BLAIR ANNOUNCES TRIDENT REPLACEMENT AND THUS RETAINS SUBMARINE CAPABILITY
04 Dec 06. In Parliament today, Tony Blair announced as reported by The FT that the U.K. would build to a new fleet of submarines to carry its nuclear deterrent, but said it would reduce the number of nuclear warheads in its arsenal. The decision, assuming the expected agreement from parliament in the new year, will mean that Britain’s nuclear weapons will be carried on submarines until at least the middle of the century.
Announcing the decision to parliament, Tony Blair presented the decision to extend as in part an insurance policy, citing in part the rise of potential new threats from countries such as Iran and North Korea. “The government’s judgment, on balance, is that though the cold war is over, we cannot be certain in the decades ahead that a major nuclear threat to our strategic interests will not emerge,” he said.
A government white paper said it was impossible to predict but that a strategic threat could come from three directions: a re-emergent threat from an existing nuclear power; from new states with more limited nuclear capabilities; or from countries seeking to sponsor nuclear terrorism.
It said, however, that it would reduce the number of operationally available warheads from fewer than 200 now to “fewer than 160”.
Britain is the only one of the five nuclear states recognised under the nuclear non-proliferation treaty to base its nuclear warheads on a single platform. The government said it would continue with that posture, It said it needed to make a decision now to replace the four existing Vanguard class submarines because it would take 17 years to design, build and commission new submarines to have the first in operation by 2024. Some outside experts have questioned this interval and said Britain could defer the decision for four or more years.
The government estimated the cost to procure the submarines, which it expects to be built in Britain, at between £15bn-20bn at current prices. The costs would mainly fall between 2012 and 2027, and would be the equivalent of about 3 per cent of the defence budget. In coming years, Britain’s atomic weapons establishment at Aldermaston is expected to cost another roughly 3 per cent of the defence budget.
The government said it would examine at a later date whether it could reduce the submarine fleet from four vessels to three. Officials said a decision on that could not be taken for six or seven years, the chief constraint being the need to retain at least one submarine continuously at sea. A reduction of one vessel would save perhaps £1bn-2bn in procurement costs, they said.
The submarine-based deterrent would be the cheapest of the four possible options considered, some two to 2½ times cheaper than air-based or land based missiles, and far less vulnerable to enemy attack. A surface ship based system would cost the same but be more vulnerable, it said.
The government also announced a decision to participate in an extension programme for the US Trident D5 ballistic missiles carried by the submarines, at a cost of about £250m. These improvements to the missiles, which are also carried by US submarines, would enable the UK to keep the missiles in service into the early 2040s.
It also said Mr Blair and US President George W Bush would soon exchange letters in which the US would assure the UK that it would have the option to participate in the programme for the D5 replacement and that the new missiles would be compatible with the new submarines.
In a discussion of the threats, the paper acknowledged that nuclear weapons could not deter terrorists. However, it said it should influence decision making of any state that might consider transferring nuclear weapons or technology to terrorists. “We make no distinction between the means by which a state might choose to deliver a nuclear warhead, whether, for example, by missile or
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