A 2006 MOD White Paper said that the UK’s current fleet of Trident ballistic missile submarines would have to be retired in the early 2020s, estimating that it would take around 17 years to design, manufacture, and commission the replacement boomers. After a controversial vote in the House of Commons in 2007, it looked certain that the UK would replace its Vanguard class submarines as a key part of an extension plan to its at-sea ‘Trident’ nuclear deterrent.
Having devoted £7.7 billion in October 2007 for research and design in the initial ‘Concept Phase’ of the replacement program, the UK Government was scheduled to make ‘Initial Gate’ decisions as early as September 2009. These decisions would have kicked off a series of technical assessments and design work, committing Prime Minister Gordon Brown to pay out some 15% of the estimated £15-20 billion procurement costs for the new submarine.
In July 2009, the Government decided to delay the design contract until 2010. In January 2010, it was reported that the Government had postponed making its ‘Initial Gate’ decisions indefinitely, allegedly due to difficulties in agreeing on the type of nuclear reactors needed to power the future submarines. However, the timing of the announcement casts doubt on the claim that the delay is purely technical in nature. And as the Vanguard retirement clock continues to tick, suggestions of ‘indefinite’ delays call into question the Government’s commitment to the ‘urgent’ nature of the replacement program, as depicted in the White Paper timetable…
However long or short the ‘indefinite’ delays eventually turn out to be, utterances from the government imply that the ‘Initial Gate’ decision probably won’t be made until after the UK’s anticipated May 2010 General Election. Political calculation is no doubt playing a role here: Gordon Brown is likely well aware that the astronomical cost of Trident replacement (plausibly up to £130 billion) won’t go down well with the electorate when combined with the UK’s record budget deficit. He may have even seen a recent poll that suggests 58 % of the general public – including 61% of Labour voters – want the project panned completely. The fact that Labour makes no mention of (let alone commitment to) the Trident system on their website illustrates how much the party has soured on the project. In omitting Trident from their public agenda, Labour are leaving the door open for a future u-turn in policy.
There are also signs of increased doubts on the need for a Trident replacement among the other mainstream political parties. While the Conservatives stipulate that they are committed to maintaining the UK nuclear deterrent and the ‘replacement’ of Trident, they fail to mention by which type of system it ought to be replaced. Some sources suggest that the Conservatives could even avoid any decisions on the UK nuclear deterrent for as much as five years, in an effort to raise much needed funds. The Liberal Democrats say they are happy to maintain British nuclear weapons in the future but are very clear about their opposition to a like-for-like replacement, citing its sheer cost and the rapidly deteriorating state of public finances.
Aside from domestic political and economic arguments, increasing criticism levied by both retired and serving military officials may also be behind eroding support for the once-popular program. In January one former leader of the British armed forces urged the Government to delay replacement for as long as possible, noting the increased flexibility the UK could have in disarmament negotiations and the irrelevance of nuclear weapons in dealing with likely future threats.
An ex-army chief who advises the Conservative Party on defense issues recently went as far as saying that the UK might not even need a nuclear deterrent in five or ten years. Other voices have advocated looking into cheaper delivery systems such as nuclear cruise missiles. They argue that decisions regarding the appropriate means to deliver nuclear warheads should be taken by the military and not politicians.
Finally, one has to consider the forthcoming 2010 NPT review conference and Obama’s speech in Prague last April. Britain’s proposal to replace its Trident submarines doesn’t exactly sit easily with either the spirit or substance of these events. It also seems to contradict Gordon Brown’s 2009 assertion that the UK would ‘lead’ global efforts for a successful 2010 NPT review conference.
As the Foreign Affairs Committee notes in its report ‘Global Security: Non-Proliferation’, ‘the decision to renew the UK’s Trident system is perceived by some foreign states and some among the British public as appearing to contradict the Government’s declared commitment to strengthening the international nuclear non-proliferation regime.’ Many backbenchers in Parliament highlighted this discrepancy in the 2007 debate over Trident replacement, but were ignored. It seems that this issue is increasingly affecting the submarine replacement proposals, with Gordon Brown stating in September 2009 that he would potentially reduce the UK’s order of new vessels by one, presumably in an attempt to maintain some sort of credibility on the non-proliferation front.
In sum, there appears to be more to the Trident replacement delays than just technical issues. In particular, the outcome of the NPT Review Conference and General Election could have a significant impact on a program that looked to be a foregone conclusion in 2007.