British Nuclear Deterrent Depends on Timely U.S. Help, Lawmakers Report

(Mar. 19) -British officials are planning to begin replacing the nation's fleet of nuclear-armed submarines, including theHMS Vanguard(above), about 20 years from now (British Defense Ministry photo).
(Mar. 19) -British officials are planning to begin replacing the nation's fleet of nuclear-armed submarines, including theHMS Vanguard(above), about 20 years from now (British Defense Ministry photo).

British plans to collaborate with U.S. weapon designers on a next-generation nuclear-armed submarine could threaten London's nuclear deterrent because the two nations are using different design schedules, a panel of lawmakers reported today (see GSN, March 12).

The problem stems from British reliance on the United States for the missiles that will be deployed on the submarines, according to today's report from the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee. Currently, British submarines use Trident D-5 missiles that, with a planned life-extension program, are scheduled to be usable through 2042. A planned set of new British submarines, however, is set to have a longer lifetime and would need to accommodate the extended-life Trident D-5s as well as new missiles and launch tubes that have not yet been designed.

The submarine design, set to be finalized this year, will therefore need to rely on advance information from U.S. designers and excellent cooperation in the future.

"Collaboration with the United States on Trident D-5 missile life extension presents significant risks to the United Kingdom's future nuclear deterrent," the report says.

"Lack of coordination between the United States' missile design and the United Kingdom's future submarine design may cause the missile compartment to be incompatible with the extended D-5 missile design," the report adds. "Any form of dislocation or delay in this collaboration process would have serious ramifications for the [Defense Ministry's] ability to support a nuclear deterrent over the longer term."

The report also expresses concerns over cost and schedule estimates made by submarine program officials, noting that other submarine projects have run late and over-budget.

The report indicates that British leaders have not yet decided whether to build three or four new submarines to replace the current fleet of four Vanguard-class boats now based in Scotland. The Defense Ministry is scheduled to make that decision by 2014, when it might know more about the submarines' expected reliability and operational tempo (Greg Webb, Global Security Newswire, March 19).

Meanwhile, a Scottish politician yesterday urged British Prime Minister Gordon Brown to back up his call this week for nuclear disarmament. Brown urged nuclear powers to make serious reductions to their arsenals, although he said the United States and Russia should go first because they have the largest stockpiles (see GSN, March 17).

"Of course, Gordon Brown could lead by example by scrapping the Trident nuclear weapons system and hyperexpensive plans for its replacement," said lawmaker Angus Robertson, who heads the Scottish National Party in the House of Commons. "The Scottish people oppose nuclear weapons as do the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish government. The time is right to get rid of Trident" (see GSN, Feb. 5; Ross Lydall, The Scotsman, March 18).

March 19, 2009
About

British plans to collaborate with U.S. weapon designers on a next-generation nuclear-armed submarine could threaten London's nuclear deterrent because the two nations are using different design schedules, a panel of lawmakers reported today (see GSN, March 12).