Why the UK should renew Trident (ICBM)

Why the UK should renew Trident (ICBM)

What many people don’t get about the Trident debate is the fact that the costs are not solely associated with the Trident II (D5) Inter Continental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM). The reason why there is even a debate for a replacement is because the submarines that house the missiles are due to be decommissioned as they have been in-service since 1993. They are to be decommissioned in 2020 making the submarines over 27 years old. These subs usually have a 25 year life-span and future nuclear capable submarines will also have this life-span, with possible options for refurbishment to further extend the life-spans of these subs.

In the 2006 white paper report, set out by Tony Blair’s administration it states that £15–20 billion will be needed for a replacement submarine force and for necessary upgrades and refurbishment of the nuclear missiles. If we look at the costs section of the 2006 white paper report we can see where exactly the money is being spent. This is just an extract from the “costs” section:

5-11. The procurement costs involved in sustaining our independent deterrent capability will need to be refined as work on the concept and assessment phases is taken forward with industry.

More accurate cost estimates will be available by the time we come to place a contract for the detailed design of the submarines in the period 2012 to 2014. Our initial estimate is that the procurement costs will be in the range of £15-20 billion (at 2006/07 prices) for a four-boat solution: some £11-14 billion for the submarines; £2-3 billion for the possible future refurbishment or replacement of the warhead; and £2-3 billion for infrastructure over the life of the submarines.

There would be savings from a three-boat solution but these would not be in proportion to the reduction in the number of submarines. These costs will fall principally in the period 2012 to 2027. The comparable cost for the Trident system was some £14.5 billion at today’s prices. These costs are also comparable to the procurement costs of major weapons systems such as Typhoon aircraft. Depending on future decisions, there could also be the cost of starting to replace the D5 missile from the 2030s. At this range, any estimate of cost would be highly speculative: the equivalent cost for the Trident D5 missile was some £1.5 billion at today’s prices. — Source

From this report alone it details why the Trident (ICBM) system is the most cost-effective system. The US has also developed a proven platform – which Trident (ICBM) is. The US would not be using a system like Trident (ICBM) if it were not capable. The UK should pay for a proven system, which Trident (ICBM) is.

Nuclear tipped cruise missiles vs Inter-continental ballistic missiles (ICBM)

According to the 2006 Defence White Paper :

We considered the relative merits of deploying cruise or ballistic missiles on a submarine. Any programme to develop and manufacture a new cruise missile would cost far more than retaining the Trident D5 missile. In capability terms, cruise missiles are much less effective than a ballistic missile (see Box 5-1). Therefore it was clear that, in terms of both cost and capability, retaining the Trident D5 missile is by far the best approach.

Box 5-1:

Range: Ballistic missiles have a range typically up to around 12,000 kilometres, compared to a maximum of 2,000 to 3,000 kilometres for a cruise missile.

Speed: Ballistic missiles can travel at speeds in excess of ten times the speed of sound whilst cruise missiles are currently sub-sonic.

Vulnerability: Compared to ballistic missiles, cruise missiles are more prone to interception, largely because of their slower speed and lower trajectory. Ballistic missile defences are being developed by a number of countries, but we believe that it is highly unlikely that the effectiveness of the UK Trident D5 missile force will be jeopardized, even over the planned extended in-service life of that missile. A less vulnerable delivery system also enables us to maintain a lower stockpile of warheads.

Payload: Ballistic missiles can carry multiple warheads, compared to the single warhead that can be carried by a cruise missiles.

Furthermore, there are other arguments out there suggesting that having nuclear tipped cruise missiles would be a bad idea. For example the following reason: Countries would not know if the UK were firing conventional missiles at them or nuclear tipped missiles. This would obviously cause diplomatic tensions within regions we would be operating cruise missiles. It would definitely be a concern, which is why we need to have systems that identify to different uses in situations that should not elevate tensions.

How about using the French ICBM system?

Firstly, the UK does not have an agreement with the French, when it comes to the sharing of nuclear weaponry. Secondly, the French system will cost just as much, if not more, as we would need to replace current missile systems that we have already bought and procured. The main costs come with designing and building nuclear submarines that fire missiles while submerged. What difference in cost would there be if we bought into the French ICBM system, as we’d still be building new submarines (SSBNs; £14 billion) and we’d have to build totally new missiles.

Essentially, the French system is not a cheaper system, as we would also have to build French designed missiles and we’d still be giving the French, instead of the Americans, money for R&D. Instead of buying new missiles we are refurbishing current ones and that cost in the 2006 white paper report has been stated to cost around £1 billion. So in-fact, if we went with the French option the costs would sky-rocket.

Why do we need to have submarines that deploy the missiles?

As previously stated in this article, the ICBM capable nuclear (SSBN) submarines will cost the most out of the £20 billion budget. These submarines will cost around £3-4 billion each and the UK will be building four of them to replace the existing Vanguard class submarines (SSBN). So, the question that gets asked is whether another alternative would be cheaper; such as, land based systems, surface based systems or air based systems, to launch nuclear missiles. However, again, in the same source it has detailed that a submarine based system is by far the cheapest out of all of them. Plus, the advantage of having a submarine is that it’s hidden. If we had a land based, surface based, or an air based nuclear launch system then they are more vulnerable to detection and can be disabled; where a nuclear SSBN is much harder to detect and find.


As we can see from the above graph, the submarine option has the lowest “through life costs”. I don’t think the UK should second best its nuclear capabilities with any other system, and that has nothing to do with price but common sense. The cost in comparison to other systems is just a benefit that comes with the SSBN platform.

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