Trident surfaces again

Features editor

George Osborne’s visit to Faslane may have been political posturing, but Trident is all about posturing. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t discuss it.

One might ask why a publication concerned with engineering matters might concern itself with such an obviously political question as whether the UK ought to renew the Trident submarine-launched nuclear missile system. The answer ought to be equally obvious: although the issue of retaining Trident is indeed a political one, virtually all of the practical ramifications of the decision are engineering-related, and most of those directly affecting UK industry. Renewing Trident will take an enormous chunk out of the British economy (the amount is uncertain and rises every time anyone looks at it, but the Ministry of Defence’s estimate at 2013-2014 prices was between £17.5bn and £23.4bn — a range which we could point out would give enough change if it came in at the cheaper end to build several hospitals or a big section of HS2. Other estimates of cost run as high as £100bn, including maintenance costs), and the bulk of the budget would go on building four nuclear-powered submarines. That’s a considerable number of direct jobs, not to mention keeping the supply chain of the marine-oriented end of the defence supply chain in business for decades. But we don’t build weapons systems with the capability of wiping out half of the cities on the planet in order to keep people in jobs.

Vanguard submarine trident

The issue has bubbled to the surface again because of George Osborne’s visit to the Faslane submarine base in Scotland, where the Vanguard-class subs that carry Trident are based; it will also house their successors if Trident is renewed. Osborne announced £500m of investment to upgrade the base over the next ten years. Political analysts have been poring over the announcement, and most have interpreted it as a jab at the Labour Party to unsettle it if, as expected, it elects long-term nuclear weapons opponent Jeremy Corbyn as its leader. If this is the case, it seems a bit petty to bring an issue of such import into the Punch-and-Judy slapstick end of politics. The decision on whether to renew Trident does not need to be taken until next March, and while both Conservatives and Labour were in favour at the last election, policies are likely to change under new leadership (the Scottish National Party is firmly opposed, but defence matters are not devolved, so it can’t block the decision).

The Engineer has been sceptical about Trident precisely because it’s such a complex issue. It isn’t one question, but several. As stated above, renewal is an enormously expensive proposition: but if the country needs it to keep the population safe, that shouldn’t be an issue. The world has changed in many ways since the UK first signed up to Trident in 1980, when the Cold War was still in progress and NATO and Soviet nuclear arsenals were ranged against each other. It’s arguable now that we don’t need the sort of system designed to counter another power bloc’s capability, because that sort of power bloc doesn’t exist anymore and the main threat to UK security is now quite different; but Trident is a long-term system and the future is unreadable.

It does seem sensible, when every other aspect of government expenditure is subject to such tight control, that this one should escape scrutiny. If Britain does have to remain a nuclear power, is there not a cheaper way of retaining the capability? Submarines, obviously, are expensive, but there are good reasons for using them: they are stealthy, they can hide, and if an enemy doesn’t know where the operational weaponry is and can’t find it, then they also can’t attack it.

Then there’s the question of why we need to be a nuclear power. It’s not just about defence: deterrent theory, which is why we keep nuclear weapons (the point is to not use them but to point them at people so they don’t attack us) is as much about diplomacy as it is about war. The UK’s status as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council might be at stake if we relinquish nuclear weapons, but it’s also a matter of debate how important membership is: economic clout is just as important as a measure of international influence and several other nuclear states do not sit on the Council. British prestige does not depend upon nuclear weaponry, and many argue that shoring up conventional defence capabilities would have a greater effect as it would allow us to actually do more rather than just threaten with weapons which, as the brilliant political sitcom Yes, Prime Minister pointed out almost 30 years ago (when the projected cost was £15bn), we not only wouldn’t use but everyone knows we wouldn’t use it (though as Sir Humphrey Appleby said, “even though they probably certainly know that you probably wouldn’t [use it], they don’t certainly know that, although you probably wouldn’t, there is no probability that you certainly would!”).

One commenter on our poll has pointed out that Trident as it stands is two decades old, and you wouldn’t rust a 20-year-old car to start in the morning, let alone get you where you wanted to go. This is true, but a car that’s used several times a week can’t be compared with a missile system that’s been lovingly tended by dedicated staff, maintained in a state of readiness and never used. Just replacing the Vanguards would still not be as expensive as renewing the whole system.

Other more outlandish proposals (courtesy of our editor) include that we just pretend to have renewed Trident. If the whole thing is just a pose anyway, why does it matter if we actually have Trident, as long as our enemies believe we have it? Absurd, maybe. But when it comes to the possibility of nuclear war, absurdity is the name of the game.