In its White Paper on the future of the UK's nuclear deterrent, the Government recommends the retention and renewal of the submarine-based Trident weapons system. This will require the procurement of a new generation of nuclear-powered Trident submarines to replace the existing, but ageing, fleet of Vanguard-class SSBNs.
This report does not assess the White Paper. That will be the focus of our next inquiry. In this report, we highlight the manufacturing and skills base issues which will need to be addressed if a decision is made to renew the submarine-based deterrent. The Government should respond to this report before the debate on the White Paper in March.
Building and maintaining a new generation of nuclear submarines will require a uniquely skilled and specialised workforce, and a dedicated manufacturing and support infrastructure. These already exist within the UK. But maintaining them is a key challenge. Once lost, the skills base may prove impossible or prohibitively expensive to recreate. Continuity of work on new boats is needed in order to sustain the UK's capability to design, manufacture and maintain nuclear-powered submarines.
Even if the Government's proposal to procure a replacement for the Vanguard-class submarine is rejected, the UK will need to maintain infrastructure and a skilled workforce to support the Royal Navy's conventionally-armed nuclear submarines and to carry out the decommissioning of nuclear submarines and nuclear warheads.
Affordability must be a fundamental consideration in any new submarine programme. If the UK goes ahead with procuring a successor to the Vanguard-class submarine, industry must collaborate more effectively to drive down costs. This will be important at all levels in the supply chain.
In turn, the Ministry of Defence must provide industry with clarity and consistency about operational requirements and specifications. It is vital that lessons are drawn from the problems experienced with the Astute-class programme.
Developing a Vanguard successor would be a huge undertaking. The Ministry of Defence will need the capacity to manage such a programme effectively. Any shortfalls in its preparedness must be addressed as a matter of priority.
Sustaining the skills base at the Atomic Weapons Establishment will also be important if the UK decides to retain its nuclear deterrent. The current investment in skills and infrastructure is understandable and justifiable. But the level of that investment, in advance of decisions in principle on the future of the deterrent, is a source of concern and the Government should clarify to what extent this is a result of the requirements of the regulator. Large-scale investment should follow, and not precede, policy decisions of such paramount importance to the nation.