Experts say Britain needs its nuclear weapons

A report by diplomats, politicians and generals recommends that Britain should renew Trident, its ageing submarine nuclear deterrent system. But are atomic weapons really necessary?

At all times, somewhere deep in the ocean, a British submarine armed with thermonuclear warheads moves along in silence. For three months at a time its crew are alone at sea, waiting for the coded signal they hope will never come, ordering them to launch their missiles which would travel at 13,000mph and could level entire cities anywhere on the planet.

The submarine is one of four that form Trident, Britain’s nuclear deterrence programme. There is always one at sea, while the others are being maintained in dock or on training exercises.

But Trident is now 20 years old and the government must decide whether to renew its nuclear submarine programme in 2016. As might be expected with a multibillion pound weapon system that could annihilate the planet, the answer is not simple.

Britain’s nuclear weapons system is the result of a mutual nuclear defence pact signed with the US in 1958, in which the latter supplied advanced technology to help the UK buttress the threat from the Soviet Union during the cold war. While that threat is over, Britain’s nuclear arsenal forms part of its contribution to the 28-country defence organisation, NATO.

Replacing Trident would not be cheap. The cost would be an initial £20bn, with maintenance swallowing £3bn a year.

A committee composed of former ministers, politicians, diplomats and generals has just released a report saying that the money would be well spent. They say Trident makes any country that might consider attacking the UK think again. And while no country directly threatens the UK now, the future is always uncertain.

Opponents disagree and say Britain would be safer if it got rid of its 240 nuclear warheads and encouraged other countries to disarm as well. They add that Britain could not realistically use its weapons independently as they depend on components supplied by the US. The US effectively has a veto over their use. Upgrading Trident would simply be a dangerous waste of money.

Nuclear options

Some agree with the report and think a Trident upgrade would deter potential attacks and ensure that the UK is taken seriously in the world. The UK also has duties to support its NATO allies, particularly weaker states in Eastern Europe like Estonia. Its nuclear weapons are part of NATO’s defences and keep Europe safe, not just Britain.

Others say a Trident upgrade is an unnecessary financial burden. The UK’s main threat is from isolated terrorist groups, and nuclear weapons offer no protection against them. The missiles are a defence against a threat from Russia which has now declined. At a time of financial austerity, the money would be better spent on the soldiers and weapons that we actually need now.

You Decide

  1. Does Britain need a nuclear deterrent?
  2. ‘If you want to stay at peace, prepare for war.’ Do you agree?


  1. In groups, list the pros and cons of having nuclear weapons. Then write a short group statement on whether you think Britain should renew its nuclear arsenal. What does the majority in your class think?
  2. Using the links in ‘Become an Expert’ and the wider internet, research the history of nuclear weapons. Make a timeline of key events.

Some People Say...

“All nuclear weapons are immoral. Their use is a threat to the entire planet.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Why do I need to care about the UK’s defences?
Because nuclear weapons are enormously powerful and also extremely expensive. The only time they have ever been used in war was in WWII when the US bombed the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki killing hundreds of thousands of people. They have become much more powerful since then, and the use of just one would have a hugely destructive effect on the whole planet.
Who has nuclear weapons?
Nine countries. The USA, Russia, UK, France, China, India, Pakistan, North Korea and Israel (undeclared). Iran is currently suspected of being engaged in developing its own nuclear weapons. Russia and the US have most with around 15,000 warheads between them.

Word Watch

The blast from a nuclear weapon is incredibly destructive. A single one of a Trident submarine’s current load of 48 warheads could devastate an area up to 60 kilometres square.
During the cold war, a major concern was an accidental nuclear exchange between the USSR and the USA. This held the possibility of the entire destruction of everyone on the planet.
Cold war
Between 1947 and 1991 there was a long period of tension between the Western bloc (USA and its NATO allies in western Europe) and the Eastern bloc (the Soviet Union and its allies in eastern Europe).
The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation is a political and military alliance, including the USA and the United Kingdom, which safeguards the freedom and security of its members.
The extent to which Britain relies on US military technology is understandably classified, but experts say that without US support, the UK’s nuclear stockpile would become obsolete within months.

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