Each year since 2011, the government has offered a yearly update to parliament on the progress of the future nuclear deterrent programme. These have hardly been headline news, and for good reason: the best political news, when it comes to the UK’s overspending and underperforming nuclear weapons programme, is no news. But a small change to the wording of the last review should draw attention to Britain’s next big nuclear decision. This is a decision about what the country’s next nuclear warhead will look like, and what it will do.
The purchase of four new Dreadnought submarines for between £31bn and £41bn has already been approved by parliament, along with a life-extension programme for the Trident D5 missile. As things stand, parliamentary approval for their new warheads, which in extremis are supposed to be able to destroy Moscow, hasn’t yet been sought or granted.
There could be a perfectly straightforward explanation for this. Equally, it could be too complex and, frankly, awkward to discuss in public.
In 2015 and 2016 the Ministry of Defence indicated that a decision on a new nuclear warhead “may be required in this parliament, or early in the next”. In 2017 that timescale became firmer, specifying that “a decision on replacing the warhead will be required in this parliament”. In other words we now have a hard deadline of May 5, 2022. The December 2018 update, though, made no mention whatsoever of timescales for this decision. It simply indicated that the Ministry of Defence was working on “options and technical solutions to inform the government’s decision on replacing the warhead”.
Pressed for comment, the ministry said its position as set out in 2015 “has not changed”. So does the vaguer wording from last year’s update still apply, or not? No comment there either.
The ministry says the current warheads for the UK’s Trident II D5 missiles have a service life running into the 2040s, and transition to a replacement will have to begin by the late 2030s. By its own estimates, outlined in the 2013 Trident Alternatives Review, and again in the 2015 National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review, a replacement with equivalent capabilities would require about 17 years from when a decision was taken to the first production. Timelines are therefore tight, if the UK is to maintain its current nuclear posture.
One part of the reason for this long timescale is the requirement for the UK, as a signatory to the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, to develop and certify any new warhead without full-scale testing. Another is the high bar that the UK has set itself for its nuclear weapons capability, which in the past has been referred to as the “Moscow criterion”.
During and since the cold war, British governments have held to the view that to deter Russian nuclear attack ultimately requires being able to mount a credible nuclear threat to Moscow. But Moscow is reckoned to be the hardest nuclear target in the world. Its anti-ballistic missile system consists of 68 SH-08 Gazelle interceptors that are themselves nuclear-tipped, meaning that any incoming warheads would have to be able to survive flight near or even through a nuclear fireball. This has serious warhead design implications that have helped to shape the UK’s nuclear deterrent decisions for several decades.
Why, then, the sudden, unremarked removal of this detail from the latest programme update? After all, although nuclear weapons have always been politically fraught in the UK, they tend to damage the Conservative Party least of all. Of the main parties in parliament, only the Conservatives have never opposed Britain’s possession of nuclear weapons. The Labour Party is particularly torn on it, with Jeremy Corbyn at odds with his party’s policy on nuclear weapons. So why would a Conservative government turn coy about this looming warhead decision?
There are several possible explanations. One relates to the US. Close linkages to a US nuclear warhead programme mean that London may not have complete discretion in the timing or nature of the decision. Another might be that the government is gearing up to take a decision of some sort, in secret. There is no reason why that could not be done. A vote in 2016 confirmed parliament’s support for the current nuclear stance, which could be stretched to imply support for a suitable replacement nuclear warhead to be developed. In any case the government is bound by neither law nor political commitment to submit a warhead decision to parliament.
But Britain’s experience in this regard should give us pause. The result of the last secret decision on nuclear weapons was the Chevaline programme of the 1970s and 1980s. It was delivered five years late, cost more than three times the original budget (rising to around £7bn in present-day terms), and was criticised by the then chair of the public accounts committee in 1984, Robert Sheldon, as an “unsatisfactory and unacceptable” lapse in accountability to parliament. Is Britain about to have another Chevaline moment?
In the absence of government clarity, suspicions flourish. We still do not know much about the nature of the warhead decision or what factors might weigh on it. We know that the government does not consider replacement of components of the warhead to be the same as replacing the warhead itself, because it has already done this, replacing the original US-supplied Mk4 fusing system with a new one, the Mk4A. But could several components be replaced like this, without scrutiny, until we have a new warhead with an old name?
Looking internationally, shouldn’t parliament be given the chance to consider the impact of warhead programme decisions on nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament?
Isn’t it reasonable, also, to debate whether our level of dependence on the US nuclear warhead programme has grown too great, and our national discretion too little, over the many decades of our co-operation? Is this in fact an independent deterrent, or a dependent one? And what if, in fact, it cannot deliver what the 2013 Trident Alternatives Review assumed it could?
More questions than answers, and, critics may say, more supposition than evidence. Even so, I hope the government will take steps to answer these questions, and that parliament will press for detailed scrutiny. But in the meantime, a key aspect of one of the nation’s most important and most expensive defence programmes proceeds under-reported, under-scrutinised – and under the radar.
Tom Plant is Director of Proliferation and Nuclear Policy at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI)