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"I salute the Arms Control Association … for its keen vision of the goals ahead and for its many efforts to identify and to promote practical measures that are so vitally needed to achieve them."

– Amb. Nobuyasu Abe
Former UN Undersecretary General for Disarmament Affairs
January 28, 2004
United Kingdom Promotes Disarmament

Cole Harvey

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown delivered an address March 17 to the International Nuclear Fuel Cycle Conference in London in which he reaffirmed the importance of disarmament in a "global nuclear bargain for our times." Brown spoke two days before a parliamentary report was released warning that the United Kingdom's nuclear deterrence could be at risk if plans to design and build a new fleet of strategic submarines are delayed.

Brown argued that the agreement enshrined in the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, that non-nuclear-weapon states have a right to civilian nuclear power but must forgo nuclear weapons and that the nuclear-weapon states must work toward disarmament, is a "fair and even-handed bargain" that both groups must uphold.

The United Kingdom is eager to host a conference on nuclear disarmament for the recognized nuclear-weapon states, Brown said. The conference would focus on disarmament issues such as confidence building and verification. Additionally, Brown recalled the work being done by experts in Norway and the United Kingdom to develop new techniques to verify the destruction of nuclear warheads without revealing information about the design of the warhead. Brown stated that his government will "gladly share" the results of that work "for the benefit of all."

Brown claimed that the United Kingdom "stands ready to participate and to act" in future nuclear arms reduction agreements once the arsenals of Russia and the United States are cut further. The British government is committed to retaining a minimum level of deterrence, Brown said. He added that the government estimates that it could maintain that level of deterrence with 12 missile tubes on the new model of submarine, rather than the 16 tubes present on the Vanguard vessels. The British Trident missiles are believed to hold three warheads each. A fleet of four submarines with 12 missile tubes would require 144 warheads.

The Public Accounts Committee of the British House of Commons, an oversight panel composed of members of parliament, released a report March 19 describing the challenges facing the planned replacement for the United Kingdom's current Vanguard-class submarines. Two new submarines must be operational by the year 2024, when two of the four Vanguard submarines begin to retire, in order to maintain the United Kingdom's policy of continuous at-sea deterrence. The new submarine will likely outlast the U.S.-designed Trident D5 missiles currently employed by the British fleet and must be compatible with any successor to Trident built by the United States.

In order to replace the Vanguard submarines on time, the new vessel will need to be designed and built on a compressed schedule. The committee reports that the British Ministry of Defense will address this issue by overlapping the design and construction phases of the development of the submarine for one year. As the report reiterates, "This approach will mean that construction will commence before the completion of submarine design."

The committee notes with concern that the Defense Ministry "has a long history of delivering major defense projects late," citing the current Astute submarine program. Development of the Astute submarine is already three years behind schedule and has exceeded its budget by 47 percent. The Defense Ministry is aware, according to the report, that there is no room for similar delays in the design and construction of a new strategic submarine "if it is to avoid jeopardizing" continuous at-sea deterrence.

Fundamental design issues remain unresolved concerning the new submarine, including the type of nuclear reactor it will use and the design and size of its missile compartments. The Defense Ministry expects to finalize those decisions by September 2009.

The committee's report warns that "[l]ack of cooperation between the United States' missile design and the United Kingdom's future submarine design may cause the missile compartment to be incompatible" with a successor to the Trident missile. "Any dislocation or delay" in that collaboration could put the long-term strategic deterrence capability of the United Kingdom at risk, according to the report.

Brown pointed out in his address that the United Kingdom has reduced its nuclear arsenal by 50 percent since 1997, to fewer than 160 warheads. "If it is possible to reduce the number of UK warheads further, consistent with our national deterrence and with the progress of multilateral discussions," Brown said, "Britain will be ready to do so."