Memorandum from British American Security
Information Council (BASIC)
1.1 There is widespread suspicion that the
Government's decision over Trident replacement has more to do
with domestic political positioning than it does with security
concerns. These suspicions are strongest when it comes to the
timing of the decision. The stakes are high. This decision is
far too important in its own right, with implications for Britain's
role in the world and for global non-proliferation, for the Government
to be rushing a decision based upon assumptions from outdated
debates of the 1980s.
1.2 An early decision to replace, weeks
before the first NPT Preparatory Committee meets in April this
year, could derail efforts to build international momentum towards
stronger non-proliferation norms and multilateral nuclear disarmament,
even before delegates sit down to talk. It will not only strengthen
the hand of those within countries like Iran trying to justify
dangerous and proliferatory policies to their populations, stiffening
their resolve to challenge the status quo, but will also further
weaken Britain's credibility within the majority world: the 183
Non-nuclear Weapon States (NNWS) that are looking to the Nuclear
Weapon States to take previously agreed steps towards a nuclear-weapon
free world. 
1.3 A commitment now to spend a large proportion
of the defence budget after 2014 on a system without clear military
application will undoubtedly harm the procurement prospects for
our active service personnel, and by extension the ability of
the armed forces to carry out the essential tasks future governments
will require of them. It will lock the MoD into this option, when
alternative nuclear and non-nuclear options may be more appropriate
in the future as new technologies emerge, creating vulnerabilities
and new opportunities.
1.4 We were promised that the White Paper
would include extensive and detailed consideration of options
and the basis behind them. Given the dangers, the onus was on
the Government to justify an early decision. The White Paper,
in two short sentences in the first appended Fact Sheet, fails
to do this. It simply asserts the oft-repeated position that the
maximum possible life expectancy of the submarines is 30 years
(with extension) and that it will take 17 years to build a replacement
(Trident took 12 years from agreement to initial launch, the point
at which the White Paper chooses to measure the life expectancy).
It ignores the points made by BASIC and other analysts that question
these bold statements. It is clearly taking a worst-case scenario
on life expectancy and main-streaming it, perhaps overly influenced
by the negative experience with Polaris, an entirely different
design. Given the redundancy built into the system (with four
boats when only three are required for CASD), this is unnecessary.
1.5 There are four clear reasons for believing
that the decision set out in the White Paper is premature and
can be delayed for a further eight to 10 years.
1. Longer life expectancy: the life
expectancy of the current submarines is probably much longer than
stated, partly as a result of operational changes since the end
of the Cold War.
2. Dropping Continuous-at-sea Deterrence
(CASD): an option the Committee's first report in June 2006
thought deserved consideration: a modest change in posture appropriate
to today's security environment could extend the life considerably,
and was not addressed in any satisfactory manner by the White
3. Reduced lead-times: a less ambitious
project, to simply modify Vanguard rather than create a new class
of submarine, would reduce lead-times considerably.
4. Point of no return: modest investment
in R&D now could put off an irreversible decision for some
1.6 A Parliamentary vote to put on hold
a final decision would give the Government more time to provide
the necessary information for an informed debate. At the very
least the Committee should strongly recommend that Parliament
make an explicit and binding commitment to revisit any decision
it takes now, prior to Main Gate, with an open view as to whether
it confirms, reforms or abandons the project.
The British American Security Information Council
(BASIC) is an independent research organisation that analyses
government policies and promotes public awareness of defence,
disarmament, military strategy and nuclear policies in order to
foster informed debate. BASIC has offices in London and in Washington
and its governing Council includes former US ambassadors, academics
and politicians. Further information is available on our website:
2.1 The benefits to deferring the decision
for at least five years are overwhelming.
2.2 Maintaining maximum flexibility of response
to possible threats and to new technologies makes military sense.
