Scottish National Party Sweep Calls U.K. Trident Program Into Question

By Yasmin Tadjdeh
When the Scottish National Party swept dozens of parliamentary seats in the recent U.K. general election, it sent reverberations around the globe.

Scots have historically been wary of the United Kingdom’s Trident program, the country’s sole nuclear deterrent, which consists of Vanguard-class submarines, Trident II D5 ballistic missiles and nuclear warheads based in Scotland.

The submarines are nearing the end of their service lives and replacements are slated to enter service in the late 2020s. However, U.K. politicians, defense officials and policy experts have been debating for years whether a replacement of Trident is financially feasible and wise in light of security threats around the world.

The U.K. Ministry of Defence has estimated that it would cost between $23.4 billion to $31.2 billion to replace Trident in 2006-2007 prices. Some critics, however, have said the entire lifetime cost of a replacement would top $156 billion.

The Conservative Party — which won a majority of seats in the House of Commons during the recent election — is resoundingly for a replacement, as are some Labour Party members. SNP members, however, have been fiercely against it.

Now some experts say that SNP — with its increased influence after winning 56 seats in Parliament — may push for the dismantling of the program and potentially squash any chance of a replacement.

Nicola Sturgeon, SNP’s leader, has repeatedly said the party would never vote in support of a replacement.

“My party does not support the nuclear deterrent and does not support the renewal of the Trident nuclear deterrent,” said Sturgeon during a speech at the Council on Foreign Relations in June.

Other SNP party leaders have also publicly decried the program, including Angus Robertson, SNP’s Westminster leader.

“The Trident nuclear missile system is unusable and indefensible — and the plans to renew it are ludicrous on both defense and financial grounds. No politician can say with any credibility that they would ever fire nuclear weapons, which would kill civilians massively and indiscriminately and create environmental catastrophe,” he said in a statement in April when he served as SNP’s defense spokesperson and campaign director.

Sturgeon said SNP would prefer funds from the Trident replacement to instead go toward more conventional defense acquisitions, such as maritime surveillance. She noted that the United Kingdom currently does not have any maritime patrol aircraft and that is an issue for Scotland, which has vibrant oil and fishing industries.

“There have been significant reductions in the U.K.’s conventional defense footprint over the past 10 years,” she said. “One of the concerns we have is the more that defense expenditure is taken up with Trident, the less expenditure we have on the conventional forces that the country really needs to secure itself and to contribute to defense internationally.”

This issue was especially troublesome in 2014 when there was concern that Russian submarines were patrolling U.K. territorial waters, she said.

“We did not have within our own forces the capability to deal with that. We had to draw on help … from elsewhere,” she said. “My view is we need a strong, appropriate, conventional forces — forces that are capable of defending the United Kingdom, but also contributing positively and appropriately to international threats.”

Luke Coffey, a Margaret Thatcher fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, said Sturgeon’s remarks were “nonsense.”

“All defense spending, like all public spending, is about establishing national priorities, and if the government wanted to spend the money they could have maritime patrol aircraft and they can have nuclear deterrence. But at the end of the day, the ultimate insurance guarantee for Britain’s existence” is Trident, he said in an interview.

Trident is the most important part of the United Kingdom’s security, said Coffey, who previously worked as an advisor within the U.K. Ministry of Defence under the Conservative Party. Not only is it important to the country itself, but also to its NATO allies, he added. Only three NATO countries — the United States, the United Kingdom and France — have nuclear capabilities.

“The U.S. likes the U.K. having nuclear weapons because of the whole NATO aspect,” he said. “It would just weaken the alliance if Britain got rid of their nuclear weapons. And also the special relationship between the U.S. and the U.K. is very deep and strong in this area in terms of sharing technology, cooperating in the nuclear field.”

Retired Marine Corps Brig. Gen. Stephen Cheney, CEO of the American Security Project, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, disagreed that a nuclear-free U.K. would damage the country’s standing among NATO allies.

“I don’t think it would change it one bit. Not in the least. We’re all NATO allies. We all deploy together, we all go to Iraq, Afghanistan,” he said. “The fact that you don’t have a [nuclear] submarine … won’t make a bit of difference.”

