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The UK’s Independent Strategic Nuclear Deterrent and the White Paper

Commentary, 4 December 2006
Defence Policy, Global Security Issues, Maritime Forces, Europe

The Significance of the White Paper

Today’s White Paper constitutes the most comprehensive and open official review of the UK’s nuclear deterrence policy, posture and capability since the end of the Cold War. Presentation of Government plans for the future of the UK’s independent strategic deterrent in this depth is not only important for a full Parliamentary debate over the future of the nation’s nuclear deterrent, but also reinforces current UK deterrent policy.

The White Paper concludes that the future holds too many risks for the UK to renounce its strategic nuclear deterrent unilaterally and that the framework for multilateral disarmament is not yet sufficiently mature. Britain would stand to gain little by renouncing its strategic nuclear deterrent, but could lose a great deal if it were to be abandoned. Ultimately, however, the issues for national politics are whether the UK wishes to continue to play a major role on the world stage and, if so, is whether the UK should maintain its own deterrent or rely on that of the United States. The implication of the White Paper is that the UK wishes to continue to play a major role on the world stage, and that it wishes to support this policy with a deterrent which has operational independence from the US.

The White Paper’s policy recommendation - to renew the UK’s strategic nuclear deterrent with a submarine-based system, but with reduced force levels, including reducing the number of warheads, missiles and submarines - reinforces the Government’s long-established, dual-track policy of maintaining a credible, minimum deterrent, while contributing to a reduction in global nuclear force levels and pursuing negotiations towards multilateral disarmament. The Government will look to reduce its nuclear inventory of warheads, missiles and submarines to demonstrate compliance with the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

The White Paper argues that the cost of renewing the deterrent will be broadly similar to that of procuring and maintaining the original Trident system. It is possible that a renewal of the system could actually be done for less, particularly as the numbers of warheads, submarines and possibly missiles may well be reduced. However a key question is who should pay for any new system: the UK’s nuclear deterrent is a political tool which should be paid for out of central Government funds rather than from the defence budget at the expense of conventional forces.

The UK Strategic Nuclear Deterrent

  • Arguably, the UK faces fewer direct military threats than it did in the Cold War. However, the uncertainty of the future strategic environment, an uncertainty which has been emphasized in recent history by a litany of strategic ‘shocks’, is an important tenet in the Government’s decision to retain a nuclear deterrent.
  • In the present strategic environment large nuclear arsenals remain. The number of nuclear powers continues to grow and there is a risk of state-sponsored nuclear terrorism. The key judgement is whether a minimum nuclear deterrent is a credible means of providing the UK with an affordable means of deterring major aggression and safeguarding the UK in the event of nuclear coercion, nuclear war or indeed other acts of aggression. The UK nuclear deterrent is intended to cause uncertainty in the perceptions of a potential adversary and to prevent UK foreign policy from being constrained through a lack of influence. UK policy is one of calculated ambiguity and risk assessment, rather than deterrence against specific threats.
  • A strategic nuclear deterrent does not replace the need for conventional armed forces and it is not intended to address current threats from terrorism or climate change.
  • A strategic nuclear deterrent is also intended to give the UK the ability to influence multilateral negotiations on nuclear disarmament. In this respect possession of a nuclear deterrent increases the onus upon the UK, and other nuclear powers, to lead negotiations.
  • An important issue for national politics is the nuclear deterrent’s value in influencing international affairs and its role in maintaining European influence in NATO.

What is covered by the White Paper:

Why Now?
The timing of the decision is based largely on the need to replace the current generation of submarines, the VANGUARD class, based on the lifespan of the current system. The critical date is 2024, when the second boat in the class HMS VICTORIOUS, with her service life extended by five years to 30 years, will come out of service: with only two submarines remaining in the fleet, the UK would no longer be able to support the policy of Continuous-At-Sea Deterrence (CASD). The White Paper argues that, based upon UK, US and French experience, a replacement submarine would take 17 years to develop.

The White Paper lists the oldest of the current submarines, HMS VANGUARD, as going out of service in 2017, with the possibility of extending the service life by five years out to 2022. This is a shorter operational service life than expected, but it may not apply to every boat in the class: it is common for the first-of-class to operate over a shorter life than subsequent submarines because it is effectively a prototype and it subject to more demanding testing and qualification than later boats.

It is argued that five years is the maximum length of time for which the submarines’ service lives can be extended. Beyond this, the increasing cost and decreasing availability of the submarines (for example, with further refits) means that it makes most sense, from both an operational and a value for money perspective, to procure a new submarine.

The Government’s estimated timelines for the development of a new system are reasonable. Delaying the decision will increase the risk not only that a new system will not be ready in time, but also that any delay will increase the cost: thus, delaying the decision arguably is not in the public interest. It also would be extremely difficult – and extremely costly – to re-constitute a virtual arsenal in time to respond to a sudden shift in strategic threats.

Clearly a decision at this time allows any awkward political debate to be exhausted before a new Prime Minister needs to face the electorate in a General Election.

There is very little benefit in waiting any longer to decide.

