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     Scottish CND      Trident: Britain's Weapon of Mass Destruction

5 Other examples of the use of Trident

5.1 Effect of an attack on Russian Northern Fleet bases with one Trident missile and four nuclear warheads
5.2 Trident in the sub-strategic role
5.3 British nuclear weapons and NATO
5.4 Effect of an attack using 3 submarines and 144 Trident warheads

5.1 Effect of an attack on Russian Northern Fleet bases with one Trident missile and four nuclear warheads

The lists of targets maintained by British and NATO nuclear planners are certain to include the submarine bases of the Russian Northern Fleet, near Murmansk. The map shows the effect of one missile being used against four submarine installations.

If one missile was fired it would leave the atmosphere and then release four nuclear armed Re-entry Vehicles (RVs). Each RV comes down through the atmosphere on a separate trajectory and lands on a separate target. Each of these RVs contain a 100 kiloton nuclear warhead. So one missile would cause 4 nuclear explosions. Map 3 (GIF 44 kb) illustrates the effect of these warheads detonated as "airburst", ie several hundred metres above the ground.

One of these warheads would land on the town of Polyarny. This has a population of over 28,000 and it is close to several Russian Navy shipyards which are used to repair nuclear powered submarines. If a Trident warhead exploded in the air above the shipyard the town would be effectively destroyed. Around 90 % of the population would probably be killed by a combination of radiation, extreme heat and collapsing buildings. The few survivors would all be seriously injured. Even 5 kms from the explosion, anyone in the open would suffer from 3rd degree burns. There would be extensive casualties from blast damage 10 km away.

Each of the four warheads would result in substantial civilian casualties. The total number of civilian deaths which would result within 12 weeks would be around 90,000. Although each target area would be seen by the planners as a military area, in each case there is also a substantial urban settlement populated by families of sailors and of shipyard workers. There are obvious parallels with submarine establishments in Britain. The town of Helensburgh is close to Faslane and the village of Garelochhead is even nearer.

None of the targets in this example are inside a city. There are two other Northern Fleet facilities which are in cities - the submarine construction yard at Severodvinsk and the naval shipyard in Murmansk. The casualty list would be significantly higher if either of these two facilities were added to the attack described. The proximity of these Russian facilities to urban areas reflects the situation in Britain - the submarine construction yard at Barrow in Furness is in the centre of a town and Devonport submarine base is in a city.

The illustration does not show the effects of dispersing nuclear waste which is stored at these Russian submarine bases. The amount of radioactive material which would be scattered down wind would be many times greater than released from the accident at Chernobyl. An attack like this would result in radioactive contamination on a massive scale within the Arctic circle and beyond.

Effect of 100 kt warhead (airburst)
0 - 1.6 km98 per cent2 per cent
1.6 - 2.9 km55 per cent40 per cent
2.9 - 5.2 km8 per cent45 per cent

5.2 Trident in the sub-strategic role

Since 1996 Trident has also had a "sub-strategic" role. However there have been no obvious changes in deployment.60 It is clear that the "sub-strategic" role is additional to, and not a replacement for the strategic role.

The Commander of 1 Submarine Squadron at Faslane has said that the sub-strategic role could be allocated to one of the submarines not on patrol.61 If the submarine on patrol fires one missile its position is compromised and in the event of a strategic nuclear exchange it becomes vulnerable to attack. For this reason one of the two submarines which are not on patrol will be allocated a "sub-strategic" role, as well as its strategic role.

