Does the UK need Trident?

Trident is the UK’s nuclear weapons system, consisting of four submarines carrying missiles and nuclear warheads. Trident has recently come to the forefront of the news again due to the government’s wish to upgrade the ageing system, which was developed in the 1980s. An upgrade is estimated to cost around £20bn, according to the MoD, while groups opposing the need for nuclear weapons claim the overall costs could be a lot higher than this.  So, does the UK need Trident?

A Utilitarian Perspective

Trident’s primary purpose is to deter the most extreme threats to our national security and way of life. The potential risk of not investing in Trident is the lives of millions of UK citizens. Estimates for replacing Trident range from £100bn to £167bn. But are the alternatives any better? The Trident Alternatives Review in 2013 demonstrated that no alternative system is as capable as the current Trident based deterrent, or as cost effective. Its upgrade can therefore be argued for based upon its cost efficiency and unique remit.

However, analysis of social consequences indicates that Trident may not be necessary at all. The validity of the Trident Alternatives review relies on the assumption that such a deterrent is required. Former foreign secretary Robin Cook stated that Trident is “worse than irrelevant” for dealing with Britain’s international security challenges. Similarly, Major General Patrick Cordingley believes “strategic nuclear weapons have no military use”. This refutes the idea that a nuclear deterrent is necessary or relevant. Without the expense of Trident, money could be reallocated to alleviate the budget cuts on health and welfare sectors, providing significant benefits to millions of UK citizens. It seems illogical that spending for the project is allowed to balloon to the hundreds of billions whilst the Chancellor demands other departments to cut costs. On the other hand, the social cost of not upgrading Trident may prove disastrous since there would be an unprecedented hole in Britain’s defence strategy. Cook and Cordingleys’ opinions must be taken with a pinch of salt given that what they argue is essentially a step into the unknown, making it difficult to fully assess the consequences.

The decision to upgrade Trident will also have consequences on the UK’s political standing. In order to preserve our sovereignty, possessing a nuclear deterrent is the ultimate expression of military might, making hostile states think twice before attacking, and protecting the lives of UK citizens. However, once again the relevancy of this argument can be questioned. Tim Collins of the Centre for Science and Security Studies research group is sceptical that the UK will ever use its nuclear deterrent in the future.  Due to the political support received from NATO and the UN, and the fact that no nuclear attack has occurred since World War 2, it is an unlikely set of circumstances that would see us deploy Trident. Despite this, we may appear as a soft touch or easy target were we not to possess a deterrent.

Applying a Utilitarian viewpoint allows us to justify a decision based on the greatest benefit to the greatest number of people. It is undeniable that the risk to 64 million British lives outweighs the social consequences of its financial cost. Therefore, it is clear that Trident should be upgraded.

A Deontological Perspective

As a leading economic superpower in the modern world, the UK has numerous obligations both to its citizens and to the rest of the world. With global tension rising due to conflict in the Middle East, the UK government has a pertinent duty to protect its citizens from the threat of war; and as a UN member, the UK is committed to supporting allied countries in potential conflicts. The Trident program can be seen as a huge deterrent to potential attacks, and gives the UK the military power to support allies. Trident could also allow the UK to “punch above its weight diplomatically”, enabling it to act dutifully in influencing sensitive global issues. Trident is seen as a safety barrier for the UK from other Nuclear Weapon States; a last resort system to be used under the strategy of “mutually assured destruction” – if you come for me then I’ll come for you. However, the intention is that Trident will never actually have to be used.

So if Trident may never be used – should the UK invest so much money into improving it? It can be argued that there are more effective methods than Trident of preventing war, and as a country with global influence, the UK is obligated to promote world peace by effectively managing diplomatic relations and advocating nuclear disarmament. How will this duty be met if we upgrade our nuclear defense system? By discarding their nuclear arsenal, the UK government would fulfil its obligation to defend human rights by reducing the threat to innocent civilians. Additionally, the UK has other, arguably more important worldwide responsibilities than military defense. The UK has a responsibility to invest in sustainable development to reduce its carbon footprint and combat the imminent threat of climate change, as well as a duty to provide financial support to developing countries. The huge cost of Trident could be better spent on achieving these objectives.

Similarly, looking closer to home, the government has a duty to provide support to its own citizens and maintain high living standards. With the present state of austerity, there is more urgent need for investment in existing problems than in preventative measures for an issue that may not arise. In light of the current strain on the NHS, the housing crisis, and constant issues surrounding education and welfare, it is arguable that the UK government has a greater and more pressing responsibility to invest in these areas rather than military defence.

Overall it seems the government’s duties to promote world peace, drive sustainability, and improve living standards for its own citizens, outweigh their obligation to invest in defense against a non-imminent threat. Therefore, the UK government should act responsibly and reject the proposed Trident upgrade.

36: Jodie Curtis*, Corey West*, Stuart Benson, Sophie Watson


6 thoughts on “Does the UK need Trident?

  1. The main issue I have with the utilitarian perspective is it’s assumption that the fact we haven’t had any nuclear attack since world war two means it must be due to us having nuclear weapons. There are only 8 other countries in the world with nuclear weapons so if nuclear weapons are the main protective factor then why hasn’t Australia or Canada or South America or Africa been annihilated by nukes. They have no deterrent. The other issue is that the deterrent only really works against another state/country however state warfare is not the modern day threat. If ISIS or Al Qaeda get there hands on a nuclear weapon where would we bomb back? It’s a cold war technology that is of little use in the modern world we live in.

