Select Committee on Defence Ninth Report

Conclusions and recommendations

1.  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. (Paragraph 3)

2.  Decisions on the future of the UK's nuclear deterrent should be taken on the strategic needs of the country, not on industrial factors. However, whilst industrial considerations should not affect the substance of decisions, they will necessarily affect the timing of those decisions. It is not unreasonable for the Government to take these factors into account. (Paragraph 26)

3.  One key difference between the US and UK submarine deterrent programmes is that the UK seeks to operate a continuous-at-sea deterrent with just four boats whereas the United States is "generating two or three hulls from 14". (Paragraph 40)

4.  The White Paper states that decisions are required now on the future of the UK's strategic nuclear deterrent. It says that the life of the current deterrent platform, the Vanguard-class ballistic missile submarine, was designed for a service life of 25 years, which could be extended to 30 years with a life extension programme, albeit not without some risk. It maintains that procurement of a new submarine will take around 17 years. On this basis decisions are required in 2007. Some witnesses to our inquiry challenged the Government's timetable. On life extension, the evidence we received from critics suggested the Vanguard-class, like the US Ohio-class Trident submarine, could be maintained in service for up to 45 years. The Government has told us that to plan for life extension beyond 30 years would be unwise, given the 25 year design life of the Vanguard-class, the operational demands placed upon it in order to maintain continuous deterrent patrols, the experience of the declining reliability and availability of previous submarines beyond the 25-year point, and the design and construction differences between the Vanguard and the Ohio-class submarines. (Paragraph 43)

5.  A procurement timetable of 17 years is three years longer than for the existing Vanguard-class submarine. The Government says that the additional time is required because of changes in the capacity of the UK's submarine industrial base and because initial concept and development work on the Vanguard-class was already underway when the Government of the day announced its decision to acquire the Trident system. The Government says that no such work has yet begun on a Vanguard successor and that Parliament is being consulted at a much earlier stage than on previous occasions. (Paragraph 44)

6.  The challenge to the Government's estimate of 17 years is partly based on the suggestion that work has started on "concept options for platforms", whereas the government timetable commences with the "detailed concept work". We take it that these two things are different and accept that the 14-year period which we commented on in our previous inquiry commenced from a more advanced stage in the procurement cycle (years rather than months away) after a period of detailed concept work had been carried out. (Paragraph 45)

7.  Neither the White Paper nor the exchange of letters between the Prime Minister and the US President in December 2006 explain adequately why decisions on UK participation in the Trident D5 missile life extension are required by 2007. The Government should clarify why decisions on the missile are required now. (Paragraph 50)

8.  The White Paper does not propose any fundamental change to the UK's nuclear weapons policy. (Paragraph 52)

9.   The UK's nuclear arsenal is small in comparison to that of other established nuclear powers. The UK has made very significant reductions in the scale of its nuclear arsenal since the end of the Cold War. (Paragraph 56)

10.  We welcome the reduction in warhead numbers announced in the White Paper and recognise that this follows the significant reductions previously announced in the 1998 Strategic Defence Review. We welcome this arms reduction measure, but it is unclear whether this has significance as a non-proliferation measure. Since the White Paper proposes no changes to the number of warheads deployed on UK submarines, it is unclear that this reduction has any operational significance. (Paragraph 63)

11.  The White Paper states that the UK is committed to maintaining a "minimum" nuclear deterrent. The Secretary of State told us that the Government had conducted a very hard analysis of the nuclear capabilities required by the UK with a view to ensuring that they were at a minimum necessary level, but we are uncertain how the Government determines what constitutes a "minimum" deterrent. The Government should say how it calculates the scale of a minimum deterrent. (Paragraph 64)

12.  The White Paper states that the concept of deterrence has not changed since the end of the Cold War and it outlines the underlying principles which shape the UK's current approach to nuclear deterrence. Some witnesses to our inquiry questioned the continuing relevance of nuclear deterrence while others argued that it remained as relevant as it ever was during the Cold War. The Government should do more to explain what the concept of deterrence means in today's strategic environment. (Paragraph 74)

13.  The Government has stated that the UK will use its nuclear weapons only in "self-defence", in "extreme circumstances", and in defence of the UK's "vital interests", but has not defined these terms. It argues that it is important to maintain ambiguity about the exact circumstances in which the UK might use its nuclear weapons. 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. (Paragraph 81)

14.  The Government says it no longer uses the term "sub-strategic" in discussing the UK's nuclear weapons. However, the White Paper refers to varying the yield of the UK's nuclear warheads. We call upon the Government to clarify how a reduced yield differs from a sub-strategic role. The Government should also state why a sub-strategic role was thought necessary in 1998 but is no longer necessary now. (Paragraph 87)

