"The UK should renew Trident"

PUBLISHED: 29 Jan 2016

AUTHOR: John Milnes-Smith

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The United Kingdom is one of nine countries that possess nuclear weapons [Ref: Arms Control Association]. Nuclear weapons are a weapon of mass destruction [Ref: Wikipedia], and have been used just twice in conflict, by the United States of America in the bombing of Japanese cities Nagasaki and Hiroshima in 1945, during the Second World War. The two bombs used on the Japanese killed nearly 200,000 people [Ref:] and since those early atomic bombs, nuclear weapons have become many times more powerful [Ref: Test Tube News] and their destructive capabilities, and implications for humanity, remain a concern for many. The UK was the third country in the world to develop its own nuclear weapons, after the USA and the then USSR, and has been committed to a nuclear weapons programme ever since. But for as long as the UK has had nuclear weapons, there has also been a campaign against their existence, with the UK’s Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament being formed in 1957 [Ref: CND]. The movement gained considerable support in the early 1960s and then again in the 1980s. But as the UK’s current nuclear weapons programme, Trident, comes closer to the end of its working life, the question of nuclear disarmament has once again entered mainstream public debate. The 2015 Conservative Party election manifesto, pledged to renew Trident as the nation’s ‘insurance policy’ against hostile attack [Ref: BBC News]. The vote on renewal is expected in the House of Commons this year, with questions about the costs, benefits and ethics of the UK retaining nuclear weapons once again being debated. Arguably conceived both as offensive weapons for military dominance, as well as a defensive deterrent, the continued existence and ongoing development of “the most dangerous weapons on earth” [Ref: UNODA], remains a source of national and international contention. Is a nuclear deterrent still fundamental for Britain in the 21st century? Or is it immoral, outdated and obsolete, incapable of addressing the threats that we face today? Should the UK renew Trident?

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This section provides a summary of the key issues in the debate, set in the context of recent discussions and the competing positions that have been adopted.

What is Trident?
Trident has been the United Kingdom’s nuclear weapons programme since 1994. It is a nuclear missile system housed on four ‘Vanguard class’ submarines [Ref: Royal Navy], with one of the four submarines always on patrol to give the UK round-the-clock nuclear deterrence [Ref: The Week]. Each submarine can carry up to 16 ballistic missiles [Ref: Merriam-Webster], with each missile capable of carrying up to 12 nuclear warheads, having a range of some 7,500 miles - their destructive power estimated to be the equivalent of eight Hiroshimas [Ref: BBC News]. The current Trident submarines are due for replacement by the 2020s, although this may be delayed as the debate on whether to replace Trident continues [Ref: BBC News]. The 2015 Strategic Defence Review showed that the Ministry of Defence’s estimated costs of replacing the Trident system with a new generation of nuclear submarines, called ‘Successor class’, would be £31bn, up from a projected cost of £25bn five years ago [Ref: Guardian]. Downing Street has said a parliamentary vote will be held on the decision as to whether to replace Trident’s submarines, predicted to take place at some point this year.

Still vital to national security?
Supporters of the UK retaining its nuclear programme put two clear reasons forward: deterrence and international authority. Supporters argue that having a nuclear programme enhances national security by serving as a deterrent to potential aggressors. As a Times editorial stated: “If this country retains its deterrent…any would-be aggressor will know that an attempt at nuclear blackmail will not be credible… Nuclear deterrence ensures that no crisis involving Britain can end in checkmate or escalate beyond our control” [Ref: The Times]. Deterrence is based on the idea that no state would attack another if they possessed nuclear weapons, as the potential costs of doing so (a possible nuclear response) would be too great for the aggressor nation. In that sense, argues John McTernan, former political strategist to the Labour Party: “They are being used all the time. The effectiveness of the deterrent is that it deters” giving as an example the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 where “senior Soviet military figures were clear: they could have overrun West Germany easily with conventional weapons, but they were held back by the nuclear threat. It may be an uncomfortable, ugly fact. But it’s fact.” [Ref: Telegraph] Indeed, the Cold War [Ref: Wikipedia], which the fall of the Berlin Wall marked the end of, was defined by the doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) [Ref: Wikipedia], where a stalemate existed between the two key superpowers of the era, the USA and USSR. “Why” explains one writer “would one nuclear state attack another when it knows retaliation would be inevitable? You would have to be, well, mad.” [Ref: IB Times] Rather than a nuclear deterrent being outdated, many argue that Trident is actually needed more than ever, because “whilst nuclear crises and stand-offs are close to unthinkable in the short-term, they could return in the future, as American hegemony declines and nuclear technology spreads amongst middle powers like Iran, North Korea or Pakistan.” [Ref: New Statesman] Many also argue Trident continues to give the United Kingdom greater influence internationally [Ref: IB Times]. Being a nuclear power increases the UK’s standing in the world, it is claimed, giving it a seat at the ‘top table’ along with the USA, China and Russia. All the other permanent members of the United Nations Security Council are nuclear powers [Ref: UN], demonstrating that nuclear armaments and great power status are closely aligned. Thus, from this perspective, if the UK were to scrap its nuclear programme unilaterally [Ref: Collins Dictionary], it would risk losing influence on a number of wider international issues. Highlighting this point, post-war Labour MP and founder of the National Health Service Nye Bevan argued in 1957, that unilateral nuclear disarmament would send future Foreign Secretary’s “naked into the conference chamber” [Ref: Guardian].

