Renewing Trident

stock-photo-nuclear-explosion-in-an-outdoor-setting-symbol-of-environmental-protection-and-the-dangers-of-164761160I don’t know whether renewing Trident is a good ideal or a bad ideal but I’m willing to listen to the arguments. The trouble is what are the facts?

Today (16th Jan 2016) on BBC’s question time I heard Ann Widdicombe telling us that Trident costs just 6% of our defence budget. Yet another panellist asserted the bill is about £30 bn. I asked Google.

The Defence Budget for 2016 is £33.6 bn according to official Government statements. The latest Government estimate for replacing the 4 submarines is £31bn with a £10 bn contingency fund. Note that this is just for building the submarines it does not include the warheads, anti submarine measures, personnel or infrastructure costs. Some sources suggest that the total bill for Trident is well over £100 bn.

So Ann where does your 6% figure come from? It seems to me that Trident is reducing our conventional forces by a lot more than 6%.

One reason advanced on Question Time for replacing Trident is that the submarines are undetectable and so provide a deterrent. But do they? The New Scientist Magazine has a section in which you can ask technical questions for scientists reading it to answer.

I asked this question: “One argument for continuing the UK’s nuclear submarine fleet is that they are undetectable. Is that still true? And is it likely to be correct when replacement vessels are ready?”

I got two answers. Here is the first:

This is a controversial and often misunderstood issue. While nuclear-powered submarines have advantages in speed, range and submersion time, they are far from undetectable. Surprisingly, modern diesel submarines are often far quieter than their nuclear-powered counterparts.

The problem lies in the power plant itself. A nuclear reactor cannot be turned off and on like a diesel engine can. Although a nuclear submarine can rapidly stop its propeller, it wouldn’t shut down the reactor because of its long start-up and shut-down times.

When it is running, the reactor emits an acoustic and thermal signature which can be picked up by modern detection equipment. In contrast, diesel subs can shut down their entire propulsion system, lying almost completely silent on the bottom of the ocean.

Oxygen-free propulsion and battery technology in diesel submarines have improved vastly since the inception of the nuclear submarine, increasingly closing the gap between nuclear boats and their cheaper conventional counterparts.

Next-generation submarines promise to be even quieter, using hydrogen-cell propulsion and nanotechnological acoustic barriers. These vessels would be virtually undetectable using current anti-submarine military technology.

However no vessel can ever be truly “undetectable”. As submarine technology advances, so too will the techniques and technology used to find them.

Benjamin English
First Lieutenant, US Marine Corps
Pensacola, Florida, US

Here is the second:

Germany’s U-480 submarine used in the second world war was arguably the first stealth submarine. It was difficult to detect using sonar because it was coated in rubber that contained air pockets. The cat-and-mouse game has continued unabated ever since.

Submarines usually lurk on continental shelves, where they are difficult to detect against the clutter of sonar echoes off the surrounding underwater topography. Skilled submariners also position their boats amid water layers called thermoclines, where temperature changes abruptly, refracting sonar away.

Propellers are deliberately not spun so quickly that cavitation bubbles are created because when these bubbles collapse they create a tell-tale acoustic signature. And, during “silent running”, the crew will make minimal noise.

Meanwhile, modern techniques reduce acoustic signatures. Apart from quiet propulsion systems and running on electricity by direct current, deck structures are isolated from hulls with vibration-absorbing mountings and hulls have coatings that eliminate echo.

The joint Italian and German type 212A class submarines promise to be quieter still. Powered by Hydrogen fuel cells, they will radiate virtually no heat. They also use a non-magnetic construction, and it is claimed they will be nearly impossible to detect. Nano-coatings on the hull, designed to reduce fouling caused by organisms – and the associated turbulence that comes with it – might also guide sonar smoothly around the outside of the hull, making science-fiction’s cloaking device a possibility.

Mike Follows
Sutton Coldfield, West Midlands, UK

I’m not sure whether we should replace Trident or not. What I am sure of is that to make the right decision we need to know the truth. And we’re not being told it.

2 thoughts on “Renewing Trident

  1. Two points , firstly , Anne Widdicombe was probably quoting the cost over a number of years from building to eventual decommissioning. you then give quotes from an English gentleman with no reference to his qualification to voice an opinion , and a very junior American Marine and I may be wrong but I doubt marines are also sub mariners. We cannot afford to be caught with our pants down as we were prior to the second world war.

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    • I do not think Anne Widdicombe was quoting the cost over a number of years at all. The £30b only covers the cost of building the submarines. The total cost of Trident is well over £100b. Perhaps she will tell us. If you know better sources of information on detecting submarines please share them with us. As for our pants being down the problem is that Trident is of no practical military use. However it is denuding our military of the money needed to provide effective conventional forces.

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