The Conservative Party has put the issue of the UK’s Trident nuclear programme at the heart of the election debate with less than a month to go to the general election.
Michael Fallon, the Conservative Defence Secretary, has said that a Labour government would do a deal with the SNP that involves getting rid of Trident and putting Britain’s security at risk – saying Ed Miliband will “stab the United Kingdom in the back”.
Amid accusations of “mud-slinging” and Labour’s insistence that it is “crystal clear” on keeping and renewing the UK’s four operational nuclear-armed submarines, we ask the question – does Britain really need them?
How many nuclear missiles are there in the world?
While estimates vary, the most recent figure published for worldwide nuclear weapon stocks by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (the best international source for such figures) is 16,300. A more recent but arguably less reliable figure from the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) puts the worldwide total at 15,650.
Located across 14 countries at some 98 sites, roughly 10,000 are believed to be in military arsenals while the remaining are in storage and scheduled for dismantlement.
Of those 10,000, about 4,000 are described by the Bulletin as “operationally available”, while at any given time 1,800 nuclear weapons are held on high alert – meaning they can be deployed with just a few minutes’ notice.
Who has them?
Of the total global inventory, 93 per cent are held by the US and Russia.
Very recent figures from the Bulletin estimate that the US has 7,100 nuclear warheads, consisting of 2,080 deployed, 2,680 in storage and 2,340 retired and awaiting dismantlement. Russia – which is less open with its figures – is thought to have slightly more, around 8,000 in total.
The UK has about 215 warheads in total, though it relies heavily on the US to maintain them. Each of its four nuclear submarines carries 16 Trident missiles at any given time.
France has 300 warheads, some of which are deliverable by aircraft. Like the UK, it has one nuclear-armed submarine on patrol at all times.
China only has about 250 warheads, and none of them are thought to be fully deployed according to the FAS. China is believed to be in the process of increasing its arsenal.
The most recent update on Israel suggests it has 80 nuclear warheads, though the country officially neither confirms nor denies their existence. The FAS says Pakistan has around 100-120, India 90-110, and North Korea fewer than 10, none of which have been made operational.
Who wants them?
According to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), there are now some 40 countries that have nuclear power or research reactors capable of being diverted for weapons production.
Pakistan and North Korea are the only countries to recently join the so-called nuclear weapons club, while Iran’s new nuclear deal makes its chances of joining in the near future remote.
Libya, which bought details of Pakistan’s nuclear programme from defecting scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan, abandoned its attempts under pressure from the US.
According to Forbes, Syria attempted to build a secret weapons reactor with the assistance of North Korea but it was bombed by Israel in 2007 before much progress had been made.
In addition, fears that nuclear energy programmes can easily lead to weapons programmes are unfounded – it is reportedly possible, but not practical, and has never been achieved.
In other words, the reality of nuclear proliferation in the world right now is fairly limited – suggesting the efforts of the International Atomic Energy Agency have been “diligent and pretty effective”, says nuclear scientist James Conca.
So does the UK need them?
Michael Fallon today described £25 billion to refurbish the Trident programme as “a price well worth paying to keep this country safe”.
It’s a conservative estimate (with both a lower- and upper-case ‘C’) however. Paul Ingram, the director of the thinktank BASIC (The British American Security Information Council), says that when often-forgotten decommissioning work is included the capital cost of the new system will total £50.6 billion between 2012 and 2062.
BASIC was responsible for setting up the independent all-party Trident Commission, which last summer issued a report setting out the verdict of MPs on whether Britain still needs a nuclear deterrent of its own.
Its headline discovery was that Trident isn’t really that independent at all – if the US were to ever remove its support and know-how, the UK’s nuclear capability would collapse in a matter of months.
Nonetheless, in the short term at least, the commission found that even the slimmest of chances Britain could face “strategic blackmail or nuclear attack” made it “imprudent” to abandon Trident.
“If there is more than a negligible chance that the possession of nuclear weapons might play a decisive future role in the defence of the United Kingdom and its allies” then they should be retained, the report said.
But what do the British public think? In Scotland – which houses the Trident submarines at Faslane – the strongly pro-disarmament SNP is on course to win 40 of 59 seats, according to the latest polls.
In 2009, a ComRes poll for The Independent asked: “Given the state of the country’s finances, should the Government scrap the Trident nuclear missile system?” Of all respondents, 58 per cent said “Yes”, 35 per cent “No”, while just 7 per cent said “Don’t Know”.
Mr Fallon says security will be the key issue at the heart of the election in 28 days’ time. The question of Trident is, if nothing else, polarising.
SDLP leader Dr Alasdair McDonnell has reasserted the party's commitment to cutting the renewal of the nuclear deterrent programme Trident. Dr McDonnell said that any future Labour Government relying on SDLP support must reflect the considerable opposition to maintaining Trident in the devolved governments.
He said: "The SDLP have consistently argued that the maintenance of a nuclear deterrent in the UK is a cold war era defence strategy that is embarrassingly out-dated. Running Trident costs the public purse £3billion a year and its renewal carries a £100billion price tag.
"The Tories seek to sink billions into this white elephant and in the same breath they claim that the most brutal cuts seen in decades are a necessity. This is an insult to the millions living under their austerity agenda and we along with the SNP and Plaid Cymru, would aim to ensure that this is not one continued by a Labour Government.
"The most effective way a future UK government can protect the public is by defending frontline services in health, policing, social care, education and skills training. More lives in Britain and Ireland have been lost through cuts to hospitals than to nuclear war. It is time that our public spending reflected that."
South Belfast DUP candidate Jonathan Bell said that the defence of the United Kingdom should not be subject to party political bartering following the General Election.
Mr Bell said: "One of the primary tasks for any government must be to protect and defend its citizens. The United Kingdom as an important member of NATO shoulders the strategic nuclear burden alongside the United States and France. The idea that strategic defence could be bartered away in a deal with the SNP should concern us all.
"The threats facing the UK and our allies are changing, but they have not diminished. Russia has demonstrated in recent times that it is very willing to use force to achieve its aims. Such countries may not pose a direct threat to the United Kingdom today, but we should not forget that the first new submarine is not due to come into service until 2028 and would be in place for a quarter of a century.
"A Cabinet Office study concluded that there was no effective alternative and there is no cheaper alternative, because any deterrent that is not continuous simply would not be a deterrent.
"Both the Conservative and Labour Parties have stated their support for replacing our nuclear deterrent. Such policies must be taken on the merits of the case, not on whether SNP votes might be needed to form a government. There will be negotiations which follow the General Election and the formation of a government in a hung Parliament will require agreements to be reached. However, such negotiations should be focused on building a better and stronger United Kingdom, not weakening our strategic defences in return for a quick deal with the SNP."
An Alliance Party spokesperson said: "Alliance has seen no evidence to suggest that the like-for-like renewal of the Trident nuclear weapons system is necessary or cost-effective.
"Alliance believes that other approaches can be found to ensure the security of the UK which reflect the security challenges of the future.
"The UK can help combat nuclear proliferation by leading by example in reducing nuclear weapons as part of agreed multilateral efforts. Alliance is opposed to plans to replace the current Trident nuclear deterrent."
An Ulster Unionist spokesperson said: "The Ulster Unionist Party supports the renewal of Trident. We believe it remains essential that, in a world where many nations remain politically unstable, the United Kingdom retains a nuclear deterrent. To do otherwise would be gambling with national security."
Sinn Fein has not yet responded to a request for comment.