Cheney called the Trident program “an absolute waste of money” and said funds allocated toward it could be better used for other government programs.

“The chances of Great Britain ever using those nuclear weapons are zero, and for them to go through the inordinate expense of maintaining them, fleeting them, putting them out to sea, it’s just ridiculous,” he said. “Who are they deterring? The Russians? I don’t think the Russians have any designs on Great Britain. The Chinese? I don’t think so. The French? Israel? India? Pakistan?”

It is inconceivable that the U.K. would ever need a nuclear weapon, and if there were a legitimate threat, the country could call on the United States for help, he added.

In last year’s heated Scottish referendum — which brought to a vote whether Scotland should remain a part of the U.K. — SNP leaders made it a cornerstone of their message that if Scotland became an independent country, Trident would be removed from its waters. Ultimately, a majority of voters decided against independence, but there are still ongoing discussions about moving the naval base, said Michael Geary, a global fellow at the Wilson Center, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.

“While the rejection of the referendum on Scottish independence silenced the debate on moving or abandoning Trident, the meteoric rise of the … [SNP] in May’s election has given rise to renewed discussions about continuing to base the system in Scotland,” he said in an email.

During the referendum, a slight majority of voters were in favor of removing Trident from Scotland to somewhere in England, he noted. Such a move, many experts have said, would be extremely time consuming and costly.

The Trident replacement’s price tag is one of the most contentious issues surrounding the program, Geary said. It is expected that it could leave a “big hole in defense spending,” consuming between 10 and 12 percent of the U.K.’s defense budget, he said.

“While this will make the Royal Navy quite pleased, other branches of the armed services will be left to make financial adjustments especially with conventional forces,” he said.

Trident is overall seen as a point of national pride for the U.K., Geary said. It would be unlikely that the current Conservative-led government would give up that power symbol, he said.

A nuclear deterrent “guarantees the U.K. a seat at the highest level of international political discussions and a vital friend for Washington in a world increasingly concerned at America’s readiness to intervene in military conflicts. No Conservative government could ever contemplate such a move and by extension, weakening relations with such an important ally,” he said.

Further, to lose its nuclear deterrent would severely diminish the U.K.’s standing among its NATO allies, he said. “France would emerge as the sole European nuclear power and, by default, Washington’s newest best friend (or uncomfortable partner) in Europe,” he said.

A 2014 report by the cross-party Trident Commission, whose members include former U.K. defense secretaries, political leaders and experts, found that the United Kingdom should retain its nuclear deterrence. 

“If there is more than a negligible chance that the possession of nuclear weapons might play a decisive future role in the defense of the United Kingdom and its allies, in preventing nuclear blackmail, or in affecting the wider security context within which the U.K. sits, then they should be retained,” the report said. “The impact of the U.K.’s falling victim to ongoing strategic blackmail or nuclear attack is so significant that, even if the chances appear slim today, there is sufficient uncertainty surrounding the prospect that it would be imprudent to abandon systems that have a high capacity to counter such threats.”

Further, the U.K. has an “ongoing responsibility to NATO, and its nuclear weapons contribution remains a pillar of NATO’s capabilities,” it said. “We cannot expect the United States to shoulder indefinitely the awesome responsibilities that lie in providing extended nuclear deterrence to Europe, particularly if the United Kingdom were to abandon its own nuclear force.”

Chris Chivvis, associate director at RAND Corp.’s International Security and Defense Policy Center, said the Trident debate would continue for years with SNP continuing to “keep this in the political mix.”

“I would be very surprised if they entirely did away with their nuclear deterrent,” he said. “I just don’t see it as likely. Nuclear weapons … are just too valuable to the U.K. defense policy.”

Coffey said despite SNP’s big win in the recent election, it would not have an impact on the Trident debate in any serious way because there are enough votes in the House of Commons between the Conservative and Labour parties to get a replacement program up and running.

“I don’t think the Scottish National Party are going to pose much of a threat, but what they will do is try to use parliamentary delay tactics or try cause as much mischief on the issue as they can,” he said. “In terms of actually stopping it, they won’t be able to.”

Topics: Ballistics, International, Shipbuilding, Submarines

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