague replied weakly: “That is not the logic, and it is the reason why we have the non-proliferation treaty, to which we are signatories.”

But it is the logic. And the reason we have a non-proliferation treaty is to attempt to constrain non-nuclear states from acting upon the logic, and developing nuclear weapons “to deter and prevent nuclear blackmail and acts of aggression”.

There isn’t the slightest doubt that, had Iraq succeeded in developing nuclear weapons, the US/UK would have been deterred from their aggression against Iraq in March 2003, and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, who are dead as a consequence of that aggression, would be alive today.

Neither is there the slightest doubt that, if there was even a suspicion that Iran had a functional nuclear weapon today, the US would be seeking to negotiate with it, as it has done with North Korea despite its nuclear test last autumn, rather than continuing to threaten to use force, contrary to Article 2.4 of the UN Charter.

William Hague continued his reply to Phil Willis:

“However, he must not think that if we announced today our intention not to have a nuclear deterrent in future, other countries — those in Tehran, for example — would say, ‘What a relief! We are now going to abandon our nuclear intentions.’ That is not the way the world works, as he and I know; we simply have to make the realistic decision.”

That is a counter to the proposition that the UK should disarm unilaterally. It is not a counter to the proposition that, if the UK needs nuclear weapons “to deter and prevent nuclear blackmail and acts of aggression”, then every other state in the world can mount a case for acquiring them.

As Labour MP, Gavin Strang, said:

“We seek to persuade non-nuclear weapons states not to pursue nuclear weapons programmes … . Those exhortations will be met with increasing cynicism if, at the same time as we make them, we buy a new generation of Trident. … By renewing Trident we will effectively say to other countries that nuclear weapons are so vital that we are prepared to spend billions of pounds to make sure that we have them in the 2020s and beyond, even though the Government admit that we do not face a foreseeable direct military threat. Far from persuading other nations to remain non-nuclear, we will send a signal that nuclear weapons are vital.

“… There is nothing in the Government’s justification for renewing Trident that does not apply to every country in the world. That clearly undermines our argument that non-nuclear weapon states should continue to forgo nuclear weapons. The Government rightly say that we do not know what the future holds, but we can be sure that a decision not to renew Trident would avoid the damage that would be done to non-proliferation efforts if we go ahead with renewal.”

James Arbuthnot, the Conservative Chairman of the Defence Select Committee, also recognised that every state has a case for not going naked into the conference chamber:

“I have decided to support the proposal. I am not inclined to take the risk of allowing the unilateral nuclear disarmament of this country to send us naked into the conference chamber, as Nye Bevan once put it. The trouble is that those considerations apply just as strongly to Iran as they do to the United Kingdom. … Why should we expect a proud Iranian nation to go naked into the conference chamber? It is a difficult question. My answer is that we have the world that we have.”

Hague on Israel
Answering a question about Israel’s possession of nuclear weapons, William Hague said: “I suspect that if we had been in Israel’s situation over recent decades we would have wanted to have nuclear weapons” — which concedes the proposition that a state’s acquisition of nuclear weapons is a reasonable response to a perceived threat.

With that, he hasn’t a leg to stand on in resisting an attempt by Iran to acquire nuclear weapons, not least because Iran has undoubtedly got Israeli nuclear missiles targeted at it.

No doubt, William Hague would respond by saying that Iran is non-nuclear signatory of the non-proliferation treaty and is forbidden by the treaty from developing nuclear weapons “to deter and prevent nuclear blackmail and acts of aggression”, whereas Israel has never signed the treaty and has therefore been free to develop nuclear weapons as it sees fit — which illustrates the double standards that exist in this matter.

Since Israel is never going to give up its nuclear weapons in order to join the treaty as a non-nuclear state, if the same standard is to be applied to both states, Iran will have to withdraw from the treaty — and be free, like Israel, to develop nuclear weapons as it chooses.

This is permitted under the treaty, Article IX of which says [4]:

“Each Party shall in exercising its national sovereignty have the right to withdraw from the Treaty if it decides that extraordinary events, related to the subject matter of this Treaty, have jeopardized the supreme interests of its country. It shall give notice of such withdrawal to all other Parties to the Treaty and to the United Nations Security Council three months in advance. Such notice shall include a statement of the extraordinary events it regards as having jeopardized its supreme interests.”

By any objective standard, every state in the Middle East, including Iran, has good grounds for withdrawal, because of the build up over the past 30 years of an Israeli nuclear arsenal directed at them. Could there be a better example of “extraordinary events, related to the subject matter of this Treaty”, which “have jeopardized the supreme interests” of each and every one of them?

