What is Trident and why do we have it?

Vanguard Class Submarine

With the current tensions between America & North Korea and the threat of using Nuclear Weapons we explain more about Britain’s nuclear capability.


What is Trident?

Trident is the name of the missile system used on board Vanguard Class submarines of the Royal Navy, capable of delivering a Nuclear Warhead. It’s built by Lockheed Martin Space Systems and is also used by the Americans.

Why do we have it?

To provide Britain’s “continuous-at-sea-deterrent’. Right now as you read this, 135 officers and crew of a Vanguard class are silently drifting through the seven seas somewhere . The submarine they are on has 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”. The advantage of having it means we fall into a stalemate known as Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), i.e. you can’t fire your weapons at us or we will fire them at you.

Who can authorise the launch of Trident?

Only the Prime Minister. One of Theresa May’s first acts of office 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).

How many submarines do we have?

Today Britain has four Vanguard-class submarines, they rotate throughout the year as the duty submarine normally not surfacing for about three months at a time. The Captain and navigator are the only people on board who know the submarines location. During the Cold War Britain had a much larger nuclear arsenal – RAF bombers and tactical (battlefield) nuclear weapons used by the Army.

Why do the Army and RAF not have nuclear weapons?

Two Reasons – Secrecy & Money. It is very expensive to design and maintain platforms that carry Nuclear Warheads. Hiding them under the sea also prevents the enemy finding and destroying them which would remove the threat of having them in the first place. However critics do 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. The Government has recently 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 now need to be designed from scratched they are far more expensive.

Who else has Nuclear weapons?

Nine countries in total are believed to have Nuclear Weapons. The USA, Russia, UK, France and China are the five main states and have all signed the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. The objective of which is to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons technology and to promote cooperation in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy, and to further the goal of achieving nuclear disarmament.

India, Pakistan and North Korea are open about their nuclear capability but have not signed the treaty. They have limited stockpiles of warheads.

Israel is the only other known nation. They are not open about admitting their capability and adhere to strategic ambiguity.

Where are the missiles made?

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. The nuclear submarines are based in Faslane, Scotland and guarded by 43 Commando Royal Marines.

If we’re in NATO and a strong ally with America, who supply our Nuclear weapons anyway, why do we need our own weapons?

Well it’s important to be independent. Russia is aggressive, China unpredictable and despite best efforts 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.