Successor to the UK Trident system

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CGI of the planned Successor submarine

The Successor programme is a British programme to replace the Vanguard-class of ballistic missile submarines,[1][2] which began to enter service in 1992 with a 25-year intended service life.[3] These submarines currently carry the Trident D5 ballistic missiles, which are now the sole delivery vehicle for the UK's nuclear weapons.[4] The submarine is currently referred to as Successor. Replacement of the Vanguard-class submarines as they reach the end of their service life is necessary if the UK is to retain a "continuous at-sea deterrent" (CASD). The programme has generated political controversy as some oppose the retention of CASD or of any nuclear weapons by the United Kingdom on moral, legal, or financial grounds.[5][6]

The term "Trident" is popularly used to refer to Britain's entire current system of nuclear weapons, including the Vanguard-class submarines, Trident missiles, and warheads, without distinction, and "replacement of Trident" to refer to the Successor programme.[7] However, the Successor programme does not concern the replacement of the Trident missiles themselves, which are designed, manufactured, and maintained in the United States.[4] No project for the replacement of the Trident missile currently exists in either country.[8]

In May 2011 the previous Government approved the initial assessment phase for the new submarines, and authorised the purchase of long lead-time items including steel for the hulls. In May 2015, the Conservative Party won the UK General Election on a manifesto which included a commitment to maintaining a continuous at-sea deterrent with four Successor submarines.[9] The final decision to commit to the Successor programme is expected in 2016.[10] If the programme goes ahead, construction of the submarines will start in late 2016 at the Barrow shipyard operated by BAE Systems. The first submarine is intended to enter service in 2028.[11]


A Trident missile launches from a submerged submarine


Official policy regarding nuclear weapons is for use as a defensive nuclear deterrent. This refers to the possession of nuclear weapons to deter enemy aggression through a retaliatory second strike capability.

The current reasoning of deterrence is explained in the 1997 Strategic Defence Review (SDR):

We are committed to working towards a safer world in which there is no requirement for nuclear weapons and continue to play a full role in international efforts to strengthen arms control and prevent the proliferation of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. However, the continuing risk from the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and the certainty that a number of other countries will retain substantial nuclear arsenals, mean that our minimum nuclear deterrent capability, currently represented by Trident, is likely to remain a necessary element of our security.

— [12]

Collaboration between the UK and the United States on the Manhattan Project produced the first nuclear weapons during World War II. Since the late 1950s, the UK has worked closely with the United States on nuclear strategy. This cooperation was formalised in the 1958 Mutual Defence Agreement (MDA) and has been a key aspect of the special relationship between the two countries.

Trident system[edit]

Since the retirement of the last Royal Air Force WE.177 nuclear bomb in 1998, the British nuclear arsenal has been wholly submarine-based. This is intended to deter a potential enemy because they cannot ensure eliminating the entire stockpile in a first strike if a ballistic missile submarine remains undetected.

Since the Strategic Defence Review, the UK has maintained a stockpile of around 200 warheads. In a policy known as "Continuous at Sea Deterrence", at least one Vanguard class SSBN (nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine) is kept on patrol with up to 16 Trident missiles sharing up to 48 warheads from the stockpile at any given time. The SDR considered this was the minimum number of warheads adequate for deterrence. It is collectively known as the Trident system.[7] The majority of this system is based in Scotland at HM Naval Base Clyde, which includes the Faslane home of the Vanguard submarines, and at the Coulport nuclear depot. Since 1998, the system has also provided the Government with the option of a lower-yield, "sub-strategic" nuclear strike capability.[13]

The oldest submarine of the Vanguard class is expected to remain in service until 2017[14] without a refit, prompting consideration of a replacement before the end of 2010 to allow for development time.[7]

Replacement system[edit]


A December 2006 Ministry of Defence white paper recommended that the nuclear weapons should be maintained and outlined measures that would do so until the 2040s. It advocated the currently preferred submarine-based system, as it remained the cheapest and most secure deterrence option available.

