by Phillips O'Brien

The Nuclear deterrent for the United Kingdom has for many years now been more of a political deterrent than a military one.

The Royal Navy now only maintains a single Trident submarine at sea at any time—and while this one vessel could certainly deliver a great deal of destruction, the fact that it is the sole element of the deterrent reveals how political it is.

If the country were really worried about being able to deter an enemy at all times, it would have a layered system meaning that if one delivery system were compromised, the others would still be able to fire—thus really deterring an enemy.

As it is, the UK is a minor nuclear power when compared with the USA, China and Russia.

As a political deterrent, however, Britain’s nuclear capacity might endure-as long as the union stays together.

Right now each of the five permanent members of the UN security council, a seat that the British government is very keen to keep, has nuclear weapons.

Also, with Brexit (possibly) going ahead, the UK will be desperate to show its international worth to the USA, and having a nuclear deterrent can be argued to be part of that.

The British government has already shown that it is willing to sacrifice spending on more fundamental areas of national defence such as the RAF and Army, to keep Trident functioning.

Whether it is in the national interest to do this is easily debatable, but certainly when push has come to shove the government has opted to keep nuclear weapons over other forms of defence.

That being said, economic and political events could undermine this reality.

If Brexit leads to the break up of the United Kingdom, this would severely damage the idea of a much reduced UK maintaining a nuclear deterrent (and a UN security council seat).

Even if the union stays together, an economically damaging no-deal Brexit could make Trident too expensive. So, while the UK government will probably do everything possible to hold on to nuclear weapons, the eventual choice might be taken out of their hands.

Phillips O’Brien is professor of Strategic Studies at the University of St Andrews

READ MORE: Navy marks 50 years of round the clock nuclear submarine patrols

By John MacDonald

Celebrations of 50 years of Britain’s continuous at-sea deterrent show how highly the UK Establishment regards its nuclear status. This isn’t going to change. Indeed, it is possible that circumstances – both domestic and international – will combine to elevate still further the perceived value of the nuclear force. 
The only serious doubt over the future of the UK’s nuclear posture arose during Scotland’s  independence referendum. The government of an independent Scotland, it was argued, would demand that the Trident system be relocated elsewhere – something that would be prohibitively expensive.
The 2014 No vote ensured this theory went untested. Circumstances ever since have combined to further cement the nuclear status quo. For all the bluster about “taking back control” and “making Britain great again”, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Brexit Britain is now a country acutely uncertain of its place in the world, paranoid about the possibility of isolation, or even enfeeblement. At the UK Government level, we may already be experiencing a sense of isolation from Europe, and an accompanying sense of needing to move closer to Washington.
Many see the perceived threat from Russia and China, coupled to a myriad of other discomforting shifts in international affairs, as justifying a vigorous military stance. 
Taken together, these are not conditions which are conducive to the UK surrendering Trident.  Indeed, in recent times, we have seen Conservative and Labour prime ministerial hopefuls proclaiming their willingness to launch a nuclear weapon. Suddenly, it seems that Trident is not a subject to be discussed in respectful whispers. And being willing to press the nuclear button now seems to be a litmus test of political leadership.
It is striking how little the political classes have been challenged on this issue. One might think that Trident renewal would spark protests in cities across the UK. But instead, protest has been fairly modest, and this doesn’t seem to be a cause which is exercising young people in great numbers. Fifty years on the future of UK nuclear force may be more secure than ever.

John MacDonald is a former lecturer US Politics at University of Glasgow, and director of the Scottish Global Forum.