The second failed Trident test: Time to scrap or expand Britain’s nuclear capabilities?

The potential nuclear threats posed by Russia and China are complicated by the possibility of a second Trump presidency.

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Grant Shapp’s confirmation of the failure of a British Trident submarine-launched ballistic missile has resulted in much speculation. Failures in such high-profile events are inevitably embarrassing, but claims that this proves the Trident system is no longer working and that it does not represent value for money are both alarmist and miss the point.

At one level this failure may, as the UK’s Ministry of Defence states, not be the cause for much concern. What is certain is that the missile was safely launched from the submarine HMS Vanguard, thereby confirming that it was in a position to fire missiles in the future if required. Moreover, the MoD has argued that if the missile had been fired operationally, the launch would not have been aborted. 

Whether that is true is subject to speculation. Whilst it is the second failure in succession for the British, the last being in 2016, other US tests have been successful. Given that the US and UK share a common pool of missiles, it isn’t a peculiarly British fault, and the US tests would appear to confirm that the missiles are still generally in working order.

The value of the Trident system is as a deterrent not in terms of whether it has been actually used. Its use would be the failure of the deterrent and that hasn’t happened yet. 

The value for money claim is equally problematic since it measures the wrong thing. The value of the Trident system is as a deterrent –  not in terms of whether it has been actually used. Its use would be the failure of the deterrent and that hasn’t happened yet. 

However, at another level the failure is a cause for concern. It is a reminder that of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, the UK is the only one with a single nuclear delivery system.

New threats

The reliance on a single nuclear delivery system may well have seemed like sensible cost-saving in the more peaceful 1990s, but it doesn’t look quite so sensible now. It is true that such capabilities are of little value against terrorist organizations like Al Qaeda, as the attacks on the US on 11 September 2001 showed. However, state-based threats remain. 

Vladimir Putin has engaged in nuclear sabre-rattling around his illegal invasion of Ukraine, including the potential use of ‘tactical’ nuclear weapons. A more assertive China is rapidly building up its nuclear arsenal. 

The potential threat posed by both of these states is further complicated by the potential for a second Trump administration. As part of his campaign rhetoric, Trump has already encouraged Vladimir Putin’s Russia to invade any NATO country that doesn’t spend 2 per cent of GDP on defence. 

Although Congress has already enacted legislation to prevent a Trump administration leaving NATO, this does not prevent him undermining the Article 5 guarantee. 

Moreover, Trump’s statements reflect a wider trend in US thinking with a greater focus on the Indo-Pacific and away from the Atlantic. 

The Obama administration was the first to officially acknowledge this with its pivot to Asia, and its decision not to lead in the 2011 operations against Libya reflected a growing view that Europe should increasingly pay for its own defence. 

Both the UK and France will come under significant pressure to increase their nuclear capabilities to help deter Russia.

This approach, established for over a decade and strengthened by Trump’s rhetoric, means both the UK and France will come under significant pressure to increase their nuclear capabilities to help deter Russia.

Nuclear deterrence in UK defence policy

Since 1948 successive British governments, irrespective of political persuasion, have emphasized the centrality of nuclear deterrence as part of the defence of the United Kingdom. For this policy to continue then a review of Britain’s nuclear capabilities is urgently needed. 

This will inevitably have consequences for the UK’s engagement with the Non-Proliferation Treaty.  However, to chose not to respond would perhaps be a more drastic change in what has also been a consistent cross-party policy of 75 years plus. 

Article second half

In the short term the easiest option for the UK would be to acquire F-35A jets, equip them with nuclear weapons and thus give the British government a second nuclear capability. Acquiring additional submarines above the current force of four would allow the United Kingdom to maintain more than one boat at sea.  

A single Trident boat at sea provides sufficient capacity to deliver what is known as the Moscow Criterion – the potential destruction of sufficient Russian cities to deter an attack on the UK.

Deterring China will be far more challenging. Whilst a single Trident boat at sea provides sufficient capacity to deliver what is known as the Moscow Criterion – the potential destruction of sufficient Russian cities to deter an attack on the UK. An equivalent Beijing Criterion has yet to be publicly considered and would need to be far larger. 

Acquiring additional submarines beyond the planned 4 Dreadnought-class boats would allow the government to maintain more than one boat at sea at any one time. 

The biggest question here for the government would be should it plan for either or both of the Moscow or Beijing Criterion at the same time? All this will cost a significant amount of money on a defence budget that cannot afford the government’s current plans. 

This will be a very difficult political message to sell given the state of the British economy and calls for investment in other areas, especially in an election year. However, a second Trump presidency might make the sell a whole lot easier.