Closing off options by making premature commitments to particular
solutions can result in expensive cash and opportunity costs,
particularly when lead-times are so long. UK military procurement
is still suffering from costly legacy decisions (such as the purchase
of Euro-fighter) made during the Cold War, which ended 17 years
ago. A decision made closer to the point of deployment would mean
being closer to the possible threats for which the system is designed
and possess a superior understanding of appropriate needs. It
would also give the MoD a better idea of the latest technology
available, both for building appropriate systems, and in accounting
for counter-measures. New technologies are likely to provide numerous
cost and functionality benefits, such as miniaturisation of missiles,
warheads and platforms. Yet this decision is locking the UK into
a system that deploys massive D5 missiles, each capable of deploying
12 independently-targetted 100kt warheads. Already these missiles
are far larger than that required by UK posture, which currently
averages three warheads per missile, some of which only have a
single warhead. While currently it is difficult to imagine a platform
more stealthy than a submarine (a point made in the White Paper),
this may not be the case in a decade's time. Given the pace of
technological change experienced today we can expect with certainty
that superior counter-measures and solutions will be emerging
on the market.
2.3 As the White Paper acknowledges, a Trident
follow-on system would have to be compatible both with the (upgraded)
Trident II D5 missiles and any (as yet undetermined) US follow-on
missile. Relying upon the exchange of letters with Washington
on 7 December 2006 would be courageous, so far in advance of the
Americans' decisions on a follow-on missile. Future US Presidents
will be making decisions dominated by US technical and military
2.4 In April this year the Foreign Office
is to sit down with nuclear negotiators around the world to find
common ground in the search for elusive non-proliferation and
disarmament agreements. A decision by Parliament in March to replace
Trident, just a few weeks before, will severely weaken the UK
delegation's hand in demanding stronger non-proliferation commitments.
It is the view of most governments that the Nuclear Weapons States
have collectively failed to live up to their disarmament commitments
under Article VI of the NPT - a fact acknowledged by the recent
Shultz-Perry-Kissinger-Nunn article in the Wall Street Journal.
The Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) envisioned
the end of all nuclear weapons. It provides (a) that states that
did not possess nuclear weapons as of 1967 agree not to obtain
them, and (b) that states that do possess them agree to divest
themselves of these weapons over time. Every president of both
parties since Richard Nixon has reaffirmed these treaty obligations,
but non-nuclear weapon states have grown increasingly skeptical
of the sincerity of the nuclear powers.
2.5 Such scepticism also applies specifically
to the UK. While the UK Government has reduced warhead numbers
and readiness, the pressure it can place on Iran and North Korea
with the support of the rest of the international community is
weakened while it clings to the utility of its own nuclear deterrence.
An early decision to replace Trident shows a lack of confidence
in the regime (while expecting others to demonstrate it). Many
within the Iranian parliament, for example, have claimed that
the NPT is no longer binding, because of the lack of effective
disarmament agreements. Whatever the legal truth, the consequence
is the samea dangerously weakened non-proliferation norm.
2.6 A longer window for the decision would
allow the UK to initiate a new multilateral nuclear disarmament
initiative prior to any irrevocable investment in new nuclear
systems. One of the key reasons given by some to retain (and replace)
the UK nuclear deterrent is to enter international nuclear disarmament
negotiations from a position of strength. A new initiative could
be the central plank of Britain's effort to secure progress in
the run-up to the 2010 NPT Review Conference prior to any commitment
to replace Trident.
2.7 Delay would ease pressure on the public
purse in general, and on the defence budget in particular. Public
spending plans in the run up to the 2007 Comprehensive Spending
Review are under severe pressure. This decision is likely to create
public and off-the-record resistance to achieving savings elsewhere
in government spending. The defence procurement budget in particular
is already unlikely to be sufficient to meet existing spending
plans for 2011-20. The Prime Minister's renewal of the covenant
between the armed forces, government and the people outlined in
his Portsmouth speech of 12 January, would appear particularly
hollow if a decision to replace Trident meant fewer resources
to an already over-stretched military. And if these resources
do come from another government budget, these are resources that
could otherwise be applied to properly equipping the forces.
2.8 Deferral would give the Government time
to provide adequate information to give the public and parliament
a chance to come to an informed view. Currently this is impossible.
The three month process, while an improvement on the past, is
grossly inadequate for a decision of this magnitude, and the information
provided is insufficient. Consequently, the debate is often dominated
by prejudice and presupposition.