Costs for this option are estimated at £15–20 billion based on:

  • £0.25 billion to participate in U.S. Trident D5 missile life extension programme.
  • £11–14 billion for a class of four new SSBNs.
  • £2–3 billion for refurbishing warheads.
  • £2–3 billion for infrastructure.[15]

These 2006/7 prices would equate to about £25bn in out-turn price for the successor submarines; the 2011 Initial Gate report confirmed estimates of £2-3bn each for the warheads and infrastructure.[16] These cost estimates exclude the Vanguard 5 year life extension and decommissioning, and it is unclear if new Trident missiles will need to be purchased for the life extension programme.[14]

Running costs would be about £1.5 billion per year at 2006 prices.[14]

On 18 May 2011 the British government approved the initial assessment phase for the construction of new Trident submarines, paving the way for the ordering of the first long-lead items and preparations for the main build to begin in the future. The new submarine class will retain the current Trident II missiles,[citation needed] and will incorporate a new 'PWR3' nuclear reactor as well as technology developed for the Astute-class SSNs. The final decision on whether to build the Successor submarines will be taken in 2016[17] and the first boat will be delivered in 2028.[16]

Trident D5 missile life extension[edit]

In 2002, the US Navy awarded a contract for the Trident II D5 Service Life Extension Programme to extend the life of the missiles from the mid-2020s to about 2042, to match the extended life of the US Ohio-class submarine. The UK will join this programme to arm a Vanguard submarine class replacement.


The paper suggested parts of the existing Trident system be refitted to some extent to prolong their lives. However, the relatively short (five years) life extension potential of the Vanguard class meant that a new class of SSBNs should replace it in the early 2020s. There are suggestions that the new fleet be cut to three hulls if a Continuous at Sea Deterrent patrol could still be assured at that number. The first SSBN would take 17 years to be designed and built, making a five-year life extension of the Vanguard class necessary. On this basis, a refitted Vanguard class could still shrink by at least one vessel before the first replacement SSBN enters service.[15]

Both BAE Systems Submarine Solutions and Rolls-Royce Marine Power Operations are undertaking design studies for the new submarine class.[18] BAE presented two designs at DSEi 2007 labelled Concept 35 and Advanced Hull Form (AHF). Concept 35 is an evolution of the Vanguard-class with influences from the Astute-class.[18] Advanced Hull Form is a less conservative design which, rather than a standard tapered design of the stern, features a Y-shaped stern which houses much of the boat's machinery outside of the pressure hull. A picture of the Successor boat released in late 2013 showed a conventional design similar to Concept 35, but with an X-shaped tail.[19]

Power plant[edit]

In March 2011 a safety assessment of the current Rolls-Royce PWR nuclear power plant design, by the Defence Nuclear Safety Regulator in November 2009, was released under a Freedom of Information request.[20] The Regulator identified two major areas where UK practice fell significantly short of comparable good practice, loss-of-coolant accident and control of submarine depth following emergency reactor shutdown.[21][22] For the replacement submarine the option of developing a new PWR3 plant based on current US design is under consideration, and in March 2011 Defence Secretary Liam Fox indicated this was the preferred option "because those reactors give us a better safety outlook".[23][24] In May 2011 the Ministry of Defence announced that the US design had been selected for the PWR3, at a cost of about £3 billion.[25]


The 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review concluded that the Successor submarine would have eight operational missiles carrying no more than 40 operational warheads between them. This would allow the UK to reduce its stocks of operational warheads from 160 to 120, and the overall stockpile from no more than 225 to no more than 180.[16] They would be carried in a 12-missile common missile compartment designed in collaboration with the US for their SSBN-X, which could accommodate the current Trident D5 missiles and any replacement missile once the D5 reaches the end of its expected life in the 2040s.[16]

The remaining warheads are expected to last until the mid-2020s, with a decision to either replace or refurbish them taken closer to that time. The government-owned nuclear weapons research company Atomic Weapons Establishment would likely play a key role in either, with over £1 billion being invested between 2005 and 2008 to maintain "key skills and facilities."[26] The replacement of the Trident missiles was also deferred, as the UK intends to participate in a US programme to lengthen the missiles' lives from the 2020s through to the 2040s.[15]


The Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), a British defence and security think tank, released a paper in July 2010 assessing "four possible options for maintaining both an effective nuclear deterrent and also reducing costs in light of anticipated budget restrictions."[27] These proposals were motivated by the fact that funding for the Trident renewal programme must now come from the core MoD budget.[28]

The paper outlined four options consistent with the purposes of cost reduction:[29]

  • A ‘Normally-CASD’ Submarine Force: "Under this option, the UK would maintain Trident missiles and submarines, and CASD [Continuous At-Sea Deterrence] would be maintained as normal operating practice. But the MoD would accept an increased risk of short interruptions in CASD in the event of unforeseen, and low-probability, mishaps or accidents."
  • A ‘CASD-Capable’ Submarine Force: "Under this option, the attempt to maintain CASD in normal circumstances would be abandoned, and replaced by an assumption that it would only be necessary to have the ability to reconstitute CASD if required, and then to maintain it for a significant (though not indefinite) period...In order to maintain a credible reconstitution capability, it would be necessary to maintain submarine patrols. But these would not necessarily have to be on a continuous basis."
  • A ‘Dual-Capable’ Submarine Force: "This would maintain the plan to build new submarines, but with only four missile tubes (compared with the twelve currently planned) and with an explicit design mandate that asked designers to allow them also to perform conventional roles...It would not be possible, however, for potential adversaries to detect whether or not a particular boat was nuclear-armed when it went on patrol. Such an arrangement could, in time, combine increased survivability for the nuclear force while also holding out the possibility of further reductions in the size and readiness of the nuclear deterrent."
  • A Non-Deployed Strategic Force: "A more radical option would be to abandon submarine-based nuclear weapons altogether, relying instead on a non-deployed arsenal to provide deterrence of future nuclear attacks...The key to an effective UK nuclear deterrent based on this option would be guaranteed, but not prompt, retaliation." Although concluding that "such an option is probably too radical to be politically acceptable at present...It should not be ruled out as a longer-term option, however, perhaps as part of a multilateral agreement to move to lower states of nuclear readiness."

The paper concludes that "given the opportunity costs for conventional capabilities that current plans for Trident renewal are due to incur over the next decade...there is now a growing case for a re-examination of whether there are less expensive means of pursuing this objective. A key element of such a review is likely to be a reconsideration of the need to maintain a commitment to CASD in strategic circumstances that are now very different from those in which it was first introduced."[29]

The Liberal Democrat partners within the Coalition Government, commissioned a review of the proposed new system. In July 2013, the British Government published this Trident Alternatives Review.[30] Its findings included:

  • There are alternatives to the current posture which would enable the UK to inflict "significant damage" and deter aggressors
  • Submarines could potentially be operated at "reduced readiness" when threat levels are lower
  • A continuous-at-sea presence is the most "resilient" posture and guarantees the quickest response
  • Land and air-based delivery systems effectively ruled out
  • An entirely new system, using cruise rather than ballistic missiles, would be more expensive than renewing Trident[31]

Parliamentary support[edit]

On 14 March 2007, the Labour government won Commons support for the plans to renew the submarine system. The proposals were passed by the House of Commons by a majority of 248.[32] Despite a clarification that the vote was just for the concept stage of the new system, 95 Labour MPs rebelled, and it was only passed with the support of the opposition Conservative Party.[32][33] It was the first time MPs had been given the chance to vote on whether the UK should remain a nuclear power, and the biggest rebellion since the beginning of the 2003 Iraq war.[32]

The Labour government decided the final decision to manufacture should be made in 2014.[34]

The new 2010 coalition government agreed "that the renewal of Trident should be scrutinised to ensure value for money. Liberal Democrats will continue to make the case for alternatives." Research and development work continued with an 'Initial Gate' procurement decision, but the 'Main Gate' decision to manufacture a replacement was re-scheduled for 2016, after the next election.[34]