Hague the Imperialist
In the debate, those in favour of maintaining Britain’s nuclear weapons, generally speaking, stuck to the line that it was necessary “to deter and prevent nuclear blackmail and acts of aggression”. But William Hague gave additional reason:

“The realistic planning that I have been speaking of has to assume that the UK will continue to be engaged in regional hot spots, including — but not limited to — the Middle East, and that British military operations might have to be conducted in the face of local states possessing weapons of mass destruction of some kind. Nuclear capability, even when its use seems remote, significantly enhances confidence in dealing with a potential adversary.”

In other words, if Britain is to continue to be an imperialist power, intervening militarily all over the world, then it must possess nuclear weapons. Had it not been a nuclear state, it wouldn’t have had sufficient “confidence” to engage in aggression against Iraq. An interesting thought.

An independent Nuclear Deterrent?
The White Paper continually speaks of our present nuclear weapons system and its successor as “an independent British nuclear deterrent”. Prime Minister Blair wrote in the foreword:

“We believe that an independent British nuclear deterrent is an essential part of our insurance against the uncertainties and risks of the future. … An independent deterrent ensures our vital interests will be safeguarded.”

The use of the phrase “an independent British nuclear deterrent” is clearly meant to imply that the British state has complete freedom to take decisions about its use. But, how can that be when Britain is dependent on another state — the US — to manufacture the Trident missiles that are a vital element of its nuclear weapons system? And Britain’s dependence on the US doesn’t end with the purchase of the missiles – Britain depends on the US Navy to service the missiles as well. A common pool of missiles is maintained at King’s Bay, Georgia, USA, from which the US itself and Britain draw serviced missiles as required.

At least eight states in the world now possess functional nuclear weapons and the means of delivering them. All of them, except Britain, manufacture and maintain their own nuclear weapons and the means of delivering them. All of them, except Britain, have complete control over the use of their systems. In other words, all of them, except Britain, possess what can reasonably be described as an “independent” nuclear deterrent.

And the White Paper proposals, which are to replace the British-built submarine launch platforms, while continuing to use the US-built Trident missiles, won’t change that.

The plain truth is that, if Britain doesn’t maintain friendly relations with the US, then it won’t have a functional nuclear weapons system, despite having spent billions of pounds of British taxpayers’ money on it – because the US would simply cease providing Britain with serviceable Trident missiles.

So, there is a strong incentive for Britain to follow the US in foreign policy, since independence from the US in foreign policy could lead to its nuclear weapons system becoming non-functional. Sustained opposition to the US in foreign policy certainly would. As long as Britain is tied to the US by a requirement for US-supplied and maintained missiles for its nuclear weapons system, it cannot have an independent foreign policy in any meaningful sense.

Furthermore, it is inconceivable that the UK would strike a target of which the US didn’t approve. In reality, therefore, our “independent” nuclear deterrent will function as a supplement to the US nuclear deterrent, paid for by the UK taxpayer.

As Clare Short said in the Commons debate:

“The third reason why the UK should reconsider its approach to nuclear weapons is that they chain us into the role of US poodle. We acquire the weapons from the United States and we have to send them back to be repaired and serviced, so we can retain the weapons only if we are always on good terms with the US. That means that we do not have an independent foreign policy, as has been demonstrated so disastrously in Iraq. That has humiliated our country and helped to make the world more dangerous by dividing it more deeply and undermining international law.

“… every post-war Prime Minister apart from Edward Heath, bless him — because he was so focused on entrenching us in the European Union — has been obsessed with the special relationship as the centrepiece of our foreign policy. Why? It goes back to Britain losing an empire and failing to find a role. We are not the big power that we used to be, but we are best friends with the biggest power in the world, so if we can get a weapon from the US and stand alongside it, we are still important and powerful. That is an almost pathetic role to see for ourselves in the world. It is like the child who is frightened of others and therefore makes best friends with the biggest bully in the playground.”

Operationally Independent?
One might have thought that the questionable “independence” of our nuclear deterrent would have been a central issue in the Commons debate. But, only two MPs — Michael Meacher in addition to Clare Short — brought it up at all, and the Government wisely chose to ignore the issue, since it is impossible to justify the Prime Minister’s assertions of its “independence”.

Even the White Paper conceded that our US-dependent nuclear deterrent will become non-functional if relations with the US sour. Paragraph 4-7 puts it this way:

“We continue to believe that the costs of developing a nuclear deterrent relying solely on UK sources outweigh the benefits. We do not see a good case for making what would be a substantial additional investment in our nuclear deterrent purely to insure against a, highly unlikely, deep and enduring breakdown in relations with the US. We therefore believe that it makes sense to continue to procure elements of the system from the US.”

It would be more honest to say that Britain is incapable of building a credible deterrent “relying solely on UK sources”.