UK Policy on Strategic Nuclear Deterrence

The UK strategic nuclear deterrent is a credible minimum deterrent, using a submarine platform to ensure its survivability and the UK’s ability to effect deterrence where and when it needs. 

The White Paper continues the CASD policy, a policy in which one UK submarine remains on patrol at sea around the clock. This policy has operated without interruption since 1969, and avoids the escalatory effect of sailing a submarine in response to events. Any change to this deterrent posture would require a significant change in policy. Furthermore, reducing the number of submarines in the fleet from four to three would increase the risk to the UK’s ability to maintain effectively the CASD policy effectively.

The principal reasons behind the decision to retain a strategic nuclear deterrent can be summarised as strategic uncertainty and continuity. Any new system would be operating between 2025 and 2055, during which timeframe the threats to the United Kingdom are likely to be many and varied with more nuclear states emerging and a with real and continuing risk of major state-on-state conflict.

Reducing Warhead Numbers
The Government will look to reduce the warhead stockpile to demonstrate compliance with the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Although warheads are used for training and as spares, as well as in rotation in the operational cycle of the submarine, it is difficult to envisage the UK needing a warhead stockpile as high as the maximum number of 200 declared by the 1998 Strategic Defence Review. A reduction in warhead numbers represents a significant unilateral move, beyond the letter of Article VI of the NPT, which is interpreted as binding the UK to negotiating multilateral arms reductions.

Reducing the Fleet to Three Submarines
The UK CASD deterrent posture always has been supported by a flotilla of four submarines, with one submarine will be on patrol, one ‘working-up’ to take over on patrol, another in routine maintenance after a patrol, and the fourth in long-term refit. Having four submarines in the Fleet enables the UK to operate with some redundancy to offset any unexpected problems with one of the submarines.

This option has been considered in the past decisions over Polaris and Trident but has been discarded over fears that occasions would arise when no submarines were ready to go to sea. The three-boat proposal could save a substantial amount of money from construction and operating costs and is therefore worthy of consideration. Moreover, the development of nuclear reactors with a longer life expectancy, so that the submarines do not require a major mid-life change in reactor, may mean that the submarines will be available more of the time. However, any cost savings may not be sufficient to justify the risk of such a small fleet. The Ministry of Defence will need to carefully assess the operational risk before making a final decision.

The White Paper has stated that the anticipated costs of a renewed nuclear deterrent are unclear but are likely to be in the order of £15-20bn over the 25-year life of a new submarine-based system. Analysis suggests that the system could in fact be renewed for less, particularly if only three submarines are to be procured and if the number of warheads and missiles in the inventory is to be reduced.

These figures assume that up to four new submarines will be built, that the UK will sign-up to the Life Extension programme for the US-built Trident II D5 missile (D5 LE), and that the annual running costs will be roughly similar to the current system.

There are opportunities to make a renewed nuclear deterrent cheaper to produce:

1. Fewer warheads could mean a reduction in ongoing maintenance costs at the Aldermaston Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE).
2. Improvements in productivity and overhead costs in the submarine building industry may make the submarine itself cheaper to build.
3. The UK could look to reduce the number of missiles in its inventory.
4. Closer co-operation between the submarine support industry and the build industry may make the submarine less costly to maintain throughout its life.

The costs, while appearing large, should be of the same order as the original Trident purchase and are not likely to create new affordability problems. The critical issue in cost is value for money. The UK electorate needs to judge what it is prepared to pay to have independent insurance against nuclear war and any international status and influence that possession brings. Cost will be a major factor in public acceptance of a decision to renew the nuclear deterrent.

Platform Options

  • A submarine-based deterrent remains the most cost effective means of deploying the UK strategic nuclear deterrent.
  • Arguments in favour of a submarine-based option have not changed since the Polaris and original Trident decisions. A submarine-based system remains the least vulnerable, and most flexible, reliable and cost-effective option for providing the strategic nuclear deterrent in support of the deterrent policy of the White Paper.
  • Other options, such as air-launched cruise missiles or land-based missiles, would require considerable investment in infrastructure, warhead, missile and launch platform design and build, in basing, and in the development of a new knowledge base in UK Government and industry. Some options would also require a base on mainland UK which could be targeted. An air-launched delivery option would not give the surety of survivability – and, thus, deterrence credibility – provided by the submarine.

Industrial Issues

  • The need to maintain the defence industrial base in order to enable the UK to develop a new system as quickly and affordably as possible should clearly not be a factor in the decision to retain the UK’s nuclear deterrent. However it is an important factor in delivery, and thus in the timing of any decision. UK industry must be in a position next year to begin developing a new programme if the UK is not to lose the necessary skill sets required to design, develop and build a new submarine in the required time. This timeframe also enables the design and build programme for a replacement submarine to be mated with the UK’s current ASTUTE attack submarine (SSN) programme. Overlapping the two programmes will reduce cost and will aid the Ministry of Defence in delivering a new deterrent system on time.
  • A decision to renew the deterrent also will require the UK to consider carefully how many ASTUTE-class SSNs are required to support the deterrent, and what this means about pending decisions to invest in further orders of ASTUTE-class submarines.

