UK Postpones Trident Replacement Amid Cuts

Robert Golan-Vilella

The United Kingdom will postpone the final decision on whether to replace its Trident nuclear submarines until 2016, Prime Minister David Cameron told the House of Commons last month.

Cameron’s Oct. 19 address marked the conclusion of a broad reassessment of British strategic and defense policy. The National Security Strategy, published Oct. 18, assessed threats and set strategic priorities; the Strategic Defense and Security Review, released the following day, detailed the steps that the government will take in accordance with those priorities.

Cameron said the British government will extend the life of its Vanguard-class nuclear submarines “so that the first replacement submarine is not required until 2028.” As a result, he said, the final decision “to start construction of the new submarines need not now be taken until around 2016.” That date is after the next British general elections, which will take place no later than May 2015.

For the Trident replacement to go forward, it must pass through two approval points: the “initial gate” decision allowing preparatory work to proceed and the “main gate” decision to begin building the new submarines. The initial step “will be approved, and the next phase of the project commenced, by the end of this year,” the defense review said.

The United Kingdom currently deploys its entire nuclear arsenal aboard four Vanguard-class submarines, each of which is armed with Trident ballistic missiles.

In addition, the United Kingdom will cut the size of its nuclear arsenal, the review said. The government will reduce its stockpile of operational nuclear warheads from fewer than 160 to no more than 120, and the maximum number of warheads on each submarine will decrease from 48 to 40. Likewise, the overall size of the nuclear stockpile, including nondeployed weapons, will drop from “not more than 225 to not more than 180 by the mid 2020s,” the review said.

British officials cautioned against interpreting the changes as a weakened commitment to their country’s nuclear deterrent. Speaking in Washington Oct. 28, Minister of State for Security and Counter-terrorism Pauline Neville-Jones said, “We do not believe that it makes a great deal of sense, given that we have a nuclear deterrent, to decide that we’re going to dispense with it…. We will remain in the nuclear club.”

On the subject of nuclear declaratory policy, the review strengthened London’s negative security assurances to non-nuclear-weapon states. The report said, “We are now able to give an assurance that the UK will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapons states parties” to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. It noted that this assurance “would not apply to any state in material breach of those non-proliferation obligations” and reserved the right to review its assurance if future advances in chemical or biological weapons made it necessary. The new British posture is similar to the one expressed in the United States’ most recent Nuclear Posture Review, completed this April. (See ACT, May 2010.)

The strategic and defense reviews took place in an atmosphere of severe financial pressures. Since taking office in May, Cameron has vowed to reduce the size of government significantly in an attempt to address budget deficits. On Oct. 20, the government released its Comprehensive Spending Review, in which it declared that the budgets of all government departments other than health and overseas aid would be cut by an average of 19 percent over the next four years.

The Ministry of Defense avoided the deepest cuts. However, the defense budget will still decrease by 8 percent in real terms over four years, Cameron said. According to the defense review, this will include reductions of 17,000 service personnel and 25,000 Ministry of Defense civil servants by 2015.

In the week prior to the review’s release, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton expressed concern about the impending defense cuts in the United Kingdom and other NATO countries. When asked if that prospect worried the Obama administration, she said, “It does, and the reason it does is because I think we do have to have an alliance where there’s a commitment to the common defense.”

After the review’s publication, Clinton issued a statement in which she said the United States was “reassured that the UK conducted its review in a thoughtful and clear-eyed manner.” She expressed her appreciation for the British “commitment to retain the full spectrum of military capabilities that enable our forces to partner together so effectively in so many areas of the world.”