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Where Is the UK Government's Nuclear Weapons Policy Heading?

30/06/2015 09:31 BST | Updated 29/06/2016 10:59 BST

Whichever way you look at it, it seems that the fiscal hawks and disarmament doves have been blown out of the sky and have sunk into a deep blue ocean where the Trident Successor programme stares them head-on.

Since returning to power with an outright majority, the UK's new Conservative government is now full steam ahead to replace the Vanguard-class submarines with a new fleet of four Successor submarines, each armed with Trident II D-5 fleet ballistic missiles. Each submarine will have 12 launch tubes of which 8 will be operational and capable of reaching targets and delivering within a range of 11,300 km, perhaps further and even more accurate with the next generation of nuclear-tipped Trident ballistic missiles due to be in service in the early 2030s.

Building a political mandate

In what has been a complicated and long-running affair, there seems to have been little overall deviation in policy amongst the main parliamentary parties regarding the Successor programme since the process began.

In December 2006, the then Labour Government led by Prime Minister Tony Blair published a White Paper outlining its intentions to build a new class of submarines. Following the publication of the White Paper there was a vote on Trident renewal in March 2007 ("this House supports the Government's decision as set out in the white paper The Future of the United Kingdom's Nuclear Deterrent (CM6994) to take the steps necessary to maintain the UK minimum strategic nuclear deterrent beyond the life of the existing system and to take further steps towards meeting the UK's disarmament responsibilities under Article VI of the Non- proliferation treaty"). Note the attempt to balance out renewal with a commitment to re-energise the diplomatic track to multilateral disarmament. This was followed by studies on both the steps towards a world free of nuclear weapons, and concrete disarmament verification procedures, and by setting up the P5 process.

The Trident Alternatives Review (TAR) was commissioned in 2010 by the last Liberal Democrat and Conservative Party Coalition Government soon after it came to power, at the same time as a decision to delay the Main Gate to 2016 for an in-service date for the first Successor submarine in 2028. The review highlighted a number of drawbacks inherent in nuclear alternatives to the Trident ballistic missile submarine system and claimed that they were all more expensive when judged against a set of criteria. It received heavy criticism from civil society for being flawed on its assumptions and conclusions. In its most recent vote on the issue in January 2015, Parliament voted against the motion 'this House believes that Trident should not be renewed'. A further parliamentary debate is expected ahead of the 'Main Gate' decision next year.

This positioning on Trident reflects the wish of much of the Westminster political leadership to be seen as being 'strong on defence' and upholding UK influence on the global stage. Whilst the Scottish National Party now fields a strong and noticeable representation in the Westminster Parliament, they will be unable to turn the political tide against the renewal of another generation of ballistic missile submarines.

The lack of appetite of the Conservative and Labour parties to contemplate a move away from a 'minimum, credible, independent nuclear capability, delivered through a Continuous At-Sea Deterrent' translates to an effective certainty of Parliamentary support for the Main Gate decision due in 2016.

Continuous At-Sea Deterrence and spending

The government has not been shy of reminding fellow parliamentarians of the 2015 Conservative Party manifesto, and therefore electoral mandate, which in the section 'Keeping Britain safe' on nuclear weapons policy specifically states: 'We will retain the Trident continuous at sea nuclear deterrent to provide the ultimate guarantee of our safety and build the new fleet of four Successor Ballistic Missile Submarines - securing thousands of highly-skilled engineering jobs in the UK.'

Whilst the 2006 White Paper envisioned the final 'Main Gate' decision on whether three or four boats are needed to maintain Contentious At-Sea Deterrence (CASD) to be taken when more is known about the design including when further information on the reliability and maintenance requirements of the new submarine design becomes available, the government has made it clear that it does not intend to conduct a review on a change of operational posture in the foreseeable future. It has been the policy of previous governments that the UK would consider such a move in an improved security environment as part of a multilateral package. This current government clearly is not considering such a possibility.

The document also states: 'Later this year, we will hold a National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review to plan for the future.' Whilst some had pinned their hopes of Trident being included in the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR), it has been confirmed that it will not be revisited in the forthcoming Strategic Defence and Security Review.

The Succesor submarines will be solely funded out of the defence budget. The projected expenditure on Trident is expected to account for one third of the defence procurement budget over well over a decade. An update to parliament in November 2014 stated that £2,068 million had been spent on the replacement for the Vanguard Class submarine up to 31 March 2014, broadly within the expected spend. Updated figures will be published in the Ministry of Defence's Annual Reports and Accounts.

What next?

Whilst the UK has reduced the number of warheads in its nuclear arsenal and its readiness, successive governments have failed to develop a stronger narrative on the UK's commitment to non-proliferation and achieving 'Global Zero'. The P5 process appears stuck in the early stages of dialogue with little tangible to show, and recent setbacks in terms of shared understanding around what it means to be a responsible nuclear armed state in the 21st century.

It is deeply unfortunate that the Trident renewal process is passing through its most controversial stage just as the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) is at its weakest point for a decade. When faced with the choice of either joining the rest of the international community in putting pressure on Israel to engage more seriously in the process to set up a WMD Free Zone in the Middle East, or blocking consensus on a final agreement for the NPT Review Conference, the UK sided with the US and Canada to block agreement. Having done this it is essential that the UK lead in proposing realistic and attractive initiatives to get both the WMD Free Zone process and the broader NPT agenda back on track.

When renewing Trident it is essential the government acknowledge its international responsibilities to go beyond talking of its desire to see progress on multilateral disarmament and propose concrete measures. The government must start to develop a globally cooperative approach that undercuts the drivers of proliferation and reduces the salience nuclear weapons have to all states. This consideration needs to be expedited to the top of the foreign policy agenda.

Parliamentarians and security strategists should also comprehensively test currently held assumptions including the assumption that submarines will be able to remain undetectable in the future. The technical game of cat and mouse in the oceans is rapidly changing with the investment and deployment of ever more sophisticated anti-submarine warfare (ASW) detection technologies (hunter-killer, aircraft, satellites, underwater-drones and sensors networks). Recently, during NATO's annual anti-submarine warfare exercise codenamed Dynamic Mongoose, a NATO scientist went on record to say:

"...I think now miniaturising the technology that the submarine is deploying, miniaturising the sensors and having large numbers of sensors, we can start to own the underwater battle space in a way that makes it less attractive and takes away the tactical strategic advantage of the submarine."

Factor in the advancement of Unmanned Underwater Vehicles (UUVs) with the messages coming from research laboratories and we might be on the cusp of a game changer.