In November 1993 the Defence Minister Malcolm Rifkind said "It is .. important for the credibility of our deterrent that the United Kingdom also possesses the capability to undertake a more limited nuclear strike in order to induce a political decision to halt aggression by delivering an unmistakable message of our willingness to defend our interest to the utmost".62 After the change of Government the Labour Party Minister John Reid made a similar statement - "The Government fully support NATO policy on the continuing requirement for a sub-strategic capability as a crucial element of credible deterrence. In extreme circumstances of self-defence such a capability would allow the limited use of nuclear weapons to send an aggressor a political message of the Alliances resolve to defend itself" 63

A report produced within the Ministry of Defence advocates that British nuclear policy be revised to make it clear that sub-strategic Trident could be used in response to an attack with chemical or biological weapons. The Sunday Times quoted a source at the Ministry of Defence as saying "If we are attacked with biological or chemical weapons, we must be able to make a proportionate response. Other states need to be aware that we have nuclear weapons and would consider using them".64

The current official position is that Britain would not use nuclear weapons against a country if it was a signatory of the Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT) unless it was either a nuclear weapon state or allied to a nuclear weapon state.65 The Government argue that this restriction does not apply to Iraq as it is in breach of the NPT.66 Some people within the MoD are arguing that Britain should seek to revise the NPT so that nuclear weapons could be used against any country with chemical or biological weapons.

The submarine assigned to the sub-strategic role will have 3 or 4 missiles which have been prepared for this. Each of these missiles will have a single warhead. It is not clear whether these are identical to the normal Trident warheads, with a 100 kiloton yield, or have been modified to reduce their yield. MoD statements on this issue are deliberately misleading.67 The following table indicates the effect of a 5 kiloton warhead detonated at 400 m airburst.68 This is at the lowest end of what the sub- strategic yield might be.

Effect of 5 kt warhead (airburst)
Blast (psi)Radius (km)Area (sq km)KilledInjured
120.591.198 per cent2 per cent
50.59 - 1.12.750 per cent40 per cent
21.1 - 1.97.55 per cent45 per cent
11.9 - 3.118.9-25 per cent

The thermal effect would be at a lethal level (6.7 cal/cm2) at a distance of 1.3 km from the explosion and there would be significant injuries from heat (3.4 cal/cm2) 1.8 km away. Immediate radiation would be at a level to be lethal to 90 % of those exposed at 1.2 km.

In presentations to the International Court of Justice Britain and other nuclear weapons powers tried to argue that there were possible situations in which a nuclear weapon could be used against a remote area as a demonstration. It is interesting that, within the context of the NATO Nuclear Planning Group, Michael Quinlan says that a similar "no-target" plan was dismissed - "It was judged, surely rightly, that this migh t well suggest precisely a lack of the tough resolve that it would be the whole aim of the action to demonstrate." 69

5.3 British nuclear weapons and NATO

There are two ways in which British nuclear weapons are targeted. Firstly, Britain maintains independent targets. As indicated above this primarily still relates to Russia and particularly the Moscow area. The second aspect of targeting is that Trident could be fired at targets determined within NATO. The Strategic Defence Review says that "the United Kingdom has committed all its nuclear forces, both strategic and sub-strategic to NATO". 70 During the Cold War the assignment of British nuclear forces to the NATO commander in Europe, SACEUR, meant that plans were prepared which envisaged their use against targets such as airfields, bridges and military facilities in Eastern Europe.

NATO continues to hold exercises which rehearse nuclear war. Exercise Able Ally 98 was probably primarily a command post exercise and probably did not involve the real deployment of nuclear forces. However in these exercises NATO commanders will be practising on paper how they would use nuclear forces, including British Trident submarines.

NATO also still prepares nuclear war plans. In 1997 the US Defence Special Weapons Agency offered a contract for work for the NATO Nuclear Planning Systems Target Data Feed (NPTDF).71 This contract was for software to integrate the Nuclear Planning System within NATO with the revised target database system which is now used by the US.

The new interface has two functions. The first is to enable NATO to draw up nuclear attack plans. Secondly, NPTDF has a "crisis planning" mode where it can track fleeting targets. This reflects US nuclear planning today which incorporates not only a complex full scale Single Integrated Operations Plan (SIOP) but also the ability to generate options in less than 24 hours to attack targets anywhere in the world.72

The NPTDF specifications show that the NATO system is dependent on US databases for target information. One of the sources of data is US Strategic Command (USSTRATCOM), who are responsible for US nuclear war plans.73 There are probably also direct links between USSTRATCOM and the MoD with regard to the targeting of British Trident submarines.

