Select Committee on Defence Ninth Report


The Government's White Paper on the future of the UK's nuclear deterrent was published in December 2006. It states that decisions are required now on the future of the deterrent and warns that delaying the decision would imperil the future security of the UK. In the White Paper, the Government recommends the retention and renewal of the UK's Trident system. It announces its intention to procure a new generation of nuclear-powered Trident submarines, to participate in US plans to extend the life of the Trident D5 missile, and to continue to invest in the UK's nuclear deterrent infrastructure.

This report analyses the White Paper's findings and conclusions. We do not express a view on the merits of retaining and renewing the UK's nuclear deterrent. Instead, our intention is to inform the public debate by exploring the key issues and questions which should be addressed in that debate. We hope that our report will be useful to Members of Parliament prior to the debate in March, and, with this in mind, include tables in each chapter summarising the arguments for and against.

The Government states that decisions are required now on the future of the UK's nuclear deterrent on the grounds that it would be unwise to plan to extend the life of the UK's current ballistic missile submarines beyond 30 years and the procurement of the new submarines would take 17 years. Our report considers the challenges to this timetable and the Government's response.

We welcome the reduction in warhead numbers announced in the White Paper and believe that, through these and earlier reductions, the UK has set an example which other nuclear weapon states should follow. But since the White Paper proposes no changes to the number of warheads deployed on UK submarines, we are uncertain of the operational significance of this measure. The UK's nuclear deterrent is small compared to that of other nuclear weapon states, but we are unclear how the Government determines what constitutes a "minimum" nuclear deterrent.

The Government's view is that the principles of nuclear deterrence have not changed since the end of the Cold War and that deliberate ambiguity about the circumstances in which the UK's nuclear deterrent might be used is necessary. The White Paper also refers to the utility of nuclear weapons in defending the UK's "vital interests", but it offers no clarification of the nature or geographical scope of those interests. Although we understand the need for ambiguity, the Government should be clearer that this ambiguity does not lead to a lowering of the nuclear threshold.

The Government maintains that the White Paper's proposals are fully consistent with all of the UK's international obligations and refutes the suggestion that they breach the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. In the absence of consensus among lawyers, political, rather than legal, issues will be decisive in shaping the debate over the future of the UK's nuclear deterrent.

The UK has made significant cuts in its nuclear arsenal since the end of the Cold War and has made significant efforts to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons. There is a need for a much stronger narrative on the forward commitment of the Government to achieve nuclear non-proliferation.

The White Paper outlines the options considered by the Government for the future of the nuclear deterrent. While its preference for a submarine-based system over other options has been broadly accepted by witnesses to our inquiry, the Government should set out in more detail what were the comparative advantages which led it to conclude in favour of ballistic missiles over submarine-based cruise missiles.

Decisions on the future of the UK's nuclear deterrent should be informed by detailed estimates of the likely costs involved. The White Paper estimates that the overall procurement and infrastructure costs will be around £15-20 billion. The Government has subsequently confirmed that the annual running costs are expected to be £1.5 billion. The Government should make it clear when it will be in a position to give more accurate estimates of the costs of the Vanguard-class life extension programme, and what work needs to be done to achieve this.

The report acknowledges that the Government has been more open about its decision-making on the deterrent than any in the past.

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Prepared 7 March 2007