Other questions which need to be addressed:

Deterrence Theory and Practice

The White Paper notably involves little discussion of the theory behind deterrence, the theory being a complex matter much contested among academics. UK deterrence policy implicitly emphasises uncertainty in response which would be compromised by an explicit discussion of the UK Government’s understanding of the theory and practical application of deterrence. However the Government should be prepared to enter into discussion of this subject and provide confidence that there is a sound intellectual base for present and future policy. Periodic articulate pronouncements of intent are also an important part of sustaining a robust deterrent policy.

International Prestige and Influence

  • Although international influence and status are clearly issues for national politics, the Government cannot use these arguments publicly as reasons for retaining a strategic nuclear deterrent because they would play into the hands of emerging nuclear states who may be seeking status and influence from their nuclear ambitions.
  • The UK would have little influence over other states’ nuclear programmes if it were to renounce nuclear weapons. Each current and prospective nuclear state has its own reasons for seeking nuclear weapons, none of which would be removed by the UK disarming on its own.

Domestic Factors

  • The government is likely to face considerable parliamentary and public opposition during the three month consultation period leading up to a Parliamentary vote.
  • Public opinion appears to be very sensitive to the cost of a successor system. An accurate assessment of the costs will be important.
  • There is significant dissent in the Labour back benches, but any Parliamentary vote is likely to have the support of the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrat leadership.
  • The outcome of the Commons vote on the nuclear deterrent is likely to be shaped by a three line whip and by a carefully worded motion. However there is the possibility of a hung parliament or a small government majority highly dependent on a compliant back bench following the next General Election. A decision now will authorise initial expenditure but a subsequent political reverse could interrupt the major commitment of expenditure necessary for contracts to be placed later in the programme.

UK Relations with the United States and France

  • The UK will retain is reliance on the US for acquisition and maintenance support for the system. By continuing to source missile technology from the US, the UK is able to field the most capable, reliable and safe nuclear systems available for a fraction of their overall cost. The decision to remain deeply involved with the US arguably is the only way the UK could retain an affordable strategic nuclear deterrent. While this means the UK is dependent on the US for acquisition, the UK’s strategic deterrent will still remain operationally independent, with the British submarine, British-leased missiles, and British warheads under the control of the British government.
  • Sharing a strategic nuclear deterrent programme with the US is a significant part of the UK’s close strategic relationship with the US. As both the UK and the US look to improve the effectiveness and affordability of their nuclear deterrent capabilities, it is possible that (following the UK decision to renew its strategic deterrent) the UK and US Governments could pursue options for closer co-operation, for example on submarine, nuclear reactor and warhead design and build. Confidence in the UK’s continuing close relationship with the US into the long term is an important factor in the decision over the UK’s deterrent.
  • France would be unlikely to agree to share its hugely expensive, self-developed nuclear systems with the UK within the required timeframes.
  • The cost of buying a wholly new system with no US or French involvement would be prohibitive to the UK.
  • Should the UK abandon its strategic nuclear deterrent, it is likely that the US would see the UK as a less significant partner in comparison with other medium powers. There are likely to be international and internal political implications of the prospect that France would be the only European nuclear power in NATO and the European Union.

What Next?

  • We can expect a Parliamentary debate, followed by a vote which is likely to be on the policy principles of the White Paper. The White Paper sets out the Government’s policy recommendation to renew the strategic nuclear deterrent and its preferred option of a submarine-based system. It is likely that the debate and the vote will be focused on this policy.
  • We can expect funding to be announced for a concept phase of a new submarine-based programme before summer 2007.
  • The UK is likely to sign up to an extension of the Polaris Sales Agreement (amended for Trident) in order to gain access to the Trident II D5 Life Extension (LE) programme.
  • The UK may also be expected to reduce the number of warheads in the stockpile and the number deployed on the submarines. This may be tied to improvements in the missiles’ accuracy and capability born out of the US based ‘Enhanced Effectiveness’ (E2) programme, which the UK may have the option of participating in.
  • There will be pressure on UK industry to prove that any future nuclear deterrent platform should be built in the UK. Major changes in the submarine build and support industry will be required to prove that a future submarine can be affordable.
  • The decision to renew the strategic nuclear deterrent could be de-railed by a hung Parliament or narrow government majority for any party after the next General Election or a major economic downturn before Government has committed to the major build expenditure in the next decade. A collapse in public confidence in defence policy provoked by failure in the Government’s expeditionary strategy abroad or at home would also affect the long term outcome for the British nuclear deterrent – although not necessarily unfavourably.

This analysis has been prepared by Michael Codner, Lee Willett, Gavin Ireland and Niklas Granholm in the Military Sciences Department at RUSI. RUSI is preparing a fuller analysis of the White Paper, for publication early in 2007 in time for the consultation period on the White Paper.


Michael Codner
Senior Associate Fellow for Military History

Michael Codner is a Senior Associate Fellow for Military History. Until 2013, he was RUSI's Director of the Military Sciences Research... read more

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