The US currently maintains an operational nuclear arsenal, which is ready for immediate use, of 2,500 nuclear warheads. Recent military adventures have shown that the UK often joins in with US bombing campaigns. One way in which British nuclear weapons could be used, would be as part of US nuclear attack, the consequences of which would be unthinkable. There are still enough nuclear weapons around today to destroy the world several times over.

5.4 Effect of an attack using 3 submarines and 144 Trident warheads

In the case of the Polaris force deployed in 1968 it is clear that targets were allocated to all 3 of the armed submarines. The current British nuclear plan will include not only targets for the submarine on patrol, but additional targets for the other two armed submarines. The second submarine is probably on a few days notice to sail and the third on several weeks notice. In the case of Polaris, plans were drawn up for launching the missiles when a submarine was berthed at Faslane. Similar arrangements may be in place for Trident.

If the 144 warheads on 3 Trident submarines were all used against a range of targets, a proportion of which were in urban areas and others near urban areas then, on the basis of the figures for an attack on Moscow, there could be around 9 million deaths, including over 2 million children.

Even this does not illustrate the maximum potential damage. The legal adviser to US nuclear war planners has said that the US retains the right to deliberately attack cities as an act of reprisal.74 It is possible that Britain also still has the option of deliberately attacking as many cities as possible, in a similar target plan to that adopted in the 1960s. If one Trident warhead was detonated in an airburst over an urban centre of a similar population density to Moscow this would result in around 200,000 fatalities.75 If all 144 warheads were used in this way against separate centres of population the total death toll would be in the region of 30 million, including around 8 million children.


60. The only new development was the deployment of HMS Vanguard for a port visit to Gibraltar in November 1998. There were contradictory signals as to whether or not this visit was related to the crisis with Iraq at the time. It has been suggested that the submarine was not armed. HMS Vanguard would not need to redeploy to have the range to reach Iraq, but the visit may have been intended to send a message that this role was being considered. A missile launch from the Mediterranean might be slightly less likely to be misinterpreted by Russia.
61. "We wouldn't necessarily use the deployed submarine as the sub-strategic boat. We may sail another specifically in that role, so we have the flexibility of doing either or both." Commander Tom Herman, 1 Submarine Squadron, Navy News Clyde Supplement, May 1996
62. UK Defence Strategy: A Continuing Role for Nuclear Weapons, Malcolm Rifkind, speech at the Centre for Defence Studies, London, 17 Nov 1993
63. Hansard 26 Jan 1998
64. Sunday Times 8 Nov 1998
65. Foreign Minister Tony Lloyd at the Defence Committee hearing on the SDR, 23 Jul 1998
66. ibid
67. "The existing warhead can fulfil a sub-strategic mission" said MoD official Mr Beaver speaking at the Defence Committee meeting on the Progress of the Trident Programme, 16 Mar 1994. Rear Admiral Irwin at the same meeting said: "It is a fixed yield determined on manufacture." Whereas George Robertson said "The UK has some flexibility in the choice of yield for the warheads on its Trident missiles", Hansard 19 Mar 1998.
68. WE program
69. Michael Quinlan, op cit, p23f
70. SDR para 55
71. Modification one to Statement of Work for Nuclear Planning System Target Data Feed, US Defence Special Weaponsn Agency, 1997
72. Amending the SIOP is such a complex process that it takes around 12 months. The plan is revised annually, SIOP 99 is in effect until October 1999 when it is replaced by SIOP 00. Taking the Pulse, Nuclear War Planning, BASIC (
73. Information from installation, facility and equipment databases from USSTRATCOM is fed into the NATO nuclear planning system. Also the "(NSPTDF) interface will combine targeting data from USSTRATCOM with the appropriate records received from intelligence systems". NPSTDF SOW Mod 1, DSWA, 1997
74. Taming Shiva, Applying International Law to Nuclear Operations, Col C Dunlap, US Air Force Law Review, 1997, p 163
75. Based on areas of damage indicated in section 5.1 and Moscow average population density.

Scottish CND      Trident: Britain's Weapon of Mass Destruction