Old fashioned, immoral and ineffective?
Critics of the UK’s Trident system, and of nuclear deterrents more broadly, argue that the programme is immoral, costly and ultimately ineffective. Some ask why the current nine countries with nuclear weapons feel they have the “prerogative to possess these ghastly bombs, each capable of obliterating many thousands of innocent civilians” and that they “ought to be condemned in the strongest terms for possessing these indiscriminate, immoral weapons.” [Ref: Guardian] The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament argue that the weapons are “immoral, potentially genocidal and strategically irrelevant in the face of the realistic threats we face today” [Ref: CND], and that any use of nuclear weapons would be a breach of international law, in causing unavoidably huge numbers of civilian casualties because of their inability to destroy ‘selectively’ [Ref: CND]. Beyond the moral argument, critics maintain that Trident has become unjustifiably costly, and with it “estimated to cost £100bn over a 30-year lifespan”, in an era of austerity we should consider its benefit to the nation overall, against other spending needs [Ref: Guardian]. As well as this, others suggest that it fails in its fundamental aim of enhancing UK national security. Gulf War veteran, retired Major-General Patrick Cordingley, says that Trident is a “folly” we bear as part of our 1958 alliance with the USA [Ref: Wikipedia] and that “the money we spend on our nuclear deterrent would be better spent on creating armed forces that could be really effective — with the best equipment and armaments possible — to protect British interests around the world and for conflict resolution.” [Ref: The Times]. CND also assert that nuclear weaponry is irrelevant when the: “Government’s National Security Strategy identifies international terrorism, cyber-attacks and natural hazards as greater threats than nuclear war.” [Ref: CND] Similarly, former head of the armed forces Field Marshal Lord Bramall has stated that: “Nuclear weapons have shown themselves to be completely useless as a deterrent to the threats and scale of violence we currently face or are likely to face, particularly international terrorism.” [Ref: Telegraph] And far from weakening Britain’s role in the world, notes writer David Shariatmadari, “A country giving up its own would be a rare and shining thing: an altruistic act in world affairs.” [Ref: Guardian] On balance, does “Britain’s nuclear deterrent contribute to a peaceful world order” [Ref: The Times]? Or is Trident merely “about diplomatic clout, global posturing, domestic grandstanding and huge sums of public expenditure” [Ref: Guardian]?


It is crucial for debaters to have read the articles in this section, which provide essential information and arguments for and against the debate motion. Students will be expected to have additional evidence and examples derived from independent research, but they can expect to be criticised if they lack a basic familiarity with the issues raised in the essential reading.


Britain’s missing nuclear debate

Jonathan Leader Maynard New Statesman 30 October 2015

The case for renewing Trident is irrefutable

John McTernan Telegraph 2 September 2015

Nuclear needs

The Times 9 April 2015

Election 2015: What the Trident nuclear deterrent is and why it matters to UK security

Shane Croucher International Business Times 9 April 2015


Trident is not a deterrent, so let’s get rid of it

Patrick Cordingley The Times 11 November 2015

It’s time to leave the nuclear hall of mirrors

David Shariatmadari Guardian 5 October 2015

Trident is useless. That’s why we must debate its renewal

Richard Norton-Taylor Guardian 28 September 2015


Definitions of key concepts that are crucial for understanding the topic. Students should be familiar with these terms and the different ways in which they are used and interpreted and should be prepared to explain their significance.


Useful websites and materials that provide a good starting point for research.

How powerful are modern nuclear weapons?

Test Tube News 22 November 2015

Labour’s patriotic duty is to back Trident

Liz Kendall The Times 22 November 2015

Trident and international law

Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament November 2015

Any support for Trident is about politics, not defence

Diane Abbott Guardian 1 October 2015

Why Trident could decide the next general election

Richard Dannatt Telegraph 30 September 2015

The 10 best Labour conference speeches

Andrew Rawnsley Guardian 25 September 2015

Buying Trident would weaken British defence

Gideon Rachman Financial Times 13 April 2015

We need a nuclear deterrent more than ever

David Cameron Telegraph 3 April 2013

Nuclear weapons must be eradicated for all our sakes

Desmond Tutu Guardian 4 March 2013

Trident missile factfile

BBC News 23 September 2009

The history of CND

Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament


Links to organisations, campaign groups and official bodies who are referenced within the Topic Guide or which will be of use in providing additional research information.


How powerful are modern nuclear weapons?

Test Tube News 22 November 2015

Iran and nuclear weapons

Moral Maze BBC Radio 4 10 March 2012

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