Voting for Trident before the Scotland question is settled is illogical

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The UK Parliament will be voting tonight on the principle of replacing Trident nuclear weapons system. It is a symbolic commitment, unconnected to any contracts or procurement timetable. Meanwhile, the government commitment to leave the EU is stoking calls for a second Scottish referendum. As the UK’s nuclear weapons submarines have their only base in Scotland, voting for Trident before coming to an agreement about the UK’s future makes no sense.


Renewed calls for Scottish independence were loud and clear after the Brexit vote, and not all were from the usual quarters. According to the Scottish National Party and others, Scotland – where 62% of voters voted to remain – now has “the significant and material change in circumstances” needed to justify a second plebiscite. If there were a plebiscite, there is now a serious possibility that the Scots might choose Europe over the UK.

The prospect of an independent Scotland reveals an ongoing anxiety in the UK’s defence establishments about where the rest of the UK (rUK) would keep its nuclear weapons. At present, the UK’s Vanguard nuclear-armed ballistic-missile (SSBN) fleet is based at HMNB Clyde at Faslane and its Trident warheads are stored and loaded eight miles away at Royal Naval Armaments Depot (RNAD) at Coulport, in the west of Scotland. The UK’s Trafalgar class attack submarines are also due to move from Plymouth to Faslane by 2017, joining the Astutes, further compounding the UK’s reliance on Scotland for its submarine capabilities. But the SNP, which won 56 out of 59 Scottish seats in last year’s general election, have stated that they would want nuclear weapons out of an independent Scotland within four years. The upheaval of relocation would be vast: burdensome financial and opportunity costs, significant administrative challenges, and opposition nationally and locally.

The UK Government has previously refused to discuss options outside of Faslane, stating that they will continue to plan for the future of Trident in Scotland. However, in the run-up to 2014 Scottish referendum, several commentators proposed alternative sites in lieu of Faslane, and in 2015 the Daily Mail reported that the MoD were exploring their options. The new site would also need to accommodate a new RNAD nearby to replace Coulport; there are no other facilities like it. So what are the options?

Permament Overseas Naval Base on the Clyde

First, London could attempt to negotiate a deal with the new Scottish Government to keep Trident in Scotland. Faslane and Coulport might then take on the status of overseas military bases like Akrotiri and Dhekelia in Cyprus. The bases’ 8,000 current employees and their dependents would welcome a continued Royal Navy presence in the area, and since an independent Scotland would remain relatively reliant on its former union for defence, this may be where negotiations end up with the Scottish government extracting concessions elsewhere in return. However, with domestic opposition strong and the SNP having staked so much political capital on the issue, the asking price might be high, as popular opposition to Trident makes up a significant part of the SNP’s crafted vision of Scotland.

Temporary Overseas Naval Base on the Clyde and new rUK site

Second, even if Scotland rules out hosting Trident indefinitely, the rest of the UK could see whether they would host it for a limited period of time, perhaps until the rUK is able to relocate its infrastructure to a new site within its territory. A 2012 report of the Scottish Affairs Select Committee deemed relocation “highly problematic, very expensive, and fraught with political difficulties” — but not impossible for an rUK government committed to maintaining Trident. The new base and its accompanying armaments depot needs to be operationally suitable, safe and cost-effective

With respect to suitability, Malcolm Chalmers and William Walker’s 2002 article, The United Kingdom, nuclear weapons and the Scottish question, states that the Americans assessed that Holy Loch on the Clyde “best satisfied the U.S. requirement for ‘a sheltered anchorage with access to deep water and situated near a transatlantic airfield and a center of population in which the American service personnel and their families could be absorbed,’” when the two states were searching for locations to base the new US and the UK Polaris missile systems, Trident’s predecessor, in the 1960s. A replacement would need to satisfy similar needs.

The two facilities should not be adjacent (basing the submarines and storage of the warheads), to meet safety requirements, but equally not too far apart, for logistical reasons. Moreover, they must minimise the risks they pose to civilian populations, therefore not being too close to any population centre larger than something like a small- to medium-sized town.

Not counting the warheads themselves, each Trident missile carries rocket fuel with the explosive power of 70 tons of TNT, giving fully laden submarine with eight missiles the explosive equivalent of 560 tons of TNT. (To give a sense of scale, John Ainslie’s 2013 report Trident: Nowhere to Go notes that the explosion of Operation Sailor Hat was around the same size). In addition to the immediate damage, an explosion would disperse 160 kg of plutonium from the warheads and a classified quantity of nuclear material from the nuclear reactor over a wide area. According to Ainslie there would also be the risk of a low-yield nuclear explosion, although he says with some regret that the MoD dismisses this. The explosion and radioactive spread would be even greater if there were additional explosives nearby, whether on another vessel or in storage, nuclear or otherwise.

Measures of cost-effectiveness must take into account existing infrastructure, land availability, supply access, and personnel requirements. They must also measure the negative impact to the local and national economy and opportunity costs: for instance, if a new base blocks or necessitates the closure of a major industrial employer nearby.