In May 2013 it was reported that Whitehall's forthcoming Alternatives Review had found that land, air or cruise missile systems would be more expensive or more impractical than Trident, and that there would be little saving in reducing from 4 submarines to 3. Cutting to two submarines would cut the capital cost by up to £5bn and save nearly £1bn/year in running costs, but would mean that continuous patrols were no longer possible. The Liberal Democrats, minority partners in the ruling Coalition government, appeared to favour this 2-boat Trident option whilst their Conservative partners preferred the 4-boat option, quoted as costing £20bn.[35] The review found that participating in the US Trident programme was cheaper than starting a UK-only cruise missile programme, previously the Liberal Democrats' preferred option.[35]

In September 2015, Jeremy Corbyn was elected as Labour leader. He is opposed to Trident, but as of January 2016, party policy has not officially been changed yet as a review of Labour's defence policy is being undertaken.

Academic review[edit]

The Bradford Disarmament Research Centre has received funding from several anti-nuclear organizations, including the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, for a review of the Government's reasons for replacing Trident,[36] aiming "to transform the intellectual agenda on Trident replacement through a detailed and critical examination of the government’s rationales for Trident replacement, a number of crucial issues excluded by the government and the wider implications of the decision, which require a full and balanced."

Public support[edit]

In April 2015, a YouGov poll found that 38% of people thought that Trident should be replaced in full, 28% wanted to replace it with a cheaper system, 19% though the UK should completely give up its nuclear weapons and 15% didn't know.[37] In September 2015, a Survation poll found that 29% agreed that Trident should be reformed to make it cheaper, 26% that it should be renewed in full, and 18% that it should be scrapped. 27% did not know.[38]

Nuclear weapons are not a major issue, with just 2% of people saying that it was nation’s biggest worry in May 2015, compared to 21% in June 1987.[39]

Expert opinion[edit]

In 2010, two non-representative polls of experts from the Royal Institute of International Affairs (commonly known as Chatham House) and the Royal United Services Institute were conducted. The first found a majority for RUSI of those that think the benefits of Trident outweigh the costs (53%) compared to those that think the costs outweigh the benefits (13%) or are evenly balanced (34%). The Chatham House poll found a minority in favour of Trident replacement (22%), more in favour of replacing with a cheaper system (43%) with 29% saying the UK should not replace Trident at all.[40]


An anti-nuclear demonstration outside HM Naval Base Clyde

Cost and timing[edit]

Several groups, such as Plaid Cymru, Green Party of England and Wales and Scottish National Party and some trade unions, prefer the money to be spent on public services or improved equipment for conventional forces.[6][41] The Liberal Democrats may previously have taken this view, but in May 2015 their stated position was in favour of a Trident successor programme, albeit reduced in scale "by procuring fewer Vanguard successor submarines and moving from continuous at sea deterrence to a contingency posture of regular patrols."[42]

Greenpeace has claimed the recent £1 billion investment in Atomic Weapons Establishment is for secret initial work on developing a replacement.[43]

In evidence to the House of Commons Defence Select Committee on 23 January 2007, the US nuclear expert Richard Garwin said that the plans were "premature and wasteful", and that delaying the decision for 15 years following inexpensive engine repairs would save £5bn. He added that pressure to commission a new fleet of submarines was rooted in the shipbuilding industry's urge to land lucrative contracts.[44]

In 2014 the independent, but critical, Trident Commission estimated the lifetime cost of Trident replacement as £100 billion. In 2015, Minister of State for Defence Procurement Philip Dunne said in response to Conservative Chair of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, Crispin Blunt that the cost of buying the submarines would be £25 billion, and running costs would be around 6% of the defence budget. Blunt used this information as well as IMF figures for projected UK annual growth of 2.48% and assuming continued UK defence expenditure of 2% of GDP to estimate the total lifetime cost as £167 billion for its 32 years of operation. Blunt's calculation was independently verified by Reuters.[45]

Strategic value[edit]

Another reason cited is the claim that the nuclear environment has become less dangerous since the development of the deterrent during the Cold War. Consequently, with a currently diminished nuclear threat towards Britain, the value of having a deterrent to guard against it has fallen as well. The Ministry of Defence has a declared policy of sub-strategic use which would see, for example, a limited nuclear strike (e.g. one missile with one limited yield warhead) used as either a deterrent to a country from using chemical or biological weapons or as retaliation for having used them.[46][47][48]

