UK nuclear deterrent report published

19 March 2009

Public Accounts Committee report looks at the United Kingdom's future nuclear deterrent capability

Edward Leigh MP, Chairman of the Committee of Public Accounts, today said:

"The Ministry of Defence’s ability to maintain continuous at sea nuclear deterrence from 2024, when two of the current Vanguard class submarines will have gone out of service, is open to doubt.

"The Department’s timetable for completing the design and build process for the replacement submarines is extremely tight. It has 17 years to do it, even though the Department itself accepts that such a process usually cannot be completed in under 18. The MOD’s track record in delivering major defence projects on time is not exemplary.

"The MOD must make absolutely fundamental decisions about the design of the new submarines by September of this year. These include the main design features; whether to develop a new type of nuclear reactor requiring substantial research and development; and, crucially, the design and size of the missile compartment.

"The problem is that a decision on the size of the missile compartment in the new submarines will have to be taken in advance of the development by the United States of a missile to succeed the current Trident D5. In other words, our programme to have a renewed nuclear deterrent will depend on yet to be taken decisions by the US on the dimensions of the successor missile. The MOD is taking steps to reduce the risk of a new missile not fitting in our submarines, but there is no guarantee it will."

Mr Leigh was speaking as the Committee published its 11th report of this Session which, on the basis of evidence from the Ministry of Defence (the Department), examined making important decisions, managing dependence on the United States and managing the programme effectively.

The United Kingdom first deployed a submarine-launched nuclear deterrent in 1968. Since then, successive governments have been committed to a policy of continuous at sea deterrence, meaning that at least one nuclear-armed submarine is on patrol at any one time. In its 2006 White Paper, the Government announced its intention to maintain the United Kingdom’s nuclear deterrent capability and set out its plans to build a new class of submarines to replace the current Vanguard fleet and to participate in the United States’ Trident D5 ballistic missile life extension programme.

The Department’s ability to sustain its nuclear deterrent capability in the future is dependent on collaboration with the United States. The new class of submarine is likely to remain in service beyond the extended life of the existing Trident D5 missile, which will be renewed in 2042, and must therefore be compatible with any successor missile developed by the United States. The Department has received a series of assurances from the United States that any new missile will be compatible with the United Kingdom’s new submarine class. Nevertheless, the concern remains that the Department has no direct control over the development of the new missile.

The future deterrent programme is still at the concept phase. The Department has yet to make many decisions about the principal parameters of the submarine design, the type of nuclear reactor, and the design and size of the missile compartment. The Department expects to make these decisions by September 2009. To respond to an already challenging timeline, the Department plans to overlap the submarine’s design and construction phases.

The Strategic Deterrent Programme Board is chaired by the Senior Responsible Owner, who is responsible for coordinating the delivery of the future deterrent. In order to succeed, the Senior Responsible Owner must maintain strong relationships across other departments to ensure that he delivers the capability that the government as a whole requires. He must draw on performance management information that is still evolving and operate in the context of a challenging commercial environment, characterised by monopoly suppliers.

Image: PA Photos

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