Do You Know How Trident Works?

September 30th, 2015

tridentOver the next few months there will be a lot of hysteria about renewing the Trident nuclear weapons system. One of the things that most annoys me about this hysteria is that people seem to be obsessed that Trident sums up all nuclear weapons and a vote to not renew Trident means unilateral disarmament.

Before this debate gets going it would be really useful if people could take a bit of time to think about what Trident is and what it does.  That’s what I’ve been doing, looking things up on the internet. I found these things out on the internet, off Wikipedia. Are these things you knew?

  1. Trident is designed as a system to simultaneously destroy ten cities at once. Using one missile that disperses a number of warheads. The idea being if a country launches an attack against the UK we can then take out most of their major cities in one go. It’s not designed to launch one single warhead but it is possible to equip it with less. It’s actually quite difficult to use it to destroy anything less than a country.
  2. The Trident system allows a full complement of 192 warheads to be fully operational. Because of nuclear non-proliferation treaties we restrict this to 40 warheads. In the future we will restrict this even further to 25 warheads. There is no point where we will ever be able to equip the system to the full extent of its capability.
  3. We lease the missiles from the US, we make the warheads but not the missiles. The entire programme to renew Trident isn’t about missiles, it’s about the submarines they live in. We will never own the Trident system.
  4. Trident came into operation in 1994. The first time we were fully defended by Trident was 1998, eight years after the cold war finished. We’re now talking about replacing it.
  5. The US also uses Trident but they’re not considering the same renewal programme. They’re considering spending less money to extend the life of their submarines rather than building new ones.
  6. Unlike the US, the UK Trident allows the captains of nuclear submarines to launch missiles if they believe the UK has been destroyed. Weirdly this can happen if Radio 4 stops broadcasting. The US system requires full authorisation from the US, they brought in added security to stop rogue commanders. The UK decided not to bother.

Trident is a very good system if you’re considering fighting a continental nuclear war but it doesn’t reflect the world we live in on any level. I don’t like to advocate for a nuclear weapons system that would be easier to use, I’d rather we did unilaterally disarm, but we should consider alternatives.

There are alternatives to the Trident system. We can attach warheads to cruise missiles, it would take us a while to get that working, but we could do it.

The debate about Trident is not a debate about having or not having nuclear weapons. It’s about building some very expensive submarines. That does have an impact on jobs, but that should be part of the debate and not a simplistic argument on whether the country will be defended or not.

We need to have a proper debate about what the strategic threats are likely to be in 20 years time. We should have a proper debate about how we think nuclear weapons could be used and if we as a country are comfortable about that. We need to have a debate about whether we are working with the rest of the world to disarm.

We shouldn’t blindly carry on fighting the cold war just because nobody can be bothered to find out what it is we’re paying for.



Posted in Politics | Comments (4)

4 Responses to “Do You Know How Trident Works?”

  1. johnb78 Says:

    The R4 thing is slightly off – the point is that the emergency “everything about the UK has been destroyed so let’s do some last-ditch mutually assured destruction” procedure must be cancelled if BBC Radio is still broadcasting, because that shows that everything about the UK hasn’t been destroyed. Otherwise good summary.

  2. Si Says:

    The facts are useful, but they are not the debate.

    – Yes Trident is a MIRV system, that’s because of concerns about missiles being intercepted in flight and missile reliability. You launch a couple of missiles with the same multiple targets and hope that some of the bombs work. The reason for doing that is that this is supposed to be a nuclear deterrent and for that to be the case, there has to be a very high probability of it doing it’s job. And yes, it is a region / country killer, again, that is the point of a nuclear deterrent. Trident is not a battlefield system for launching surgical strikes. Thankfully everyone (we think) gave up on such crazy ideas a long while ago (if you think MAD is mad, try battlefield nukes for pure insanity).

    – I think there is a secondary point to having more capacity on your weapon platform than it is allowed to carry. Yes, 25 warheads is all you are allowed, but that means you can have c. 170 dummy warheads which is really useful when trying to evade anti-missile systems.

    – It’s true that the US is not spending so much on it’s Trident refresh programme. It is doing the same as the UK and using refreshed, updated missiles, but it is not spending so much on the platform (the submarines), mainly though that is because the UK platform needs updating and the US I think have a better platform already, or need fewer subs in future because they started with more in the first place. As you absolutely rightly say, apart from it’s MAD role, what the UK Trident role is really about is jobs and finding a mechanism to pump money into the economy in an industrial sector that provides exports as well as UK employment. So UK Trident is about nukes in the same way that say the war in Iraq is about freedom and not oil…

    – Does MAD work? Undoubtedly it did work, perhaps it worked more for the USSR than it did for the US / NATO. The USSR convinced everyone they had a massive strike capacity and the US raised its game to combat this. If the USSR had not developed nukes, there is a very real possibility that the US would have attacked Russia in the post war period. There were some proper crazy generals who wanted to do just that. But the cold war tit-for-tat was not just about sabre rattling but also a concerted effort to bankrupt the communist regime and force the collapse of the USSR, which happened and MAD was a key part of that process (although as the USSR never had as many nukes as the US thought it was less critical than was thought at the time).

