The United Kingdom first deployed a submarine-launched nuclear deterrent in 1968. Since then, successive governments have been committed to a policy of continuous at sea deterrence, meaning that at least one nuclear-armed submarine is on patrol at any one time. In its 2006 White Paper, the Government announced its intention to maintain the United Kingdom's nuclear deterrent capability and set out its plans to build a new class of submarines to replace the current Vanguard fleet and to participate in the United States' Trident D5 ballistic missile life extension programme.
The Ministry of Defence's (the Department's) ability to sustain its nuclear deterrent capability in the future is dependent on collaboration with the United States. The new class of submarine is likely to remain in service beyond the extended life of the existing Trident D5 missile, which will be renewed in 2042, and must therefore be compatible with any successor missile developed by the United States. The Department has received a series of assurances from the United States that any new missile will be compatible with the United Kingdom's new submarine class. Nevertheless, the concern remains that the Department has no direct control over the development of the new missile.
The future deterrent programme is still at the concept phase. The Department has yet to make many decisions about the principal parameters of the submarine design, the type of nuclear reactor, and the design and size of the missile compartment. The Department expects to make these decisions by September 2009. To respond to an already challenging timeline, the Department plans to overlap the submarine's design and construction phases.
The Strategic Deterrent Programme Board is chaired by the Senior Responsible Owner, who is responsible for coordinating the delivery of the future deterrent. In order to succeed, the Senior Responsible Owner must maintain strong relationships across other departments to ensure that he delivers the capability that the government as a whole requires. He must draw on performance management information that is still evolving and operate in the context of a challenging commercial environment, characterised by monopoly suppliers.
On the basis of a Report from the Comptroller and Auditor General, the Committee took evidence from the Accounting Officer and supporting witnesses on: making important decisions, managing dependence on the United States and managing the programme effectively.