What is Trident and why do we have it?

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Right now as you read this, 135 officers and crew are silently drifting through the seven seas somewhere providing Britain’s “continuous-at-sea-deterrent’. The submarine they are on has towed array sonar, hull-mounted active and passive search sonar, 4 Spearfish heavyweight torpedoes and oh yes and up to 8 Trident II ballistic nuclear missiles providing the last line in Britain’s defence.

It is not military doctrine to use Trident as a first-strike weapon and is used only as a “last resort”. One of Theresa May’s first acts as Prime Minister would have been to issue her orders to be followed in the event of her death or being rendered uncontactable by a surprise nuclear attack. After being briefed by the Chief of Defence Staff, General Sir Nicholas Houghton, her options are said to include: “retaliate”, “put yourself under the command of the US, if it is still there”, “use your own judgment” and “go to Australia”. These handwritten orders will then be placed in the safe onboard the nuclear armed subs (Vanguard-class).

Today Britain has four Vanguard-class submarines, each armed with up to 8 Trident II D5 ballistic nuclear missiles. Up until the 1990s, Britain had a much larger nuclear arsenal – RAF bombers and tactical (battlefield) nuclear weapons used by the Army.

Critics say Trident relies too much on a single naval platform. America has air, land and sea options. As do the French – Europe’s only other nuclear power – with four squadrons of planes armed with nuclear weapons, as well as a nuclear-armed fleet of subs. And unlike France, Britain’s nuclear deterrent is heavily dependent on US technology.

Nine countries are believed to have Nuclear Weapons and with Britain having the largest defence budget in Europe maintaining nuclear capabilities show that it is still committed to NATO. However the missiles are made by Lockheed Martin in California, are maintained by the US Navy at a base in Georgia; where as the warheads are made at the Atomic Weapons Establishment in Aldermaston in Berkshire, but to a US design and by a consortium including two American companies. So as a country we rely totally on American technology.

The obvious question then is why do we have Trident? We are surely protected by the umbrella of American nuclear weapons under NATO, and they control our supply of missiles anyway. Well Russia is aggressive, China unpredictable, nuclear weaponry is proliferating: India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea are all already armed. Trident doesn’t just provide the ultimate insurance policy, it’s a symbol of Britain’s place in the world. It also provides jobs: the replacement programme for the current Vanguard-class submarines creates 30,000 jobs, many at BAE Systems’ shipyard in Barrow-in-Furness, and at Rolls-Royce, which makes the nuclear propulsion units. HM Naval Base Clyde (the submarine base at Faslane) is the largest industrial site in Scotland.

The Government has considered various other options: being able to fire missiles from land, surface ships and aircraft but deemed them all to be more vulnerable. And as they’ll need to be designed from scratched they are far more expensive.

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Categories: Royal Navy

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