While admitting that our nuclear deterrent is dependent on the US for its missiles, the White Paper (Pararaph 4.6) emphasised that our “current nuclear deterrent is fully operationally independent of the US”. In other words, providing we have been sufficiently subservient to the US in foreign policy to merit being supplied with Trident missiles, the US will have no physical mechanism to prevent us firing them at any target we choose.

Personally, I doubt that the US would sell any foreign power — even its closest ally — a weapons system with which the foreign power was free to do catastrophic damage to US allies, not to mention the US itself. Surely, the US must have a mechanism, under its explicit control, to prevent the targeting of states that it doesn’t want targeted?

Why Is a Second Generation Needed?
The other question that should have been prominent in the debate is: why does the UK need to replace its Trident submarines, when the US doesn’t plan to replace its Trident submarines at all, even though most of them are older and all of them spend a much greater proportion of their time at sea than the British submarines?

The 14 US submarines currently in service were launched between 1983 and 1996, but they have had their service life from launch extended to 46 years and are therefore due to be retired between 2029 and 2042. By contrast, the 4 UK submarines currently in service were launched between 1992 and 1998, but, according to the White Paper, they cannot have their life extended beyond 30 years and are therefore due to be retired between 2022 and 2028, before any of the American boats.

In a submission to the Defense Select Committee, four eminent American scientists (Professors Richard L Garwin, Philip E Coyle, Theodore A Postol and Frank von Hippel), with long experience in US military procurement, have suggested that the life of the UK’s submarines could be extended like their US equivalents. See my article The decision to replace Trident submarines is highly premature, say US experts [5].

But the Government has continued to assert that 30 years is the maximum for the British boats. The Government did so in the debate — and only one MP, Peter Kilfoyle, questioned its assertion.

And the Government has continued to assert that it will take 17 years to design and build a second generation of Trident submarines to do the same job as the first generation. On this basis, the Government argued that the initial design work must begin in 2007, so that the first replacement submarine will be operational in 2024, when the second of the existing submarines is due to be retired after 30 years service.

By contrast, as Labour MP, Gordon Prentice, pointed out in the debate, the US plans to design and build its post-Trident generation of ballistic missile submarines in 13 years beginning in 2016 for first delivery in 2029. See the Nuclear Posture Review submitted to the US Congress by the Defense Department on 31 December 2001, extracts of which are available at [6].

The Real Reason
Labour MP, Lindsay Hoyle, intervened in William Hague’s speech to ask him: “Does he agree that if we do not go ahead at this stage, the design team that is in place to design the submarines will be dispersed, we will be unable to put a team back together and we will end up having to buy American submarines, thereby not taking advantage of this country’s engineering capability?”

That question, and William Hague’s response, gets to the heart of why the Government has insisted that a decision be taken in 2007 to design and built a second generation of Trident submarines — and why extending the service life of the existing Trident submarines is not an option. It is all about maintaining in Britain the capacity to build nuclear-powered submarines.

Of course, the Government has to pretend that a second generation of Trident submarines is needed for defence reasons. When it was put to Margaret Beckett in the debate that a decision was needed in order to “ensure that we have the expertise to secure our nuclear capacity, both militarily and domestically”, she replied: “The decision to be made by the House is not on anything other than the political, strategic and security needs of the country.”

William Hague response to Lindsay Hoyle was more honest: “We must have very serious regard for the point made by the hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle) about the maintenance of the relevant base of industry and skills, …. The Government rightly intend, subject to satisfactory arrangements, that the new submarines will be built in the United Kingdom.

“The Defence Committee was advised by Mr. Murray Easton of BAE Systems that ‘if there is a further delay, or any delay, in the submarine ordering programme it will have a significant and, I think, catastrophic impact on our ability to design and build and, therefore, for this country to have its own nuclear submarine design and construction’.”

BAE Systems is the only company in Britain capable of designing and building nuclear-powered submarines. Here we are talking about conventionally-armed “attack” submarines (SSNs), as well as Trident submarines (SSBNs). BAE is currently building Astute-class SSNs for the Royal Navy at Barrow-in-Furness, the first of which is nearing completion (over 3 years late). It is expected that 7 Astute-class will be built, though only 3 have been ordered so far.

While its Barrow-in-Furness shipyard will be occupied for the next 10 years or more building Astute-class submarines, design work on the Astute is coming to an end and, in order to keep the design team together and preserve Britain’s capacity to build nuclear-powered submarines, it is essential that the green light be given for initial design work for a new generation of nuclear-powered submarines. The White Paper said:

“There are … risks that, in the event of a significant gap between the end of design work on the Astute-class conventional role nuclear submarines and the start of detailed design work on new SSBNs [submarines], some of the difficulties experienced on the Astute programme would be repeated because of the loss of key design skills.” (Paragraph 1-6)

The Astute programme got into such trouble that General Dynamics Electric Boat, the American company that builds SSNs and SSBNs for the US Navy, had to be employed as consultants to overcome the problems.