3.1 The Defence Committee's most recent
report on Trident outlined concerns that the skills base for building
a new generation of nuclear submarines in the UK is at a "critical
level", suggesting that an indigenous production capability
may be at risk. Certainly, industry representatives are keen to
see a new project follow on after Astute, warning that lengthy
gaps could lead to a loss of key expertise. A report from the
Rand Corporation, commissioned by the MoD specifically for the
purpose of advising on how best to retain the submarine industrial
base, suggests delaying the start of production of the next generation
of submarines, to avoid a much larger gap at the end of SSBN production
and the start of the next generation of submarine, the MUFC (Maritime
Future Underwater Capability, the follow-on from Astute). However,
exaggerated warnings of "catastrophe" from any delays
should not frighten government into a hasty decision and over-ride
the strategic defence needs of the country, which as the Committee
concluded, must drive any future decisions, not industrial and
3.2 In addition, a forthcoming report from
BASIC that looks at the choices between investment in Trident
replacement and renewable energy opportunities, suggests that
far more employment opportunities could be created through alternative
investment than those lost by the rationalisation or closure of
the UK nuclear submarine manufacturing capability. 
4. LIFE EXPECTANCY
4.1 The 1998 SDR and 2003 White Papers referred
to a life expectancy of Vanguard of 30 years, as did ministerial
statements prior to 2006. In its evidence to the Defence Committee
in January 2006, the MoD reduced this for the first time to a
more conservative base life expectancy of 25 years, with the possibility
of extension, "albeit with gradually increasing cost and
some increasing risk of reduced availability, perhaps out to the
mid-2020s". The White Paper measures this 25 years from the
point of launch rather than commission. This brings forward the
time for decision some seven years from that assumed by analysts
previously, and by the MoD's DLO Nuclear Cluster responsible for
managing the strategic deterrent as late as August 2006 (they
assumed an overall life of HMS Vanguard to last to 2024).
Q: Why was the life expectancy of the Vanguard
submarine reduced by five years?
4.2 Operational changes introduced with
the 1998 Strategic Defence Review (SDR) suggest a longer life-expectancy
than 25-30 years. While the SDR retained a policy of Continuous-at-sea
Deterrence (CASD), it also announced reduced readiness: the UK
"will have only one submarine on patrol at a time".
This significantly reduced the number of at-sea hours for each
submarine, in turn significantly reducing the stresses on both
hull and reactor and thus increasing the life expectancy.
4.3 Most UK analysts believe that three
boats are required to ensure that one is out at any one time (one
on patrol, one in dock in preparation and one in refit). Four
boats give added security in case of catastrophic damage or exceptionally
poor performance and therefore, by providing redundancy give added
life expectancy to the system as a whole. It also means that each
boat is at out sea for only around a quarter of its operational
life (which includes time in refit).
4.4 By contrast, American Ohio-class submarines
are reported to be out to sea for roughly two-thirds of their
operational life, yet the DoD has extended their life-expectancy
from 30 to 44 years. The White Paper says that the Ohio class
life extension cannot be replicated in the UK because such an
option was not built into the original design, manufacture, refit
and maintenance of Vanguard.
Q. Why were the Vanguard-class submarines
apparently built to lower standards than the US Ohio-class submarines?
Q. Why is the same
shipyard in line to receive the follow-on contract when it apparently
failed to produce a lifetime cost-effective solution last time?
4.5 There are a number of projects already
underway that can be expected to further extend the lives of the
submarines. These include, for example, Rolls Royce working with
the MoD's Nuclear Propulsion IPT on an integrated support solution
for the existing marine reactors. These
extension projects were not and could not have been envisaged
in the initial design of Vanguard, and it is difficult, at this
stage, to see how MoD can be so certain of their impact in extending
the life (by only five years in total).
4.6 The 2003 Defence White Paper stated
that the UK faces no major conventional threat today or in the
near future. The Defence Committee proposed the possibility of
dropping CASD. Nine years ago the SDR had rejected dropping CASD
on the grounds that any emergency launch of Vanguard could dangerously
escalate tensions. The White Paper also argues that CASD is necessary
to reduce vulnerability and assure the credibility of the deterrent.
