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Fri Feb 12, 2016, 08:27 PM

Guardian long read - Trident: the British question

The debate is not simply about submarines and missiles. It touches almost every anxiety about the identity of the United Kingdom. The decision may tell us what kind of country – or countries – we will become

by Ian Jack

At this moment, a British submarine armed with nuclear missiles is somewhere at sea, ready to retaliate if the United Kingdom comes under nuclear assault from an enemy. The boat – which is how the Royal Navy likes to talk about submarines – is one of four in the Vanguard class: it might be Vengeance or Victorious or Vigilant but not Vanguard herself, which is presently docked in Devonport for a four-year-long refit. The Vanguards are defined as ballistic missile submarines or SSBNs, an initialism that means they are doubly nuclear. Powered by steam generated by nuclear reactors, they carry ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads.

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.


MORE: http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2016/feb/11/trident-the-british-question

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