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Britain's Status Symbol

The United Kingdom's Nuclear Program After the Election

The Red Arrows perform a flypast during an armed forces and veterans' parade on the final day of VE day commemorations in central London, May 10, 2015. Suzanne Plunkett / Reuters

In what was one of the biggest upsets of the May 7 British general election, Mhairi Black, a 20-year-old University of Glasgow student and candidate for the Scottish National Party (SNP), unseated Douglas Alexander, the Labour Party’s campaign architect and former Shadow Foreign Secretary, in a district he had represented for nearly 20 years. In her victory speech, televised across the country, she declared to thunderous applause, “I will always vote against wasting 100 billion pounds on a new generation of Trident nuclear weapons.” Indeed, although the election was mostly dominated by the country’s sluggish economic recovery, the campaign also illustrated the tremendous polarization over the United Kingdom’s nuclear future.

The country has until 2016 to make a final decision on Trident, given the decade-plus lead time required to develop a replacement for the country’s four nuclear-armed submarines, which are set to expire in 2028. Although the governing Conservatives—who pledged to pursue a “like-for-like” replacement of Trident—will now return to Westminster with a stronger majority government, the election deprived the public of a proper debate over the merits of that plan.

Demonstrators take part in an anti-Trident rally in Glasgow, April 4, 2015.

Demonstrators take part in an anti-Trident rally in Glasgow, April 4, 2015. 

Russell Cheyne / Reuters
Instead, the issue became another locus for political sparring over fiscal responsibility. The Liberal Democrats, for instance, argued that the United Kingdom could maintain a credible deterrent with a cheaper alternative involving three, or perhaps fewer, submarines. Labour tried to straddle both positions, maintaining a commitment to the United Kingdom’s longstanding continuous at-sea-deterrence (CASD) policy through four submarines, but leaving open the possibility that strategic and technological imperatives could permit fewer boats at lower cost.

Despite the differences between the parties, the size and cost of a Trident replacement are difficult to contest. Experts are generally in agreement that, to keep its current level of deterrence, the United Kingdom needs four boats: one on active duty, one undergoing scheduled maintenance, one involved in training, and one in reserve. Any attempts to cut the number of vessels would save only a fraction of the program’s total price tag,

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