Trident: A Timeline of the UK’s Nuclear Weapons Programme | History Hit

Trident: A Timeline of the UK’s Nuclear Weapons Programme

Nuclear submarine HMS Vanguard arrives back at HM Naval Base Clyde, Faslane, Scotland following a patrol.
Image Credit: CPOA(Phot) Tam McDonald / Open Government Licence

Ever since the successful development of nuclear weapons in the 1940s, governments have been in a nuclear arms race against other countries. The threat of nuclear obliteration, and later mutually assured destruction (MAD) has terrified politicians, civilians and military alike for the past 80 years.

The UK’s only remaining nuclear weapons programme, Trident, is as controversial today as when it was first created. But what actually is Trident, and how did it come to exist in the first place?

Development of nuclear weapons

Britain first successfully tested nuclear weapons in 1952, determined to keep up technologically with the United States after the Manhattan Project had proved how deadly atomic weapons could be. In 1958, Britain and the US signed a Mutual Defence Agreement which restored the nuclear ‘Special Relationship’ and allowed Britain to purchase nuclear weapons from the United States once more.

As time went on, it became clear that the V-bombers Britain had based its nuclear deterrent around were no longer up to scratch. As other nations caught up in the nuclear arms race, it became increasingly clear that the bombers probably wouldn’t be able to permeate Soviet airspace.

Polaris and the Nassau Agreement

In December 1962, Britain and the United States signed the Nassau Agreement, in which the US agreed to supply Britain with Polaris submarine-launched ballistic missiles and marking the beginning of Britain’s Naval Ballistic Missile System.

Lockheed Polaris A3 submarine launched ballistic missile at the RAF Museum, Cosford.

Image Credit: Hugh Llewelyn / CC

It took nearly another 3 years for the first submarine to be launched: 3 more quickly followed. Opposition existed from the start, particularly from the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), but both Conservative and Labour governments funded, maintained and modernised (where appropriate) the weapons throughout the 1960s and 1970s.

By the 1970s, Britain had lost most of its empire to decolonisation, and many felt that the nuclear weapons programme was about much more than simply acting as a deterrent. It marked Britain out as a powerful player on the world stage still and earned respect from the international community.

The beginning of Trident

As Polaris missiles began to look increasingly outdated, a report was commissioned to investigate what Britain’s next step in developing its nuclear missile programme should be. In 1978, Prime Minister James Callaghan received the Duff-Mason Report, which recommended the purchase of American Trident missiles.

It took several years for the deal to go through: despite Britain’s desire to keep pace with the United States by having the same nuclear weapons as they did, in order to fund Trident, proposals were put in place which recommended slashing the defence budget in other areas in order to be able to afford the new missiles. The US was concerned about certain aspects of this slashed funding and stalled the deal until guarantees were met.

Trident launches

Trident, as Britain’s nuclear weapons programme is known, came into existence in 1982, with the first submarine launched four years later, in 1986. The deal, which cost an estimated £5 billion, saw the United States agree to maintain and support the nuclear missiles and Britain manufacture submarines and warheads. To do this, new facilities had to be built at Coulport and Faslane.

MSPs protesting against Trident in 2013.

Image Credit: Edinburgh Greens / CC

Each of the four submarines carries eight Trident missiles: the logic behind submarine based missiles is that they can be permanently on patrol and, if done well, almost entirely undetectable by potential foreign enemies. Only one submarine is ever on patrol at any time: the others have work done on them in order to ensure that they are permanently ready for use.

Unlike some other powers, Britain has no ‘no first use’ policy, meaning technically missiles could be launched as part of a pre-emptive attack rather than simply in retaliation. Trident missiles have to be authorised by the Prime Minister, who also writes letters of last resort, which are stored in each submarine in case of emergency with instructions on how to respond to the situation.

Controversy and renewal

Since the 1980s, there have been major protests and arguments for unilateral nuclear disarmament. The cost of Trident remains one of the biggest controversies: in 2020, a letter signed by former senior Navy officers involved in Trident argued that it was “completely unacceptable that the UK continues to spend billions of pounds on deploying and modernising the Trident Nuclear Weapon System when faced with the threats to health, climate change and world economies that Coronavirus poses”.

Dan sat down with Julie McDowall to talk about Britain's plans in case of nuclear Armageddon during the Cold War. They also discuss the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl and its infamous legacy.
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The Vanguard submarines on which Trident missiles are stored have roughly a 25 year life span, and replacements take a long time to designed and built. In 2006, a white paper was published which suggested that the cost of renewing the Trident programme would be in the region of £15-20 billion, a figure which staggered many.

Despite the astronomical cost, the following year MPs voted through a motion to begin £3 billion of conceptual work on Trident’s renewal. In 2016, nearly ten years later, MPs once again voted through the renewal of Trident by a hefty majority. The cost of the programme remains controversial, despite no widespread appetite for nuclear disarmament.

Sarah Roller