“Trident: Deadly – and very, very expensive
It is our last line of defence in the event of nuclear war. But Trident also costs billions. Will the coalition government dare to scrap it?
Former commander Julian Ferguson on life aboard a Trident sub
By Patrick Barkham and Richard Norton-Taylor
From the hill overlooking Gare Loch, the black-finned body of the nuclear submarine looks as benign as a whale, and almost insignificant against the hulking mountains beyond. But this small beast, tethered to a jetty at Faslane naval base, is a deadly one: it is one quarter of Trident, Britain’s nuclear deterrent.
The four horsemen of Trident – Vanguard, Victorious, Vigilant and Vengeance – take it in turn to provide a continuous patrol of the world’s oceans, wielding a cargo of up to 16 Trident ballistic missiles. Each missile is capable of travelling at least 4,000 miles; each carries three nuclear warheads, which can be released separately, to hit different targets, once the missile reaches space. And each missile represents the equivalent of many Hiroshimas.
Four hundred metres from the glittering loch, beyond a thicket of barbed wire, a knot of campaigners conduct a peace vigil, draping rainbow CND flags over Royal Navy signs and unveiling their latest work of art: “Cameron-Clegg. Trident value for money? How many deaths to the pound?” the poster, painted in black acrylic, reads. That morning, the hurriedly drafted coalition agreement between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats promised a commitment to maintaining Britain’s nuclear deterrent while scrutinising Trident “to ensure value for money”.
“I don’t care if it costs a fiver. It’s immoral,” says protester Barbara Dowling. “How can you value a weapon when once it is used its purpose has failed?” adds Jane Tallents. She and her partner, Brian Larkin, painted the Clegg-Cameron banner. Tallents says she arrived here in 1984 and lived at the “peace camp”, a colourful collection of caravans by the side of the base, for six years. Now the mother of two children, she has settled in nearby Helensburgh. “When I first got pregnant, I thought, ‘Is it responsible to live next to a nuclear weapons base?’ Then I thought there is nowhere in the world that is safe. The safest thing I could do for my children was to stay here and campaign to get rid of it.” She pauses, dryly. “It’s taken longer than I expected.”
Three years ago, with support from the Conservatives, Labour pushed through the controversial decision to renew the Trident system. This new system would cost £97bn over its 30-year lifetime, according to a study for Greenpeace. Until Nick Clegg popped up during the election campaign to argue that the government should be looking at cheaper alternatives, both Labour and the Tories were vowing that the upcoming Strategic Defence Review into the armed forces would not include any discussion of Trident.
Now, however, the political and economic landscape stands transformed, and the issue of Trident is being seriously debated again for the first time in a generation. Defence secretary Liam Fox has said the Strategic Defence Review will begin immediately. At the same time, an important conference on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty is unfolding at UN headquarters in New York this month. On top of the inevitable government deficit-driven cuts, the Ministry of Defence has its own onerous budget crisis to cope with. Some senior figures in the armed forces are in open revolt over Trident. And Barack Obama’s apparent determination to cut the US’s nuclear arsenal, and reluctance to invest in new nuclear weapons, could help kill off Trident even more quickly (…).”