Select Committee on Defence Ninth Report

1  Introduction

1. The Government's White Paper, The Future of the United Kingdom's Nuclear Deterrent, was published on 4 December 2006.[1] It states that decisions are required now on whether to retain the nuclear deterrent in the long term and argues that delaying these decisions would risk "a future break in the UK's deterrent protection".[2] The White Paper maintains that retaining a nuclear deterrent is essential to the UK's security and argues that the global context does not justify the abandonment of the nuclear deterrent. It says that we can only deter possible future nuclear threats through the continued possession of nuclear weapons. Conventional capabilities cannot have the same deterrent effect. While no direct threat to the UK's vital interests currently exists, it says it is important to guard against the re-emergence of such a threat in the future.

2. The White Paper announces no fundamental change in the UK's policy on nuclear weapons. But it does announce changes to the scale of the UK's nuclear warhead stockpile. It considers various options for the future of the nuclear deterrent—air-based, land-based and ship-based—but concludes that a renewal of the submarine-based system provides the most effective and credible deterrent. The White Paper announces the Government's intention to procure a new generation of ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs), to commit to the US life extension programme for the Trident D5 missile, and to invest further in the UK's onshore deterrent infrastructure, including at the Atomic Weapons Establishment, Aldermaston. It provides an estimate of the costs involved and discusses the industrial factors involved in the procurement process. It points to the risk that, in the event of a significant gap between the end of the work on the Astute-class conventional role nuclear-submarines (SSNs) and the start of the detailed design work on the new SSBNs, some of the difficulties and costs experienced on the Astute programme would be repeated because of the loss of key design skills. It states that these decisions are in full compliance with the UK's international legal obligations.

3. In this inquiry, we set out to analyse the White Paper: to consider the arguments put forward by the Government for the retention and renewal of the UK's current Trident system; to assess the White Paper's assessment of the role of nuclear deterrence in the 21st Century; to examine the Government's analysis of deterrent options, solutions and costs; to consider the international treaty implications of the Government's decision to retain and renew the deterrent and the possible impact of the decision on the UK's non-proliferation efforts; and, to examine whether decisions on the future of the nuclear deterrent are required now. Our intention is to encourage and inform the public debate on the future of the nuclear deterrent by exploring the key issues and questions which should be addressed in that debate. We do not express a view on the merits of retaining and renewing the UK's nuclear deterrent. Endorsing or rejecting the Government's proposals will be for the House of Commons, as a whole, to decide.

4. This inquiry is the third in a series of inquiries which the Committee has conducted into the future of the UK's strategic nuclear deterrent in this Parliament. Our current report should be read in the context of our earlier reports on the future of the UK's strategic nuclear deterrent. The conclusions and recommendations of these reports are printed in Annex 1 to this report.[3]

5. Our first report, published in July 2006, focused on the strategic context and timetable for decision-making.[4] We considered the threats which the UK's nuclear deterrent was intended to combat and how these threats might evolve over the lifetime of a potential Trident successor. We examined the independence of the UK's nuclear deterrent and the extent to which possession of nuclear weapons was relevant to the UK's international influence and status. We sought to define more clearly the likely decision-making timetable. And we called on the Government to fulfil its commitment to facilitate an open and comprehensive debate in Parliament, and the country at large, on the future of the nuclear deterrent.

6. Our second report, published in December 2006, analysed the manufacturing and skills base issues that would need to be addressed if a decision was made to retain and renew the UK's nuclear deterrent.[5] We examined the industrial infrastructure required to design and manufacture a new generation of nuclear submarines, the challenges involved in maintaining a specialist workforce, and the impact of the Government's Defence Industrial Strategy for the UK's submarine industrial base, including the issues of industrial restructuring and the need for an affordable submarine programme. We also examined the Government's expenditure at the Atomic Weapons Establishment. And we considered the skills required by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) to manage the delivery of any potential Trident successor.

7. In the current inquiry, we took oral evidence at Westminster from campaigning organisations, commentators and academics, international legal experts and the Secretary of State for Defence and MoD officials. We received a very large body of written submissions from a wide range of experts, think tanks, religious organisations and members of the public. We are grateful to all those who provided oral and written evidence to our inquiry. We also appreciate the assistance provided by our specialist advisers, particularly Rear Admiral Richard Cheadle and Professor Michael Clarke.

1   Ministry of Defence and Foreign and Commonwealth Office, The Future of the United Kingdom's Nuclear Deterrent, Cm 6994, December 2006 Back

2   Cm 6994, Foreword, p 5 Back

3   Annex 1 Back

4   Defence Committee, Eighth Report of Session 2005-06, The Future of the UK's Strategic Nuclear Deterrent: the Strategic Context, HC 986 Back

5   Defence Committee, Fourth Report of Session 2006-07, The Future of the UK's Strategic Nuclear Deterrent: the Manufacturing and Skills Base, HC 59 Back

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