Defence Industrial Strategy
The Commons Defence Select Committee published a report on 12 December 2006, entitled The Future of the UK’s Strategic Nuclear Deterrent: the Manufacturing and Skills Base [7]. It was in evidence to the inquiry that led to this report that Murray Easton of BAE Systems made the remark quoted by William Hague.

Nobody reading Section 3 of this report, The submarine industrial base, could be in any doubt that maintaining Britain’s ability to build nuclear-powered submarines is the driving force behind the “need” to build a second generation of Trident submarines.

In December 2005, the Government published a White Paper on Defence Industrial Strategy (DIS) [8], which, according to its foreword, sought to identify “those industrial capabilities we need in the UK to ensure we can continue to operate our equipment in the way we choose … to maintain appropriate sovereignty and thereby protect our national security”.

In the maritime section, the DIS states: “We require versatile maritime expeditionary forces, able to project power across the globe in support of British interests and delivering effect on to land at a time and place of our choosing.”

It continues:
“To sustain this capability:

• It is a high priority for the UK to retain the suite of capabilities required to design complex ships and submarines, from concept to point of build; and the complementary skills to manage the build, integration, assurance, test, acceptance, support and upgrade of maritime platforms through-life;

• For the foreseeable future the UK will retain all of those capabilities unique to submarines and their Nuclear Steam Raising Plant, to enable their design, development, build, support, operation and decommissioning.”

So, maintaining the capability in Britain to design, build and maintain nuclear-powered submarines is a “high priority” for the British state. As the sole British company with this capability, BAE Systems must be laughing all the way to the bank.

On the submarine industrial base, the Defence Select Committee report said:

“Witnesses to our inquiry warned that gaps in the submarine programme could lead to the departure of highly skilled and experienced personnel to other industries. The 11-year gap between the design of Vanguard and Astute submarines was cited by industry and trade unions as evidence of just how rapidly the skills base can erode without regular or sufficient specialist work, and of how difficult and expensive it is to reconstitute once lost. Only with the assistance of the US company, Electric Boat, had the UK been able to re-establish a viable submarine construction industry after that gap.” (Paragraph 48)


“Without a new SSBN it is possible that there would be insufficient demand for nuclear submarines to sustain the industry.” (Paragraph 61)

Murray Easton of BAE Systems put it more strongly in evidence to the Committee:

“If there is a further delay, or any delay, in the submarine ordering programme it will have a significant and, I think, catastrophic impact on our ability to design and build and, therefore, for this country to have its own nuclear submarine design and construction…. If the successor programme does not go ahead then, obviously, depending on how many Astute submarines there are, our production facility at Barrow will grind to a halt.” (Paragraph 71)

Happily for BAE, the demand for its submarines has now been put on a sound footing by the Government’s decision to design and build a new generation of Trident submarines.

And the Prime Minister has had the satisfaction of forcing the once unilateralist Labour Party to embrace Trident.

Alex Salmond Says
I leave the last word to Alex Salmond:

In the 1980s, many eloquent speeches were made by Members on this matter. I was particularly struck by the current Chancellor’s contribution of 19 June 1984. In a debate similar to this one, he said:

“The dominant theme of this debate has been the concern expressed by hon. Members about the escalating cost of the Trident programme, a project which is unacceptably expensive, economically wasteful and militarily unsound. It is a project which, while escalating the risks of nuclear war, puts at risk the integrity of our conventional defences.”

Anybody in politics is entitled to change their mind — I have even done it once or twice myself — but I find it extraordinary that people could be against Trident when we faced the real and present danger of the might of the Soviet Union, yet for Trident when we face the potential might of North Korea. That is an extraordinary change of position to adopt. …

In a world of 200 nations, 10 of which are nuclear powers and 190 of which are not, I would like an independent Scotland to be one of the 190, not one of the 10. The desultory argument that has been made is that unless we have nuclear weapons, we will be threatened. If the former Foreign Secretary, the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind), for whom I have great respect, had been the Defence Minister of the state of Iran, he could have put forward exactly the same argument: “We will be threatened unless we acquire a nuclear deterrent.” …

Surely in those circumstances the safe course of action for the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington and Chelsea, now that he no longer sits for a Scottish constituency, would be to advocate that the replacement of the weapons system be sited on the River Thames, as opposed to the River Clyde.

David Morrison.

[1] See
[2] See
[3] See
[8] See