Three primary contenders have been floated for a replacement SSBN base: Barrow-in-Furness in Cumbria, in the north of England, where the UK’s submarine fleet is currently built; Milford Haven, a deep water port in Pembrokeshire, south-west Wales; or HMS Devonport near Plymouth, Devon, in south-west England. Eight further sites named in the original 1963 working party report on Polaris have been ruled out on various grounds (Chalmers and Walker, p.4), and ironically, the second-best site in that report was Rosyth, also in Scotland. None of these sites are qualified, however, without significant upheaval to the local area, massive infrastructural investment or widespread local opposition.

Barrow-in-Furness currently hosts BAE Systems, which are about halfway through building the UK’s new fleet of Astute class attack submarines and making preparations to begin on the Successor SSBN class. But as the RAND corporation pointed out in 2005, the tides mean that a submarine cannot always transit down the Walney Channel, and while the channel could be dredged, this would be a vast infrastructural exercise. The BBC’s Vanessa Barford has also noted that the dock could only service two Vanguard submarines, and that the nearby town and its 69,000 residents would be at risk in the event of an accidental explosion. It not clear where a new arms depot would be located either.

Milford Haven is already a major port serving Wales and much of rest of the UK. In 2013, Welsh First Minister Carwyn Jones caused controversy by saying that Wales would be willing to host Trident in Milford Haven in the event of Scottish independence, but quickly backtracked with a statement that his views were “purely academic.” Milford Haven was also considered in the 1960s, but ruled out owing to the presence of a new ESSO oil refinery, which meant that the risk that a submarine could collide with tanker was prohibitively high. Today, Milford Haven houses two oil refineries and two liquefied natural gas facilities, all of which would have to close, but given that they are a major energy source for the UK and a significant regional employer, this would meet fierce opposition. Not only that, but an independent Scotland and the location of the Trident bases in Wales may well have a catalysing effect on Welsh nationalism. Imagine a Sisyphean Westminster watching the boulder roll back down the mountain, as Wales declares its independence a decade later.

HMNB Devonport in Plymouth would be the most appropriate site according to Chalmers and Chalmers in their 2014 report for RUSI, Relocation, Relocation, Relocation. While relocation would “not be trivial” — it would overburden Devonport’s current capacity, require additional personnel, training and support facilities, and involve substantial amounts of dredging — they argue that the naval base benefits from already being fitted out to service the UK’s attack class submarine fleet, and that there is a promising site on the Fal estuary near Falmouth that could be developed to replace Coulport. 

Yet according to a response by the MoD to a 2013 freedom of information request, “Neither the Devonport naval base nor the Devonport dockyard, which is owned and operated by Babcock, safety case permit the berthing of an armed Vanguard class submarine,” as the proximity to the densely-populated Plymouth — around a quarter of a million people —  is simply too high. Furthermore, Chalmers and Chalmers estimate that the upgrades to Devonport would take around a decade, while the RNAD would take around 10–15 years, at a total cost of £2.5 to £3.5 billion (others, such as Professor Trevor Taylor at RUSI, have put it as high as £20 billion). Thus, if an independent SNP government were to stick to their proposed four-year deadline for having Trident removed from the Clyde, the rUK would almost certainly have to cease continuous at-sea patrols.

Use of US or French submarine bases

Third, the UK could consider sharing submarine bases and armament facilities with France or the USA. UK SSBNs could potentially use the US base of King’s Bay in Georgia. UK Trident missiles are taken from a common pool of missiles already serviced at King’s Bay. However, while the UK has a long history of dependence on the US for its nuclear weapons, to rely on American territory would be a concession too far and undermine the UK’s claim to an operationally “independent” nuclear deterrent.

The UK and France have not demonstrated a strong capacity for close nuclear cooperation. Discussions around holding shared Franco-British patrols in 2010, thereby alleviating the burden of each country to maintain continuous at-sea patrols, were quickly nipped in the bud. Moreover, according to Ainslie, France’s own base at Île Longue is simply too small to accommodate additional UK submarines. The same issues surrounding the UK’s “independent” deterrent would apply here too.

Alternative delivery system

Fourth, the UK could choose to abandon the SSBN-based delivery system in favour of another nuclear weapons delivery system. The UK Government’s Trident Alternatives Review (July 2013) set out the most viable alternatives, including a large aircraft, fast jets, low-orbit vehicles, maritime surface vessels, silos and mobile ballistic missile launchers. The manner in which the report favoured SSBNs demonstrates the level of institutional HMG commitment to the Trident system.

Unilateral disarmament

Fifth, the UK could decide that this was enough to reverse its commitment to fielding an independent nuclear deterrent. Indeed, the perfect storm of deepening complexities and vulnerabilities within the £41bn Successor class project, a secessionist Scotland and the economic impact of Brexit, could yet turn opinions. New multilateral disarmament initiatives, such as the negotiations being tabled by the UN Open-Ended Working Group on Nuclear Disarmament could provide a framework if the opportunity is seized. The UK could act the world-leader in nuclear issues it claims to be.

The dearth of good alternatives to the bases at Faslane and Coulport raises serious questions about the decision to hold the Trident vote before a “UK-wide” consensus has been reached on the country’s future unity. The Successor class is expected to last into the 2060s, if its technology remains relevant for that long. Scottish independence at any point over the next half-century could therefore make the programme a tremendously expensive and potentially hazardous white elephant.

About the author(s)...
  • Sebastian Brixey-Williams, Project Leader writes on multilateral disarmament and arms control, submarine vulnerabilities and strategic responsibility.
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