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Monday, 15. July 2024


On the Replacement of Trident

from Liz Waterston of Medact

Trident briefing

Jack Straw Leader of the House of Commons announced on Friday 21st July that the House of Commons would vote on the issue of maintaining the Trident Missile System before the end of the year. The vote will be a 'three line whip vote' meaning MPs are expected to vote with the party leadership rather than with their conscience.
Parliament is now in summer recess until October, which implies that the vote will occur in November or December this year.

Trident in the UK
Trident is a submarine based nuclear weapon system designed by the United States. In the UK the system consists of 4 Vanguard class submarines built at Barrow in Furness and based at Faslane on the west coast of Scotland. Normally only one submarine is on active patrol, armed with up to 16 missiles carrying a total of 48 independently targetable thermonuclear warheads.

The UK has 58 Trident D5 nuclear missiles which are leased from the US which builds and maintains them.

The warheads are UK Trident RB warheads which are based on and very similar to the US W76 warheads. Several of their key components are produced in the US. They are put together at the Aldermaston Atomic Weapons establishment in Berkshire. The UK has around 200 warheads each with an explosive yield of up to 100 kilotons of TNT (by comparison the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945 was approx 12-15 kilotons.) We understand that consideration is being given to employing a single smaller yield nuclear warhead in the future on some missiles - the so called substrategic option

Targeting data and fire control is supervised by the Nuclear Operations and Control Centre in London which relies on US computer software

Communication to the British Trident
The submarines can receive signals on Very Low Frequency (VLF) and Low Frequency (LF) without having to lift an antenna above the surface. VLF/LF messages can be sent to British submarines using British, NATO or US transmitters.

The UK has a stockpile of several tonnes of weapons-grade fissile material - plutonium and highly enriched uranium (HEU). The plutonium is produced at British nuclear reprocessing reactors such as Sellafield in Cumbria and is bartered for HEU from the US.

The total acquisition costs of the current British Trident Missile System were £12.7 billion pounds sterling. The annual cost of the programme is in the order of £ 200 million per annum over the 30 year life of the system.

The estimated cost of the Renewal of the Trident System lies between £15 to £25 billion. Funds for defence are allocated each year in the Defence Budget. Quotients for the predicted annual cost of the Trident Missile System are quoted in the budget but total cumulative costs are not specified. The Defence Budget is voted through by parliament as a total decision not in individual sections. The vote is a three line whip vote when MPs are highly pressured to vote along the lines of the party leadership and not on their conscience. If they vote against the party line they can be expelled from the party and then become independent members of parliament.

Arguments against replacing Trident

1) The devastating medical consequences of using such a nuclear weapon.

2) The cost of building and maintaining such a Missile System (estimates vary between £15-25 billion sterling). Finance is desperately needed by the NHS to maintain its standards and keep pace with modern technological advances in health care, and for conflict prevention and investment in health care in developing countries

3) At the 2000 Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference the UK and the four other nuclear weapons states made an unequivocal commitment to accomplish the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals leading to nuclear disarmament, to which all States parties are committed under Article VI of the NPT. Replacing the Trident Missile system contravenes this commitment.

4) Arguments for the possession of nuclear weapons could apply to any state and lead logically to the conclusion that every state should have them - a conclusion that many states are now drawing.

5) Replacement of Trident would signal to the non-nuclear weapons states that the commitments of the nuclear weapons states to the Non-Proliferation Treaty are a political subterfuge.

6) Replacement would cause the international web of commitments to the NPT to unravel with a consequent high risk of fissile material falling into the hands of non-state actors such a terrorists

Dr Liz Waterston