Upgrading Armageddon



Trident is well-named, in that it is a three-pronged system.  It consists of British-built Vanguard submarines, nuclear warheads made at Atomic Weapons Establishment at Aldermaston, and, the weak point that renders it not so independent, US missiles, dependent for guidance on the US satellite navigation system, and so on US permission to launch.  Replacement concerns all three of these separate but inter-dependent parts, upgrading any one of which is a step towards upgrading the whole.  Similarly, a chain being only as strong as its weakest link, upgrading one part whilst leaving the others unaffected may not be an effective upgrade at all.

It is difficult to imagine exactly of what an ‘upgrade’ consists.  Will it be a result of making the warheads more powerful?  But that is absurd, as the warheads are already unimaginably powerful.  Will it consist of making the warheads less powerful – an idea currently being considered in the US, transforming the ‘deterrent’ into a military weapon usable against vulnerable, non-nuclear nations?

Will it consist of upgrading the capability of the submarine part of the delivery system?  But this is unlikely, and has not so far been mentioned in the scanty press coverage.  Making the submarines faster, or more difficult to detect, would make a very marginal difference, and in any case not be relevant to the forthcoming debate in parliament.  Finally, as for upgrading the missiles that carry the warhead, that is a US concern, out of our control.  I don’t believe that the proposed upgrade will be concerned with making British missiles to replace the American, in order to make the British system independent.

So what will be the focus of the debate on upgrading Britain’s weapon of mass destruction that has been promised to parliament?  As submarines have not been mentioned, it seems the upgrade will be directed towards the remaining part of the system under our control, the warhead.

As the upgrade has been costed at around £25 billion, evidently details of the upgrading have already been decided. Certainly, new facilities are being installed at Aldermaston, in advance of the ‘decision’ being taken by parliament.  I suppose mention will be made of the ‘ageing’ warheads, and their ‘unreliability’, but to a non-technical observer this hardly makes sense.  Plutonium has a rather long half-life, measured in many thousands of years, and a renewal of the conventional explosive trigger cannot be the focus of the coming discussion, as it would cost but a trivial amount.  Each warhead has the explosive power of eight Hiroshima bombs, so an upgrade in force is hardly necessary.  Reducing the force, so that the missiles can be used in warfare, amounts to a sinister escalation. 

Altogether, it will be interesting to follow the debate in parliament.  It is to be hoped that the level of debate will rise above ‘We don’t want to give up our big stick, in case others with big sticks will come and beat us’.  Does Britain, almost uniquely in the larger world, need nuclear weapons to defend itself?  To what kind of a world has military thinking led so far?  How dangerous, how polluting, how costly are nuclear weapons and the related nuclear power, to the nation choosing them as a method of defence?  And, if this is not too woolly-minded, what contribution to world peace would Britain make if, like South Africa, we renounced, cancelled, got rid of our nuclear weaponry altogether?