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UK Auditor Criticizes Trident Renewal Plan
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Manasi Kakatkar

The United Kingdom's National Audit Office (NAO) has questioned the Ministry of Defense's ability to replace its aging Trident nuclear missile submarines before they start being retired from service in the early 2020s. In a Nov. 5 report, the NAO raised concerns over the tight schedule of the program as well as its cost, design, and management. The government stated, however, that the program is on schedule.

The Trident system in service since 1994 consists of four Vanguard-class submarines, each carrying 16 U.S.-supplied Trident D5 missiles equipped with up to three nuclear warheads. (See ACT, December 2005.) The submarines are due to be retired in 2024, and a minority of lawmakers had suggested several years ago that the United Kingdom did not need to rush to replace a system that would be in service for several decades. Some had argued that there was no necessity for an independent British nuclear arsenal in a post-Cold War world and asserted that building new nuclear-armed submarines would represent a lack of British commitment to the disarmament obligation of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). (See ACT, April 2007.)

At the behest of then-Prime Minister Tony Blair, however, parliament voted in 2007 to maintain the United Kingdom's nuclear deterrent by replacing the submarines with a new class of submarines in 2024 and extending the life of the Trident D5 missiles. The total cost of the project is estimated to be $22-30 billion and is aimed at providing an effective and operational nuclear deterrent until the 2040s.

In a December 2006 white paper, "The Future of The United Kingdom's Nuclear Deterrent," the British government announced a reduction in its overall warhead stockpile by 20 percent, from fewer than 200 warheads to fewer than 160 operationally available warheads. The paper indicated that the United Kingdom has the smallest stockpile of nuclear weapons among the five NPT nuclear-weapon states, a distinction China has also claimed.

In its report, the NAO criticized the Trident replacement program for insufficient budget oversight, lack of contingency planning, and monopoly suppliers. It found that the current cost estimates do not reflect the whole-life costs for the system and do not account for any contingencies or value-added tax. The NAO also warned of insufficient oversight of the budget. It has asked the government to prepare robust estimates of the whole-life costs and the possible extension of the lives of the submarines by September 2009.

The NAO expressed concern over the monopoly of BAE Systems and Rolls-Royce in supplying the submarines and the nuclear reactors on them. It worried about how the government would incentivize the suppliers to maintain schedules and achieve value. Stressing its point about meeting deadlines, the NAO pointed to a program to provide the navy with Astute-class submarines that is 41 months late and more than $1 billion over budget.

It also warned about the shortage of navy personnel skilled in operating nuclear reactors and monitoring nuclear missiles, which could jeopardize the United Kingdom's primary nuclear deterrent. The problem is likely to get worse in the years to come, according to the NAO.

The 2007 vote authorized British participation in a U.S. plan to extend the life of the Trident D5 missiles to 2042, after which they would retire from service. The United States has so far not provided any guarantees of the compatibility of the new missiles to be developed as replacements for the Tridents with the new submarines that the United Kingdom plans to build.

Some critics argued for extending the lives of the submarines to 40-45 years from the current 25-year life span. According to the Defense Ministry, however, it would be risky to extend their life more than five years. A longer extension, defense officials said, would be costlier than the current plan. It would require replacing many of the major parts, such as control systems, electrical systems, and possibly even the main engine and gearbox mechanism. The new submarines would include advanced safety standards, computer systems, and improved nuclear reactors that generate more power for the same amount of fuel, saving money.

Posted: December 4, 2008