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Suggestion for a cheaper Trident

Jul 17, 2010 1 comment

I share the opinion that Field Marshal Lord Bramall, General Lord Ramsbotham, and General Sir Hugh Beach expressed in a letter to the Times: that Britain’s defence needs would be best served by scrapping Trident and using the monies saved to improve Britain’s conventional forces. However, I am realistic enough to accept that this is unlikely to happen in the current parliament, especially given the statement: “The Government is committed to retaining Trident and the programme will be scrutinised for value for money” (see Strategic Defence and Security Review).

First some background on Trident: the Trident Programme is the UK’s nuclear defence programme. It consists of four Vanguard class submarines each of which carries up to 16 Trident D-5 nuclear missiles. Each missile carries 3 warheads and has a range of approximately 7,500 miles (12,000km). The Trident Programme has a 30-year lifespan that is due to end in 2024 (source: BBC Trident missile factfile). The life span of the Trident D-5 missile has been extended to 2030 when it is due to be replaced by the Trident E-6 missile (source: Missilethreat).

The submarine based system was part of the cold war strategy of Mutual Assured Destruction: no nation will lauch a pre-emptive first strike against the UK because the UK will be able to launch a devastating retaliatory strike from its submarines (since at least one of the submarines is always at sea at a hidden location).

The cold war is over. The nuclear threat against the UK is no longer that of a pre-emptive first strike, so a submarine based nuclear deterrent is no longer required.

This suggests a cheaper alternative to the full Trident Programme: move the Trident missiles to land-based silos and scrap the submarines.

There are probably technical difficulties with launching a Trident missile from a land-based silo: the feasibility and cost of a land-based Trident nuclear deterrent needs to be evaluated and compared with the option of replacing the four Vanguard submarines. Both the replacement and subsequent running costs need to be compared. The question of how many land-based missiles are required, and how many warheads each missile carries needs to be addressed (I believe that under arms limitation treaties more warheads are allowed on ICBMs than SLBMs). Currently the UK has a guaranteed launch capability (provided by the one submarine that is always on patrol) of 48 warheads provided by the 16 missiles aboard a Vanguard submarine. A similar capacity could be provided by 12 land-based missiles each carrying 4 warheads, or 10 land-based missiles each carrying 5 warheads, if such configurations are allowed by international treaties.

Moving the Trident missiles to land-based silos provides an effective nuclear deterrent until 2030. At that time there will be an option to replace the Trident D-5 missiles with Trident E-6 missiles. A land-based Trident programme is likely to be more cost-effective than a replacement submarine based programme and deserves serious attention.

I have submitted this suggestion to the HM Treasury Spending Challenge site.

Links

A middle way on Trident, by Shirley Williams.

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