    – Do we need MAD now? MAD works for “you” if you are either the one with the most weapons or at least enough to wipe out your enemy. It is not helpful to you if you are the one with not many nukes. If you are a minority nuke holder, then MAD is bad for you as your one petulant act of a launch could well lead to wipe-out for you, and the chances are, your own nukes will have had little effect, apart from stimulating a massive response back at you. Again, you see the point there of MIRVS, if the system launching nukes back at you cannot give anything other than a massively disproportional response, then it makes you think twice about launching your single weapon. Imagine a mouse trap with a spring that might snap a finger, but not kill you, well the mouse might go after the cheese. But if taking a small bit of cheese means guaranteed death, then it’s more of a deterrent to cheese stealing.

    – There are many reasons why the UK chose a submarine platform for its nukes rather than air or ground launching. Those options were considered in the past and test systems developed. But, what being at sea does which no other option does, is place the weapons out of reach. Not just hiding them (which means you need less nukes to be sure of getting the desired effect), but stopping a rogue general getting access (if you think rogue generals are not a problem, read some recent quotes that were posted after Corbyns election). Also, a ballistic platform is simply harder to hit when launched, cruise missiles are vulnerable to surface to air attack. Again, if you want your nukes to be deterrents and not offensive weapons, then being sure they will reach a target and do their job is essential. Cruise nukes are offensive weapons, not MAD components.

    MAD is a horrific idea, but nukes exist and cannot be un-invented. They are a terrifying and devastating weapon of war. As Oppenheimer put it “I am become death, destroyer of worlds”. The genie left the bottle and like most WMDs, the best defence is to control the source of the weapon as is being done though negotiation with Iran. No sane person wants nukes and the strategies that emerge from having nukes in the world are crazy, extreme and at times seem counter-logical, but they have been very carefully thought out and are effective.

    Yes, MAD was at the heat of the Cold War, and the Cold War is over, However, we should not underestimate the role that the threat of nukes plays in other negotiations. Why is the US able to sit at the table with Russia and negotiate the flashpoints of Syria and Ukrain? Why does the UK get a seat at the security council – without nukes would we really be there?

    OK it is a very jingoistic view to say that the UK deserves a seat at the table with or without nukes, but who else might replace us? Do you not feel a little bit better that the UN security council includes someone from a moderate like the UK, would you really prefer that someone from a Gulf state for example took our place, and why shouldn’t they if it wasn’t about who has the big guns?

    Can we honestly predict the strategic landscape in 20 years time? If we did do that, what is the likelihood that it will include a mature weapons programme in India, Pakistan and N. Korea. I think most strategists would say that there is a significant risk of that, as well as other emerging economies seeking to go Nuclear to increase their role in the world? What about Iran, Israel etc. Certainly you do not fight terrorists with nukes, but you do massively out-rank a rogue state and whilst nukes will not stop 9/11, they just might stop something much worse.

  3. Daz Says:

    I did think about writing something about the concept of deterrence but thought in the end there is too much subjectivity to it and it would be a good way to get people to stop reading, and I might still be writing it now.

    I just wanted to make sure that when people are supporting Trident they have given some thought to what it is rather than simply equating it with nuclear weapons.

    Whilst there is lots you’ve written there I do disagree with some.

    I think the concept of mutually assured destruction was always flawed. It implies that a nation state/leader would make an entirely rational decision to not do an irrational thing. We know that the people we should most fear are probably the people that act irrationally with imperfect information. There isn’t a part of this equation where the scale of nuclear war reduces to the point where it becomes a rational way forward. I think Saddam Hussain’s self destruction is a fair demonstration of a leader acting completely against his own self interests because he just didn’t understand the situation he was in.

    Equally I think it’s entirely possible that our choice of platform actually makes us less safe. Even Cameron highlighted the need to maintain Trident because of North Korea and Iran. Neither country could mount an offensive on the scale that Trident is intended to respond to. In fact any sort of large nuclear response to either country is in nobodies practical interest could of the collateral damage to their neighbours. Significant damage to South Korea would cause a massive world wide economic collapse.

    I don’t believe it was a doctrine that kept us safe. We know there was reluctance from both Reagan and Thatcher to use nuclear weapons in any circumstance. We also know the arms race was really based on flawed US intelligence, Soviet bravado and a need to prop up an ailing economy with good old fashioned Keynesian investment. I’m not that convinced there was a strategic desire to go to war other than through incompetence.

    And that’s my biggest worry. We’re much more likely to blow ourselves up by accident than through not having an effective deterrence.

    I don’t know how it would impact our UN Security Council seat. I can’t see either China or Russia wanting to remove us just because we’re not pointing weapons at them anymore. Can the US and France remove us? Would the UN make a declaration that we have done something wrong in disarming? That sends out a funny old message to the rest of the world. Equally are we are a moderate voice? Our colonial shenanigans from Suez through to Iraq seem to show that if anything with been doing our fair share war mongering. Have we restrained Israel? Have we restrained anyone?

    As a middle ground we could agree to keep nuclear weapons but promise to keep them in a shed, I’m not sure the security council could insist we need to keep them under the sea.

    No we can’t predict the security threat for 20 years time. We obviously didn’t predict the security threat of the last 20 years. One of the least likely scenarios is that the same security threat from the 80s pops up again. I can’t think of a historical precedent for that happening.

    With comprehensive missile shields (if they work, or if people believe they work) we’re much more likely to be under threat from a non-traditional delivery system and having only a disproportionate response available might not deter people.

    At the end of the day this is the debate we need to have so at least people have though their position through.

    Thanks for commenting.

  4. Alex Says:

    “The USSR convinced everyone they had a massive strike capacity and the US raised its game to combat this”

    This is not true, at least as far as the 60s are concerned. The US actually STALLED to allow the USSR to catch up so as to avoid a nuclear holocaust:

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