The location of the submarine – both as I write and you, the reader, read – is one of several unknowns. Somewhere in the North Atlantic or the Arctic would have been a reasonable guess when the Soviet Union was the enemy, but today nobody could be confident of naming even those large neighbourhoods. Another unknown is the number of missiles and warheads on board. Each submarine has the capacity to carry 16 missiles, each of them armed with as many as 12 independently targetable warheads; but those numbers started to shrink in the 1990s, and today’s upper limit is eight missiles and 40 warheads per submarine. Even so, those 40 warheads contain 266 times the destructive power of the bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima.
Vickers (now BAE Systems) built the submarine hulls at Barrow; Rolls-Royce made the reactors in Derby; the Atomic Weapons Establishment produces the warheads at Aldermaston and Burghfield in Berkshire. All these inputs are more or less British (less in the case of the Atomic Weapons Establishment, which is run by a consortium of two American companies and Serco), but the missile that they were built to serve and without which they would not exist is American: the Trident D5 or Trident II, also deployed by the US navy, comes out of the Lockheed Martin Space Systems factory in Sunnyvale, California.
According to the Ministry of Defence, a British ballistic missile submarine has been patrolling the oceans prepared to do its worst at every minute of every day since 14 June 1969, when the responsibility for Britain’s strategic nuclear weapons passed from the Royal Air Force to the Royal Navy. Over the course of 46 years, many things have changed. Resolution-class submarines with Polaris missiles were replaced with Vanguards and Tridents nearly 20 years ago.
The submarines are far bigger – a Vanguard submarine is twice as long as a jumbo jet – while the missiles have enormously increased their range and the warheads their precision. But the system, known as continuous-at-sea-deterrence or CASD, is essentially the same: four submarines work a rota which has one submarine on a three-month-long patrol, another undergoing refit or repair, a third on exercises, and a fourth preparing to relieve the first. The navy’s code name is Operation Relentless.
This is an epic vigil, born in the cold war and not abandoned by its passing, and the government intends that it continues into a third generation of ballistic missile submarines – the provisionally-named Successor class – that will work to the same pattern as the Vanguards and carry a new version of the Trident D5, now under development. In the end, a military strategy devised to deter attack by the Soviet Union will have outlived its original enemy by at least half a century.
Since the advent of the industrial revolution, few weapons systems have survived so long. The modern battleship, devised under the empty blue skies of Edwardian Britain, demonstrated its vulnerability to air attack even before Pearl Harbor; its useful career lasted hardly 40 years. Britain’s submarine-launched nuclear weapon, on the other hand, seems immune to obsolescence – as well as to financial, social and political hazards such as reductions in public spending, de-industrialisation, and the growing possibility of the break-up of the kingdom it was designed to protect.
2. ‘This project is a monster’
The Scottish Question is a familiar one. But Trident sits at the heart of a more complicated puzzle – what we might call the British Question – and embodies many of the crises and anxieties that have afflicted the United Kingdom since the second world war: the passing of empire, the “special relationship” with the United States, the decline of manufacturing and the disappearance of an industrial working class (and its consequences for the Labour party) – and, of course, the spectre of Scottish independence and the end of a United Kingdom.
Trident and its ancestors have been among the causes and consequences of all of them. Where and how (if at all) its successors are deployed will be a measure of the kind of country, or countries, that Britain becomes. (end of excerpt)
Click here for the full story, on the Guardian website.