In October of 1983, Mick Jones had just left the Clash, Roger Moore was still playing James Bond, Ronald Reagan was in his third year as president of the US, Margaret Thatcher had recently gained a second term as prime minister – and the cold war had entered its most dangerous phase since the Cuban missile crisis. An all-out nuclear exchange between the US, the Soviet Union and their allies seemed possible. That spring, Reagan had called the Soviets “the focus of evil in the modern world… an evil empire”, and his administration was conducting an unprecedented military buildup during peacetime. Yuri Andropov, the terminally ill, deeply paranoid leader of the Soviet Union, thought the US might be planning a surprise attack. In September, Korean Airlines Flight 007, a Boeing 747 carrying almost 300 passengers, had been shot down after straying into Soviet airspace. The US was about to deploy two new nuclear weapon systems: ground-launched cruise missiles in the UK and Pershing II missiles in West Germany. And on 22 October, almost a quarter of a million people marched in Hyde Park to protest against those deployments, the largest anti-nuclear demonstration in British history.
Amid that ominous, apocalyptic mood, the Reagan administration decided to build a new submarine-launched ballistic missile. The Trident D5 would be the most accurate missile ever carried by a sub, capable of sending eight nuclear warheads halfway across the world to destroy “hard targets”: Soviet missile silos and leadership bunkers. Unlike previous submarine-launched missiles, the Trident D5 wasn’t designed solely as a retaliatory weapon, to be used after the US had been hit by a nuclear attack. The new missile could be launched against the Soviet Union as part of an American first strike.
Thirty years later, the cold war is a distant memory, the Soviet Union is gone, Reagan and Thatcher are gone – and a British Trident submarine is still continuously at sea, day and night, waiting for the order to fire its D5 missiles and dozens of nuclear warheads. Over the next few years, Britain will have to decide whether to replace its four ageing Trident submarines. David Cameron wants to build four new subs, at a cost of about £25bn, so that one will always be at sea, safe from attack and prepared to launch. The Labour party seems to endorse that policy: its shadow defence secretary, Jim Murphy, recently expressed support for “a continuous at sea deterrent”. Though the Liberal Democrats have criticised Cameron’s position, their preference hardly seems radical: building one, or perhaps two, fewer submarines in order to save money. The three main parties are broadly agreed on the need for nuclear weapons. The strongest opposition to Trident comes from politicians in Scotland, where the submarines are based. Alex Salmond, head of the SNP, has promised that if Scotland gains independence next year, its new constitution will include a ban on all nuclear weapons. This could be disastrous for the UK’s nuclear deterrent: building a new submarine base and weapon storage facilities in England would take many years and cost tens of billions.
The public debate about Britain’s Trident submarines and their missiles has focused mainly on the long-term costs and economic benefits of replacing them, the number of jobs that might be gained or lost, the necessity of round-the-clock patrols. Some fundamental questions have been largely absent from the discussion. How would this cold war missile, due to remain in service for another 30 years, actually be used in a 21st-century conflict? What targets would it destroy and in what circumstances? Whom is it supposed to kill? Finally, and perhaps most importantly, do the British people face a greater chance of being harmed by their own nuclear weapons, through an accident or a mistake, than by a surprise attack?