Outspoken critics on this basis include former politicians Denis Healey[49] and Michael Portillo.[50]


It has been argued that renewal of Trident would be in violation of the UK's commitments under the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.[51][52]


The possession of nuclear weapons, as a form of weapons of mass destruction, has long been criticised in British politics for being immoral, by members of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) and their supporters. As such, it has been at the core of the peace movement in the UK since CND's formation in 1957. The potential replacement of Trident has been criticised by the CND in their "Scrap Trident" campaign. More recently in 2006, 20 bishops claimed Trident was "anti-God."[53] Other religious leaders, including former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, have questioned the morality of replacing Trident.[54]

Other groups claim the development of new nuclear weapons would undermine Britain's stance with other countries, such as Iran and North Korea, and international nuclear disarmament in general.[55] The UK government insists that there are no plans to enhance the capability of the missiles in terms of payload, range or accuracy, in order to avoid such diplomatic problems.[56]



Supporters of Trident replacement argue that it would not be immoral, because the system serves only defensive, deterrence purposes, and say there is nothing immoral about defending one's own country and deterring attacks on it. To those who object to defending the UK with nuclear weapons, Trident replacement supporters say that all weapons, nuclear or conventional, kill people when used, but nuclear weapons have such deterrent power (deter potential aggressors sufficiently) that the UK has never actually had to use them. They argue further that it would be immoral not to defend the UK from nuclear attacks and threats of such attack.

Strategic value[edit]

Supporters of Trident replacement reject charges that nuclear weapons have no strategic value in the post-Cold-War world and argue the contrary is true. They point to several potential adversaries armed with or developing, and potentially willing to use, nuclear weapons: Russia, North Korea, and Iran. They point to Russia's ongoing nuclear weapons and delivery system fleet buildup, including the increase in the number of Russia's deployed strategic warheads,[57] its enormous total nuclear arsenal size of 8,000 warheads,[58] its replacement of single-warhead SS-25 Sickle and RT-2UTTKh missiles with 10-warhead RS-24 Yars ICBMs,[59] its replacement of old, 4-warhead R-29RMU missiles with 10- and 12-warhead Bulava missile and R-29RMU2 Layner, and its development and testing of the intermediate range R-500 ground-launched cruise missile, which they claim is a violation of the INF Treaty.

Trident replacement supporters also point out to North Korea's acquisition, development, deployment, and threats to use nuclear weapons, and to Iran's nuclear programme as examples of unpredictable rogue states that pose a threat to Britain's and the world's security. They argue only a continuous at-sea nuclear deterrent can dissuade such states, as well as Russia, from being tempted to attack the UK and its allies.

Consistency with non-proliferation commitments[edit]

Supporters of Trident replacement argue that it is Iran and North Korea, not the UK, who are in violation of nonproliferation commitments, because the UK is allowed by the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty to possess nuclear weapons, while Iran and North Korea are not[citation needed]. They further argue that disarming the UK unilaterally would do nothing to advance the cause of nonproliferation, because it would not convince Iran, North Korea, or any other nuclear power to disarm itself. Their development and perfectioning of nuclear weapons, they argue, would actually gain value, because the UK (if it were to disarm itself) would now be defenceless against such threats, so there would be little risk and much benefit to attacking the UK. A non-nuclear Britain, they argue, would have no effective means of responding to such attacks.

See also[edit]


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  30. ^ Trident Alternatives Review (PDF). UK Government. July 2013. Retrieved 2013-07-19. 
  31. ^ Lib Dems accuse Tories of trying to 'rubbish' Trident report. BBC. July 2013. Retrieved 2013-07-19. 
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  36. ^ "Bradford Trident Replacement Review Project". Retrieved 2010-07-30. 
  37. ^ "YouGov Poll p.13" (PDF). 
  38. ^ "Labour Party Conference HuffPost Poll: Less Than One In Five Voters Back Scrapping Trident". 
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  51. ^
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  58. ^
  59. ^

External links[edit]