    The other issue is the fact we have signed up to the nuclear non proliferation treaty which explicitly says to not produce anymore nuclear weapons and to take steps in active disarmament. We quite clearly are doing the opposite of this. This is dangerous because the non proliferation treaty is the document that has stopped a hundred other countries pursuing nuclear weapons themselves. Therefore if we are seen to not be ratifying it then it could have damaging effects on the legitimacy of the document and lead to more countries not ratifying it and that means even more countries with nuclear weapons.


    1. You are correct that we have signed up to the NPT, but incorrect in saying that renewing Trident would be in contravention of the terms of the treaty. The new submarines will represent an overall decrease in the number of weapons deployable by the UK at any one time. We are also not producing any more nuclear weapons.


  2. Renewal isn’t a scheme to improve the system, it’s to make sure it’s still up to date. The current submarines are nearing the end of their service lives, and in fact have had to have their lives extended through expensive refits because their replacements have been delayed so much.

    The new submarines will have eight missile silos, rather than the Vanguard class’ 16 silos, so it will represent an overall reduction in the UK’s nuclear arsenal, which is in compliance with the NPT.

    Should the UK not renew, the money would not be free to be used to improve the NHS or build new homes, it’s already allocated to the defence budget, and it would stay there.


  3. “Similarly, looking closer to home, the government has a duty to provide support to its own citizens and maintain high living standards. With the present state of austerity, there is more urgent need for investment in existing problems than in preventative measures for an issue that may not arise”

    My opinion is that this statement is short sited. A constant at sea deterrent acts to protect the UK and her allies from unknown locations around the world from threats which you and I are, frankly, unaware of.
    How can the UK Government provide support to its own citizens if it cannot at first protect them? Should we stop selling cars with preventative safety measures because an accident is only ‘an issue which may not arise’? Maybe we should stop engineering preventative measures as solutions toward renewable energy sources because the exhaustion of global fossil fuels supplies is only ‘an issue which may not arise’?


  4. Firstly, the UK’s membership of the UN Security Council as a permanent member would be questioned were we to give up our nuclear arsenal. In an era where defence cuts are on the increase, Britain’s conventional military strength is severely lacking. Our membership of the UNSC is crucial in determining our ability to affect global politics and provides us with an independent veto on the use of UN forces and resolutions. It is a major piece of soft (and arguably hard) power that the availability of trident allows us to justify on the world stage.

    Secondly is the a reality that a conventional war is still a possibility. With the Russian incursions in Ukraine AND the ever present threat of Argentina re-invading the Falkland Islands, there are two potential sources of conflict where a nuclear deterrent is enough to prevent a potentially costly and inflammatory war. Especially in the case of the Falklands where we currently are unable to field the carrier fleet we did in 1982 to retake the islands. In relation to Russia, an Obama led USA has been very wary of standing up to Putin and the fact that UK and French forces have an independent nuclear deterrent allows us the liberty of not having to rely on our friends across the pond.

    Thirdly is the impact on jobs in the sector. As with the commissioning of the new aircraft carriers, the fact is that Trident provides a massive boost to Britain’s defence industry and the vital jobs, skills and research that comes with it. Unfortunately, defence procurement is not all about what we need and why we need it, it often comes down to what is best for local and national businesses. If we didn’t replace Trident, it is likely that we would lose the ability to ever replace it – and that has longer term implications. A lot of the thinking around procurement is strategic and that has reach out to 2050 and beyond, if Britain can no longer build submarines, then who are we going to buy them from in thirty years time?

    Finally is the argument that the money is better spent in Health Care etc. It is a very valid argument but really comes down to a wider debate about defence spending. Indeed there are many who would argue that actually Trident is the ONE capability we should keep. Britain’s military forces are NOT able to defend the UK from conventional attack BUT Trident prevents ALL attacks by state actors. Therefore, if we want to focus soley on defending our shores, Trident is actually the one bit of kit we need. But then do we want Britain to be an isolationist nation that is unable to intervene in conflicts in Libya, Sierra-Leone, Kosovo etc? Defence and intervention are costly businesses and simply scrapping an entire capability has massive implications. With only four submarines we already operate a skeleton service, by and large it is considered value for money by the defence sector.

    Plus the £100 billion price tag is a bit vague in itself (since it is the cost over the next 40 years! and Trident’s replacement is going to be around 6-7% of the defence budget, a tiny amount for such a big capability. If you looked at similar figures for aircraft, soldiers or ships the figure would pale in comparison. Often Trident’s detractors are actually just ideologically opposed to nuclear weapons, which in itself is bizzare since they haven’t caused a conflict since their creation and have arguably prevented many from starting or indeed escalating (India-Pakistan, USA-China, Israel-Middle East, USA-Russia are just some key examples).


  5. The utilitarian perspective seems to be slightly flawed in its conclusion, in my view. We should be comparing the consequences of two different actions (in this case, the renewal of Trident, and the non-renewal of Trident), and then deeming which of these results in the most good to the most people.

    The pertinent consequence of renewing Trident, as is well laid out above, is the spending of a lot of money that could be spent on various public services instead. The consequence of not renewing Tirdent is that it *might* leave us more vulnerable to attack. There is added risk, but no tangible consequences. The actual death of everyone in the country is not a clear and direct consequence of not renewing Trident: it is hypothetical. It might happen. In contrast, the spending of a lot of money that could be spent on various public services instead is not a hypothetical consequence. It is a direct consequence. It is happening currently – and people are suffering as a result of this every day.

    It seems to me that a utilitarian approach cannot base itself on speculation about what might happen. It should be grounded in real consequences of actions. The real consequence of not renewing Trident is no more than uncertainty and mild risk; the real consequence of renewing it is a tangible loss of money to public services. It seems therefore that, even within a utilitarian framework, the ethical thing to do is to not renew Trident.


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