The Referendum on Separation for Scotland: Terminating Trident-Days or Decades? - Scottish Affairs Committee Contents

3  The 'speediest safe transition' of nuclear weapons from Scotland

14.  In their publication, Disarming Trident, A practical guide to de-activating and dismantling the Scottish-based Trident nuclear weapon system,[27] CND Scotland proposed a timetable to remove the warheads from Scotland should Scotland become a separate state:
Disarming Trident — Timetable
Action Timescale
Phase 1End of operational deployment of submarines 7 days
Phase 2Remove key and triggers 7 days
Phase 3Disable missiles 8 days
Phase 4Remove warheads from submarines 8 weeks
Phase 5Remove missiles from two submarines 10 weeks
Phase 6Disable nuclear warheads and remove Limited Life Components from Scotland 1 year
Phase 7Remove nuclear warheads from Scotland 2 years
Phase 8Dismantle nuclear warheads 4 years

15.  John Ainslie from CND Scotland, explained the first stages of his timetable where Trident would be deactivated:

The initial step is that Trident could be deactivated, in a sense, so that it cannot be used within a matter of days. There is a trigger that the weapons operating officer presses and the captain turns a key. If you take away the triggers and the keys and you take the submarine off patrol, there are components of the missile that can be removed within a period of a day. That deactivates it in a sense so that it cannot be used in anger within a matter of days.[28]

It is also possible to remove other essential components that are required to launch the missile, but importantly, the system could be disabled with seven to eight days,[29] and the main time limit at this point would be the time it took to recall the submarine that was out on patrol.[30] At this point the process is comparatively easily reversible, unless the keys and triggers are separated at a verified distance from the submarine.

16.  The next step is to remove the warheads from the missiles, which Mr Ainslie estimated would take about eight to ten weeks:

You have got nuclear warheads that are on top of the missile. The numbers are highly classified, but, in practice, say that they are down to eight missiles in each submarine. You have three armed submarines, each of which has eight missiles and each missile has five nuclear warheads. Current practice in Britain on safety grounds is that they install and remove the warheads while they are on the missile on the submarine. The first stage is you take all the warheads off one submarine. The time for each is seven to 10 days. I say that because, again, I watched them loading a Vanguard in December 1994 before its first patrol. It was taking them about a week to 10 days. They were carrying slightly more than they carry now—they were loading 60 at that point. Each one would take about a week, so, in theory, with three submarines, you could do it in three weeks, but, again, because of the safety considerations, it is quite a big operation; it is not just something you can take on tomorrow. Eight weeks is building in a longer period. It is one week, for each of three submarines.[31]

The removal of warheads from three submarines would be limited by there not being enough space and staff at Coulport to work on them all at the same time.[32] Removal of the warheads is a sensitive process that would have to be undertaken by specialist staff from the Ministry of Defence and Atomic Weapons Establishment Aldermaston,[33] and then transported out of Scotland. Until then, all the relevant parts are still in Coulport. Subject to verification, the warheads could be physically moved out of Scotland in two years.[34]

17.  The two year figure was based on moving nine or ten warheads a month out of Scotland from a current stockpile of 225.[35] The speed at which the warheads can be moved being determined by the speed and frequency of the convoys that would carry the warheads safely and securely to AWE Burghfield in England:

They used to take three days to drive up and three days to drive down, so it was at least a week's operation every time. They are now quicker, but, even so, we have to allow time for the crew and for training. That would be having the vehicles operationally on the road for possibly a week every month and then three weeks' build up. There are clearly lots of safety and security concerns about moving nuclear warheads.[36]

18.  All the warheads would be out of Scotland with two years. In a further two years the warheads could be put beyond use but that would have to take place in England. Mr Ainslie was clear that this timetable only concerned removing the nuclear warheads from Scotland, not the time to decommission Coulport.[37] Similarly, the estimated cost would be an extrapolation of the running costs of the UK nuclear weapons programmes enhanced by extra staff and extra convoys,[38] and not the costs of decommissioning.

19.  Mr Ainslie had shown his timetable to various experts, including Bruce Blair, "the leading world expert on de-alerting nuclear forces in America" and Professor Richard Garwin from the US nuclear weapons establishment—both had agreed the time table is credible.[39] In fact, while Mr Ainslie conceded that some of the timings had to be estimated, Bruce Blair had told him that the CND timetable was a "safe and reasonable way of doing it", but it might be possible to carry out the process more quickly.[40] Professor William Walker, School of International Relations, University of St Andrews, agreed the CND Scotland timetable to remove all the warheads from Scotland within two years was feasible, but it would require the UK and Scottish Governments to work together:

Again, it comes back to political will, and it would have to be done consensually. You would need a lot of co-operation between the two sides to make it workable, but if that was what the two sides wanted to do, it could be done.[41]

20.  And he emphasised the need for co-operation, because the UK was the nuclear power:

Again, the "24 months" relies upon complete co­operation between the two sides and agreement on it. [...] All the sensitive stuff would have to be under the complete control of the UK Government; Scottish hands could not be on it.[42]

21.  It is possible to deactivate Trident within a matter of days, and for the nuclear warheads, missiles and submarines to be removed from Scotland within twenty four months.

22.  Scotland could not carry out this process by itself as all handling and transport of the warheads must be carried out by specialist staff from the UK. It would require full co-operation between the UK and Scottish Governments.

What would happen to the UK's nuclear deterrent?

23.  There may be other ways to remove the nuclear weapons from Scotland. The armed submarine on patrol could remain on patrol for a period of time, but this could only be a short term option because of certain limiting factors, such as the provision of food and water for the submariners, the need for the submarine to undergo general maintenance, and importantly the time-dependent components of the warhead. Coulport has unique facilities and trained specialist staff to handle the warheads as safely as possible. Coulport is the safest place for the submarines to return to. However, if a newly-separate Scotland was to insist on the process to remove Trident from the Clyde with the consequences as described by CND Scotland, it would necessitate the Vanguard-class submarines returning to Coulport so that the warheads could be removed safely, and thereafter the submarines would no longer be available to go out on patrol.

24.  Therefore, a short timetable could force an interruption in CASD and,[43] as Professor Malcolm Chalmers, Research Director, UK Defence Policy, Royal United Services Institute, said, the UK would be given little choice:

The first thing it would do is take the warheads to Aldermaston and basically continuous at-sea deterrence would end. Then the Navy would be asked, "How long is it going to take you to regain this?" The politicians would be asked, "What political price and financial price are you prepared to pay to restore continuous at-sea deterrence?[44]

25.  The result, if the weapons were forced to leave Scotland too quickly, would affect the UK's ability to operate its nuclear deterrent:

In the particular circumstances of Trident bases in Scotland there is no way in which the UK Government could rapidly rebase these forces in England. [...] Arguably, it would be politically impossible for them to do so, so for Scotland in those circumstances to insist on them leaving would be to force the UK to make a decision effectively to de-nuclearise.[45]

26.  John Ainslie was asked what would happen to the nuclear weapons if his timetable was implemented, and he confirmed:

You are forced into a position of disarming. You cannot move them to England or Wales. You cannot move them to the United States, because that was previously ruled out, and Ile Longue in France—what you are talking about in France is a new site.[46]

Furthermore, he confirmed CND Scotland would campaign for the weapons to be removed from Scotland within two years knowing that the result could mean disarmament for the UK, and they would not wish to allow the UK extra time to develop a new base:

For Scottish CND to say, "Let us move them in 20 years' time to England," is not something we would have any time for at all. If what you are saying is that in 20 years' time, we will build another facility at Falmouth, which is the more viable of the options, we could not say, "Oh, yes, we will go along with that."[47]

This view appeared to be shared by the First Minister in an interview after the SNP October 2012 Conference, where he was quoted as saying that if Scotland won independence then "far better it was curtains for Trident", and that given the options the UK could decide on "a much better policy, which would be to decommission the weapons system."[48]

27.  If the Scottish Government insisted upon the removal of the nuclear deterrent from Faslane by the 'speediest safe transition' then it would mean the armed submarine on patrol would be recalled, and in effect, Continuous At Sea Deterrent would stop. The UK at that point would no longer be able to operate its nuclear deterrent and it is not clear how quickly the UK could restore Continuous At Sea Deterrence.

27   CND Scotland, Disarming Scotland, June 2012 Back

28   Q 1059 Back

29   Q 1083 and Q 1091 Back

30   Q 1063  Back

31   Q 1085 Back

32   Q 1110 Back

33   Qq 1069-1071 Back

34   Q 1059 Back

35   Q 1073 Back

36   Q 1066 Back

37   Q 1078 Back

38   Qq 1134-1135 Back

39   Q 1059, Q 1064, Qq1066-1069 and Q 1400 Back

40   Q 1059. See also Qq 1062-1063, and Q 1085 Back

41   Q 1400 Back

42   Q 1415 Back

43   Q 1447 Back

44   Q 264 Back

45   Q 195 Back

46   Q 1121 Back

47   Qq 1123-1124 Back

48   "Independent Scotland would not house Trident missiles, says Alex Salmond", The Guardian, 21 October 2012 Back

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© Parliamentary copyright 2012
Prepared 25 October 2012