The UK Trident Debate

Right now, all the news about the UK seems to be focused on Brexit, but there’s another major decision coming up that has completely dropped out of the public eye in all the fuss about leaving the EU. That’s the decision to upgrade Britain’s nuclear deterrent, and it has to be made this summer. With support from most MPs in both major parties, it should pass when it comes to a vote; the danger is that any delay will cause a huge increase in costs, and possibly hold the program up by years.

The debate has become confused because many people insist on talking about it as “replacing Trident.” In fact, the new system will use exactly the same Trident II missiles as are currently in use. What the UK is planning is to buy four new submarines to replace the existing Vanguard-class boats, which will start hitting the end of their reactor lives by the late 2020s. The most likely option is a modified Astute-class attack submarine, lengthened to hold the Common Missile Compartment being jointly developed by the UK and USA. The CMC will be built of modules which each hold four Trident launch tubes; this gives the option of reducing the missile capacity from the Vanguard’s 16.

One option that has been mentioned is fitting future attack submarines with a single CMC module; this would produce submarines that could swing between conventional and strategic roles. An argument for it is that nobody would be able to tell which Royal Navy submarines went to sea with Tridents on board. Another is that, when submarines weren’t on deterrence patrol, the Trident tubes could each carry seven Tomahawk cruise missiles in a cluster pack – the same system as the four oldest Ohio-class now use.

72690430JM010_Tony_Blair_AnBritain’s submarine force has been widely criticized on the political left, but it’s still a key part of both UK and NATO strategy. During the Cold War, the Royal Navy’s Trident boats (and Polaris before them) were tasked as part of the USA’s Single Integrated Operational Plan. They’re still part of NATO’s strategic deterrent, so the Vanguards and their successors could end up taking part in a joint strike with the US Navy’s own submarines.

At the same time, final control of the boats remains with the UK government. It’s often claimed that the missiles can’t be launched without US permission, or that they could be disabled by turning off the GPS system. Neither of those claims are true. Trident isn’t GPS-guided anyway, so if the satellites weren’t operating all the boat’s crew would have to do was take a star sight to fix their position before launching. The USA has no control at all over an actual launch. In fact, nobody outside of the submarine is able to prevent one.

Unlike the USA, the UK decided long ago not to install Permissive Action Links on its nuclear weapons. US Tridents are physically unable to launch until the correct code has been sent out by national command authority and entered into the boat’s PAL; without the code, both the launch system and the missile warheads are disabled. British submarines don’t need a code. They would usually be ordered to fire by the Prime Minister, but they also have the authority to fire independently if contact with the UK is lost.

A decapitation strike on Washington, DC could theoretically prevent US retaliation by taking out everyone with the authority and codes to order a launch; try the same on London and all you’ll do is start a clock ticking. How long that clock will run for is highly classified, but when it reaches zero the Vanguard captains will each open a safe containing a letter from the Prime Minister. A few minutes later they’ll fire. There might only be four of them, but the Royal Navy’s Trident boats are the hard core of the west’s ultimate deterrent.

Disclaimer: The content in this article is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the policies or opinions of US Patriot Tactical.

Fergus Mason

Fergus Mason grew up in the west of Scotland. After attending university he spent 14 years in the British Army and served in Bosnia, Northern Ireland, Kosovo and Iraq. Afterwards, he went to Afghanistan as a contractor, where he worked in Kabul, Mazar-e-Sharif and Camp Leatherneck. He now writes on a variety of topics including current affairs and military matters.
Fergus Mason

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