Delay to Trident replacement programme and cuts in nuclear warhead numbers announced in Strategic Defence and Security Review

  • Defence spending to fall by 8% in real terms.
  • Life of current Trident submarines to be extended.
  • Stockpile of operational nuclear weapons to be reduced from less than 160 to less than 120.
  • No cuts to troop numbers in Afghanistan.

Despite newspaper headlines lamenting the lack of aircraft available to fly from the two new aircraft carriers which the government has confirmed it will purchase, the Strategic Defence and Security Review confirms the government's intention for the UK to remain a first rate military power that will continue to punch above its weight in the world – albeit on a reduced budget.

Prime Minister David Cameron today announced the outcome of the review in Parliament, beginning by emphasising that, even after the Review, the UK will still have the fourth largest military budget in the world. Over the next four years the defence budget will fall by 8% in real terms, but this will be a far lower cut than most other government departments will face, with the UK's military spending remaining above the NATO target of 2% of GDP.

The Prime Minister stated that there will be “no cut whatsoever” in the budget for fighting the war in Afghanistan, which is funded not from the Ministry of Defence budget but from the Treasury Special Reserve.

Nevertheless, the government intends to move “from a strategy which is over-reliant on military intervention” to give a higher priority to conflict prevention, although it appears that funding from this will be taken from human development programmes with just under a third of the budget of the Department for International Development earmarked for spending on conflict prevention by 2015.

The Ministry of Defence itself came in for stinging criticism, with the Prime Minister saying he was “absolutely determined” that a Ministry which is “too big, too inefficient and too over-spent” would become “much more commercially hard headed in future” and more responsible in its spending. Numbers of civilian staff at MoD are to be cut by 25,000 by 2015.

The armed forces will also face cuts in numbers, with the Army reducing in size by 7,000 soldiers and the Navy and Air Force each losing 5,000 personnel by 2015. The Army will gradually withdraw forces from Germany, the number of frigates and destroyers in the Navy will reduce from 23 to 19, and some RAF bases will be used by the Army to garrison forces returning from Germany. Future defence spending will move away from the current focus on conventional warfare, with programmes aimed at dealing with unconventional threats, such as improved cyber security measures and intelligence gathering, receiving priority for funding in future.

Although Liam Fox specifically stated that Trident would be excluded from the scope of the defence review, today's statement represents the biggest policy announcement on nuclear weapons since the publication of the 2006 White Paper on Trident replacement. The Defence Review confirms the government's intention to retain nuclear weapons, but outlines a number of 'value for money' measures which will reduce the role of nuclear weapons in defence policy. These include:

  • Extending the life of the current Vanguard class submarines so that delivery of the first replacement submarine is not required until 2028 (previously the in-service date had been scheduled for 2024);
  • Reducing the number of launch tubes on the new submarines from twelve to eight, and reducing the number of operational missile tubes on the current Vanguard class submarines to eight.
  • Reducing the stockpile of operational warheads from less than 160 to less than 120, and reducing the overall number of nuclear weapons that the UK has from around 225 to not more than 180 by the mid 2020s.
  • Reducing the number of warheads deployed on submarines at sea from 48 to 40.

The 'Initial Gate' decision signalling the start of the next phase of the programme to replace Trident will start by the end of this year, but the 'Main Gate' decision on construction of the new submarines will not now be taken until around 2016 – after the next general election.  The government estimates that around £1.2 billion will be saved by these measures, and that a further £2 billion of spending will be deferred from the next ten years, although the overall capital cost of replacing Trident remains within the £20 billion cost estimate given in the 2006 White Paper. A decision has yet to be made on whether three or four replacement submarines will be ordered.

The government has also concluded that a replacement for the current Trident nuclear warhead will not be required until at least the late 2030s, meaning that a decision on replacing the warhead will not be needed in this Parliament, deferring £500 million of spending from the next ten years.

The Defence Review also contains a new declaration on the UK's policy on the use of nuclear weapons, giving an assurance that the UK “will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapons states parties to the NPT”. However, the assurance “would not apply to any state in material breach of those non-proliferation obligations” - potentially leaving out states such as North Korea and Iran – and the government reserves the right to review this assurance if future threats or proliferation of nuclear weapons make it necessary to do so. This policy declaration mirrors a similar assurance given by the United States following its Nuclear Posture Review earlier this year, and, together with the other measures announced in the Defence Review, represents a modest show of support for President Obama's global disarmament agenda.