15.  The Government states that the UK's nuclear deterrent will continue to be assigned to NATO. NATO nuclear doctrine, however, explicitly involves a policy of not ruling out first use of nuclear weapons and a policy of sub-strategic deterrence. We call upon the Government to clarify, in time for the debate and vote in the House of Commons, how the UK's nuclear forces are integrated into the nuclear defence of NATO and what the implications of the Alliance's first use and sub-strategic policies are for the UK's nuclear deterrent. (Paragraph 90)

16.  The Government acknowledges that there is no current nuclear threat to the UK but argues that nuclear weapons are needed as an insurance policy against an uncertain future. Some of our witnesses pointed to nuclear proliferation and noted that nuclear aggression could only be deterred by the possibility of nuclear retaliation. Others—including some who accepted the need for the deterrent—felt that the Government's analysis of the threat was vague, flawed and otherwise lacked logic, and many particularly expressed scepticism about the efficacy of the deterrent in countering state-sponsored terrorism. (Paragraph 100)

17.  The Government states that the retention and renewal of the UK's nuclear deterrent is fully consistent with its international legal obligations. Some witnesses to our inquiry challenged the Government's position and suggested that the proposals in the White Paper may constitute a breach of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and may be illegal under the UN Charter and international humanitarian law. The Government rejects this suggestion. None of the witnesses to our inquiry, however, believed that a decision to replace the Vanguard-class submarines would, in itself, be illegal, though some argued that the long-term retention of a nuclear capability, including the decision to extend the life of the Trident D5 missile, was inconsistent with the UK's obligations to pursue negotiations in good faith to achieve nuclear disarmament. (Paragraph 114)

18.  Witnesses to our inquiry accepted that, ultimately, decisions on the future of the future of the UK's nuclear deterrent were political and that, in the absence of consensus, legal concerns were unlikely to be decisive. (Paragraph 115)

19.  The White Paper states that the Government is committed to nuclear non-proliferation and to the ultimate goal of nuclear disarmament. It cites a variety of ways in which the Government has sought to achieve these objectives. Some witnesses to our inquiry, however, have argued that the White Paper gives insufficient attention to the implications of the Government's decisions for non-proliferation efforts. Some argued that the Government's proposals may actually encourage nuclear proliferation and undermine the authority of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Others have argued that whether the UK opts for or against retaining its nuclear deterrent, the decision will have a negligible impact on global proliferation. (Paragraph 126)

20.  The reductions in warhead numbers announced by the White Paper are significant disarmament measures, but, in themselves, they do not amount to a non-proliferation strategy. There is a need for a much stronger narrative on the forward commitment of the Government to achieve nuclear non-proliferation. The Government should not assume that current activities such as those mentioned in respect of the Norwegian 7 Country Initiative have a wide currency. The Government should explain how it will use its position at the Security Council, as the only nuclear weapon state with a single platform and 1% of the global arsenal, to give new momentum to what are widely perceived as stalled non-proliferation treaty discussions. Without a stronger narrative, the UK's decision to retain and renew its nuclear deterrent might be seized upon by would-be proliferators to justify their own efforts to acquire nuclear weapons, though it remains the case that any non-nuclear state which is a signatory to the NPT is in clear breach of its undertakings if it seeks to acquire nuclear weapons. (Paragraph 127)

21.  None of the witnesses to our inquiry was surprised the Government had decided to opt for a renewal of the submarine-based deterrent. Few of them considered the SSBN option was the wrong one. But, of course, a great many of them argued that the Government was wrong to renew the nuclear deterrent at all, and a few thought the Government's justification for its choice was inadequate. (Paragraph 131)

22.  While many of our witnesses disagreed with the Government's decision to renew the nuclear deterrent, few challenged its choice of a submarine-based ballistic missile over other deterrent options. However, some have found the analysis of the options in the White Paper not to have explored fully the option of a nuclear-powered submarine carrying cruise missiles, noted as being the best alternative option. The Government should set out in more detail what were the comparative advantages of cost, range, operation and invulnerability associated with cruise and D5 missiles which led them to conclude in favour of the D5 missile. We believe the Government should offer further details of its assessment of deterrent options. (Paragraph 138)

23.  We welcome the Government's assurance that funding for the nuclear deterrent will not come at the expense of the conventional capabilities required by the UK's Armed Forces. However, the Government has not said how it would guarantee this, when expenditure on the deterrent is included in the defence budget. We call on the Government to specify in more detail how it will fulfil this assurance. It is important that additional funding is provided not only for the initial procurement costs, but also with any additional costs of maintaining the system in-service. (Paragraph 148)

