10 Things You Need To Know About Trident
By James Cusick, Westminster Editor
THE HOUSE of Commons last week approved the government's plans to begin the process of replacing the Trident nuclear weapons system. But beyond the vote - which left the government needing support from the Conservatives and having to deal with a large backbench rebellion after being embarrassed by resignations - what was really decided?
1: What exactly did the government agree to last week?
The House of Commons voted to begin the process that will lead to the replacement of Britain's Trident nuclear deterrent. There are three parts to the overall Trident system: submarines which carry and launch nuclear missiles, the missiles themselves, and the nuclear warheads carried in those missiles. The government says the current system is coming to the end of its life and that the process of delivering a new system must begin. Essentially the government's success in the Commons means Britain will now be able to order up the early "design and concept phase" of a new nuclear submarine, which the Ministry of Defence claims will take 17 years to deliver.
The working life of the current submarines used to launch Trident D5 missiles is estimated to end in the 2020s. The government offered assurances that further decisions would need to be taken on the precise design of the new submarines and on the successor to the Trident D5 missile - which is designed, manufactured and essentially stored in the US. The design of any new missile is the US's business.
So, although the British government refers to the UK's "independent" nuclear deterrent, the choice for any future government could be limited to take-it-or-leave-it. And "leaving it" would be limited: the Blair government in 2004 renewed the Mutual Defence Agreement (MDA) with the Bush administration, which permits the US to share nuclear weapons technology with the UK. If President Bush believed there was any uncertainty about Britain continuing to be a nuclear "customer" for US weapons technology, it's unlikely the MDA would have been renewed.
Although senior Cabinet figures insisted during the Commons debate that it will fall to future governments to discuss the most appropriate form of parliamentary scrutiny for what they termed "these downstream decisions", the present government believes the most difficult hurdle to replacing Trident, the first, has been overcome.
2:Why the rush to decide how to replace Trident?
The decision to replace Trident is not being driven by Britain. The British nuclear deterrent is based on US technology, and the US is phasing out Trident. When the US decided to phase out the Trident D4 missile by 2000, that ended UK participation in the programme. The decision on Trident D4 was taken in the US in 1981, 10 years in advance of its replacement. D5 missiles were more expensive, but the UK had no choice - the sole market is the US.
The US has already started the design and development process that will lead to a new generation of weapons, so Britain has to begin preparing for what is called the "Reliable Replacement Warhead" programme.
Britain's immediate concern is to design and build new nuclear submarines. The oldest Trident submarine, HMS Vanguard, is scheduled to end its planned lifespan in 2023. Given that it takes 15 years to go from drawing board to launch, work needs to start by 2008 to deliver on time.
But the US Nuclear Posture Review points to extending the "hull life" of Trident submarines to 44 years. Defence analyst Dan Plesch says this would in turn require the Pentagon to extend the service life of the D5 missile. A parallel decision in the UK would mean HMS Vanguard ceasing to operate not in 2023, but in 2038. So the deadline might not be as urgent as the government maintains.
The former defence minister, Peter Kilfoyle, claims the Commons was "being bounced" into a decision. At the MoD he said he was told the submarines would last 30 years, but the lifespan was being cut, he claims, as a political convenience.
3:What do we get for our money?
The government points to a capital cost of £20 billion and annual running costs of £1.5bn for Trident. Using the MoD's figures that amounts to £65bn over 30 years, 3% of the overall defence budget.
The pro-Trident Commons vote does not mean there has been any formal decision taken on whether there will be three or four new submarines needed to maintain Britain's deterrent.
Any replacement for Trident would have to perform as well or better than the current system. That means "a credible nuclear deterrent that has the ability to threaten an assured response to aggression". The current deterrent is four Vanguard-class submarines with 16 missile tubes apiece, each missile carrying up to 12 nuclear warheads, and thus enabling a number of targets to be engaged simultaneously. The Trident D5 missile has a range of 4000 nautical miles and an accuracy said to be within a few metres. Each missile - costing £17m - has the destructive power equivalent to eight Hiroshimas.
That bill does not, however, mean cash swilling around the UK economy. Vanguard-class submarines use US-made components and US reactor technology. The new models will be similar. The delivery system in the Trident D5 is designed, made and stored in the US. The firing system is made in the US. The warhead design is based on the American w-76 bomb. Aldermaston, which produces the UK's warheads, is co-managed by Lockheed-Martin, a US company. The UK's submarine maintenance base in Plymouth is 51% owned by American giant Halliburton (Dick Cheney, the US vice-president, was formerly its CEO). What we get for our money is a happy supplier: the US. The "independence" of the UK's nuclear deterrent is therefore an expensive political illusion.
4: Do we need Trident or its replacement at all?
If you believed in a nuclear insurance policy against an unknown enemy, the answer would automatically be "yes". If you believe that the "ultimate weapon" has successfully kept the world from nuclear conflagration for more than half a century, then keeping it up to date looks sensible. Given the US's superpower monopoly, the $65bn (£33.5bn) cost to ensure a "favoured customer" relationship, and the protection package it comes with, might look equally attractive.
But was Saddam Hussein put off by the possibility of the UK or the US threatening nuclear attack? Did the nuclear deterrent argument have influence in Bosnia, in Vietnam, or in any of the recent warzones that have seen British military involvement? If Britain would never actually resort to using any of its nuclear arsenal, then what value does it actually hold as a deterrent?