But such concerns are irrelevant to the main reasons given for
replacing Tridentin particular the insurance against possible
future risk. Dropping CASD would show British commitment to the
further dealerting necessary to promote global non-proliferation,
while maintaining a flexible deterrent if that is deemed appropriate.
It would also dramatically increase the life expectancy of the
current system, both by reducing stresses on the submarines today,
and by providing for even greater surplus capacity in the system.
Q: Is a continuous-at-sea-deterrent necessary
at a time when even the Prime Minister agrees there is no major
nuclear threat to our strategic interests?
Halving the lead-time
4.7 The option of building new Vanguard-class
submarines appears not to have been considered in the White Paper.
Instead it proposes a whole new class of submarines that "might
take around 17 years" to design, manufacture and commission,
that will simply deploy modified Trident D5 missiles. This estimate
"reflects the judgment of industry". It is a worst-case
estimate from BAE Systems, a company that knows it is in a monopoly
position, negotiating with a government apparently keen to make
an early decision.
4.8 The lead-time for the Vanguard-class
submarines was 12 years from decision to launch (in 1992). This
required major new designs from scratch to create a submarine
that bore little resemblance to the previous Polaris-class boats.
In contrast, in a slimmed-down and efficient procurement exercise,
it may take two years to design minor upgrades to the Vanguard-class,
and around five years to construct each submarine. The appropriate
lead-time could therefore be seven rather than 17 years.
Q: Why should a minimum deterrent require
a new class of submarine, and why should this take 17 years to
design and build?
Q: How much faith
should MPs put on the judgment of BAE Systems, a company still
under the shadow of the Serious Fraud Office investigation abandoned
in December 2006, and responsible for the MoD's six most delayed
major weapons projects (cumulative 25 years) and the five experiencing
the highest overspends (nearly £3 billion)
Q: Could a replacement submarine be purchased
off-the-shelf from the Americans at a lower cost and with a much
The point of no return
4.9 Since the bulk of spending is loaded
into the final stages of any replacement programme, namely in
construction, modest investment in the preferred option need not
require an irreversible commitment. The June 2006 Defence Select
Committee report accepted this point, stating that a binding decision
on the final option and any serious investment would not be needed
until 2014. In fact, even if there was an urgency to commence
work on the project, a point we would fiercely contest, there
is no need to make a decision at this stage in the cycle to procure
a new generation of SSBNssimply a decision to work up the
options for future procurement decision. In which case, at the
very least, at this stage Parliament should with-hold any decision
to go ahead with the procurement of a new system, and instead
agree to the government working up the options, and require the
issue come back to Parliament prior to a Main Gate decision.
Q: Could a decision be made to invest in
R&D while holding off on a "main gate" decision
until the next parliament?
The White Paper fails to address the many issues
raised by organisations querying the need for haste in replacing
the Vanguard class submarines, and fails to provide the level
of information promised for an informed debate. Instead, it relies
on stating the government's conclusions and asking us to accept
them on trust. BASIC believes the underlying assumptions are based
upon unnecessary worst-case perspectives, heavily influenced by
commercial considerations, that will have damaging consequences
for Britain's role in the world, and for an efficient procurement
process. We would urge the Defence Committee to exercise extreme
caution before accepting the White Paper's conclusions.
15 January 2007
54 Steps that were agreed at the 2000 NPT Review Conference. Back
RAND Europe, The United Kingdom's Nuclear Submarine Industrial
Base, Volume 1: Sustaining Design and Production Resources.
Bottom p 47. Available online at: http://www.rand.org/pubs/monographs/2005/RAND_MG326.1.pdf Back
Dr Steven Schofield, Oceans of Work: Arms Conversion Revisited,
BASIC, 24 January 2007. Back
The Nuclear Cluster, DLO, August 2006, available online at: http://www.mod.uk/NR/rdonlyres/F25A7345-AA9D-46E8-B33A-76304FBF7B53/0/NuclearclusterPDF.pdf Back