24.  It is important that Parliament be aware of the full costs of retaining and renewing the UK's nuclear deterrent before it is asked to agree to the Government's proposals. These costs include not only the acquisition costs for a new fleet of SSBNs, but also the costs of life extension, the costs of the missile and warhead programmes, the projected infrastructure costs, and the personnel costs of operating and maintaining the deterrent. The Government says that the overall procurement and infrastructure costs are £15-20 billion and that the annual running costs will be £1.5 billion at 2006-07 prices. (Paragraph 153)

25.  The MoD proposes to embark on a life extension programme for the current Vanguard-class SSBNs, but has not offered a clear estimate of the costs involved in that programme. The MoD should make it clear when it will be in a position to give more accurate estimates and what work needs to be done to achieve this. (Paragraph 154)

26.  The House of Commons should be aware that, even if it were to vote against retaining the deterrent, certain costs would be involved. These would include costs, such as onshore infrastructure, industrial costs, and regional assistance to the areas affected by industrial closures. The costs of investing in regions affected by any decision not to go ahead with renewal of the present deterrent should be estimated and included together with other costs so that those who argue there is an opportunity cost to other public expenditure can see what the full costs of such a negative decision are. (Paragraph 155)

27.  The MoD states that it is not possible to provide precise estimates of the costs of decommissioning the Vanguard-class submarine. However, it says that £827 million is included in the MoD annual accounts for the decommissioning of nuclear-powered submarines. Whether or not the UK decides to replace the Vanguard-class submarine with a new SSBN, the costs of decommissioning the Vanguard-class will still be incurred. This must be taken into account when considering the costs of retaining and renewing the nuclear deterrent. Equally, procurement of a new SSBN will, in time, mean that the MoD will incur ongoing decommissioning costs associated with the deterrent. (Paragraph 160)

28.  The Government says that the cost of UK participation in US plans to extend the life of the Trident D5 missile will be around £250 million. We call upon the Government to state whether any further expenditure will be needed to acquire the life-extended missiles over and above the initial buy-in costs to the life extension programme. (Paragraph 162)

29.  The Government states that greater industrial collaboration and affordability are essential components in any new submarine programme and that it needs to address its own shortage of skills in managing a programme of the scale of a Vanguard successor. The MoD must ensure it has the skills necessary to delivery any future submarine programme to time and on budget. In the event of Parliament voting in support of the renewal of Trident, industry and the MoD must work together to drive down and control costs in order to deliver an affordable submarine programme. (Paragraph 169)

30.  It is probable that a new generation of SSBNs could be designed to deliver a higher level of reliability and availability, and it is possible that this could allow continuous at sea deterrence to be ensured with only three boats. But it is also possible that the cost-savings would be small, and outweighed by the increased risk. The Government should clarify when a decision will need to be made on the number of boats in the new SSBN fleet, and what is the likely level of savings from doing without a fourth boat. (Paragraph 175)

31.  The Government states that it is not yet possible to judge the potential costs of procuring a successor to the Trident D5 missile. Given that the Government intends to spend some £11-14 billion on new ballistic missile submarines, it is essential that any successor missile is fully compatible with the UK's future SSBN. (Paragraph 179)

32.  We note the exchange of letters between the Prime Minister and the US President, dated 7 December 2006—printed in Annex 2 to this report—to effect collaboration in the life extension programme for the Trident D5 missile delivery system. Given this exchange of letters took place three days after the publication of the White Paper and before debate in Parliament about the replacement of submarine platforms to carry such missiles beyond the life of the current Vanguard-class submarines, we look to the Government to explain the effects, financial and otherwise, of this exchange of letters agreeing the extension of this part of the Strategic Nuclear Deterrent system. (Paragraph 180)

33.  The Government says that decisions on a new warhead will be required in the next Parliament. We call upon the Government to state whether the cooperation it envisages with the United States will include participation in the US Reliable Replacement Warhead Programme and why the UK could not re-manufacture warheads to the existing design. (Paragraph 182)

34.  It would be helpful if the Government could confirm whether the timetable we suggest is accurate or in what respects it is wrong. (Paragraph 184)

35.  If the White Paper's proposals to retain and renew the UK's strategic nuclear deterrent are endorsed, it is essential that the Government keep Parliament informed of the progress of the submarine, missile and warhead programmes. We expect Parliament to be consulted at each significant stage of the programmes before major procurement decisions are made. (Paragraph 185)

36.  The Government deserves to be commended for exposing its proposal to renew the strategic nuclear deterrent to public debate and decision in Parliament, which previous Governments have not done. We look to the Government to inform the House of Commons of any errors of fact or interpretation in this report, before the debate in March. And we hope that the Government, and the MoD in particular, will learn for the future that greater transparency is to its own, as well as to the public, advantage. (Paragraph 186)

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