Given the concerns about whether the US would ever allow Britain to fire Trident or its replacement, what is the point in having it? If the US controls the supply line from guidance software to routine maintenance, then the former Labour defence secretary, Denis Healey, was correct when he said Trident was merely a "rent-a-rocket" enterprise.
If Britain was really serious about defending its borders on its own terms, and without recourse to a controlling senior party, then Trident was not the answer regardless of the views anyone held on the effectiveness of nuclear deterrence.
5:Why base the missiles in Scotland?
The waters off the west coast of Scotland and the Inner Hebrides are the Royal Navy's Scottish exercise areas. The Navy's connection with the Faslane and Coulport area goes back to the first world war and early use of submarines. When Greenock and Port Glasgow were heavily bombed during the second world war, ministers looked for an alternative site. Floating depot ships had been operating in and around the Holy Loch, Rothesay and Campbeltown. So in 1963 when it came to siting the UK's first nuclear-powered attack submarine, HMS Dreadnought, Faslane appeared to be the perfect location.
When the UK bought Polaris from the US in 1967, the Clyde Submarine Base was commissioned as the home of the Tenth Submarine Squadron (Polaris). In the same year the first SSBN (ship submersible ballistic nuclear) vessel, HMS Resolution, was also sited at Faslane. In 1996 the first submarine armed with Trident, HMS Vanguard, arrived on the Clyde.
The Clyde base has what most businesses would term history, tradition and commercial momentum to keep its military importance: this means an integrated workforce of 6500 in direct MoD-related work, with a further 3000 jobs indirectly supported by the base. In economic terms, the base is worth £250m a year to the Scottish economy.
To move the base out of Scotland would mean capital investment and workforce expertise built up over 40 years being lost as a base was built from scratch in a new location somewhere on the English or Welsh coast. However, the MoD has so far shown no enthusiasm to look beyond Faslane as a nuclear submarine base.
6:Can Scotland say no to Trident?
Trident is a military decision in terms of both where it's based and what form it takes. Given that defence is not a devolved issue for Holyrood, the Scottish parliament has no formal ability to deny the MoD permission to continue to base Trident subs at Faslane. But Westminster would soon find itself in grave political difficulty if a Scottish parliament, backed by the majority of the Scottish electorate and Scottish democratic institutions, chose to challenge its authority on the location in Scotland of Britain's nuclear deterrent.
Devolution once again takes Scottish democracy and its political authority into new territory. Many regard Trident as an issue already causing division. A majority of Scottish MPs voted against the government motion last week to replace Trident. This reflected a substantial opposition to both renewal and to continuance of the submarines being located at Faslane.
There is also a belief in Westminster that Holyrood has the ability to turn Faslane into an issue of wider democratic deficits. Would Westminster choose such a battleground? That may depend on which party controls Westminster, who controls Holyrood and whether there is a climate of compromise.
7:Was Blair damaged by the Labour rebellion?
No, because Tony Blair's prime ministerial authority is already at rock bottom. He needed Tory votes to back war in Iraq and he needed Tory votes last year to push through education reforms for England and Wales. Having understood that this issue would divide his party and that he would have to look to the opposition benches to push through Trident, did this put him off trying? Absolutely not. Blair is a few months from departing 10 Downing Street and what he leaves behind for his successor appears to be of minimal concern.
8: So who was damaged by the Labour rebellion?
The decision to both begin the process of creating a new breed of ballistic missile submarines and updating the Trident weapons they will eventual carry resurrected a debate the Labour Party would rather not have had at this time. Just as Gordon Brown prepares for entry to Number 10, divisions within Labour over the nuclear deterrent are visible again, amid claims that Blair was playing fast and loose with the handover of power that will take place within a couple of months.
Having to rely on Tory votes to secure victory in the Commons, and given the scale of the rebellion - 95 Labour MPs voted against the government - the Conservatives will claim at the next general election that Britain is safe, not because of Labour, but because the Conservatives supported renewal of Trident. That problem will be Brown's, not Blair's.
In order to minimise the rebellion supporters of the chancellor believe Blair made matters even worse by giving MPs a "final" approval to the warheads and missiles that will be ordered from the US. Blair told the Commons debate: "When you get to the gateway stage between 2012 and 2014 where you actually get to the main contract for the design and construction, at that point in time, of course it is always open to parliament to take a decision."
9: Who emerged stronger in the wake of the decision?
The Conservative Party almost got over-excited at what they had been gifted. Liam Fox, the shadow defence secretary, said: "As Blair heads for the horizon you see the rise of unreconstructed old Labour. Brown's certainly got his work cut out."
William Hague, the shadow foreign secretary and former Tory leader, claimed the decision taken was to "replace our nuclear deterrent for another generation abandoning it would be a national act of folly". In other words, Britain's nuclear defence has already become an issue likely to play a major role in the next general election. A united Conservative Party will be stronger than a divided Labour Party on this issue.
10: What happens next?
May 3 happens next: there are local council elections in England and Wales, and local and parliamentary elections in Scotland. For the SNP the Trident debate is an eve-of-poll gift and they will take advantage of Labour's division and the opposition to a nuclear replacement the Nationalists believe is overwhelming in Scotland.
Labour's opponents might now concentrate on the legality of replacing Trident, focusing on the issue of not re-arming but moving towards total nuclear disarmament. Article VI of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty states: "Each of the parties to the treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control."
A Trident replacement breaking international law could become a legal headache for any post-Blair administration. A debate associated with the 1960s which caused Labour divisions throughout the 1970s and 1980s has just been put back on the agenda.