UK/Nuclear weapons

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Concept.png Trident (UK nuclear programme) 
(Nuclear weapon,  submarine)Rdf-entity.pngRdf-icon.png
The UK has nuclear weapons on submarines

The Trident nuclear programme is the UK's approach to keep a nuclear deterrent by keeping currently four nuclear armed submarines in service. Each Trident nuclear-powered submarine is armed with up to 8 missiles and 40 nuclear warheads.[1] It covers the development, procurement and operation of nuclear weapons in the United Kingdom and their means of delivery. A parliamentary vote was held on the UK's Trident nuclear programme on 18 July 2016 and it was decided that new submarines of the Dreadnought-class would be built to replace the former Vanguard-class submarines.[2][3]


The programme was announced in July 1980 and patrols began in December 1994. Since tactical WE.177 free-fall bombs were decommissioned in 1998, Trident has been the only nuclear weapon system that is operated in the country. Its stated purpose by the Ministry of Defence is to "deter the most extreme threats to our national security and way of life, which cannot be done by other means."[4]

Operational details

Trident is an operational system of four Vanguard-class submarines armed with UGM-133 Trident II D-5 submarine-launched ballistic missiles, able to deliver thermonuclear warheads from multiple independently-targetable re-entry vehicles (MIRVs). Operated by the Royal Navy and based at Clyde Naval Base on the west coast of Scotland, at least one submarine is always on patrol to provide a continuous at-sea capability. Each one is armed with up to 8 missiles and 40 warheads; their capacity is much larger.[5]

Decisive year

2016 looked set be a decisive year for two highly controversial areas of UK policy making. With potentially insurmountable problems surrounding the development of new nuclear power in the UK, British energy policy stands at a turning point. At the same time, Parliament voted on the 'main gate' decision for the renewal of the Trident nuclear deterrent.

This also takes place under unprecedented circumstances, with the Labour leadership strongly opposed, and 57 of the 59 Scottish MPs - where Trident is based - also rejecting its renewal.

In Whitehall, however, commitments remain steadfast both to new nuclear power and to the renewal of Trident. As these issues come to a head, a question has emerged from recent research at the Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU) as to whether these two ostensibly separate issues may be linked in more ways than meets the eye.[6]

Parliamentary vote

In July 2016 Theresa May, the frontrunner in the Tory leadership contest, called for Britain to prioritise replacing Trident in the wake of the Brexit vote in the EU Referendum:

“It would be sheer madness to contemplate even for a moment giving up Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent.
“And there is no room for compromise, and no room for cheese paring. We need a full fleet of four submarines, capable between them of providing what the military call ‘Continuous At Sea Deterrence’, or permanent, around-the-clock cover.
“Doing so will send an important message that, as Britain leaves the European Union, we remain committed to working alongside our Nato allies and playing our full role in the world.
"That is what I know the Prime Minister and Michael Fallon, the Defence Secretary, will be telling our allies when they attend the Warsaw Summit this week.
“The House of Commons should, before the summer recess, vote on Britain’s next-generation nuclear deterrent – and we should get on with getting it built.”[7]


In 2015, weapons engineer William McNeilly published a list of problems with the Trident system, which he declared a "disaster waiting to happen". Although the whistleblower was arrested, McNeilly was not charged under the Official Secrets Act 1989 but given a dishonourable discharge from the Royal Navy.[8]

Labour review

The Labour Party's official policy since the late 1980s has been to keep Trident but following the September 2015 election of leader Jeremy Corbyn, who is a life-long opponent of nuclear weapons, the PLP has split over the question of its renewal, which the government has estimated will cost £31bn. In January 2016, the Labour leader commissioned a review - which is being led by Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry - to look at the party's defence policy, including Trident.

The Labour review is likely to report in the summer and be discussed and agreed at the party conference in Liverpool (25-28 September), when Corbyn supporters are expected to argue the weapons will never be used and its multi-billion pound cost cannot be justified.[9]

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