NIS Update: June 2010



One of the first steps taken by the new coalition government was to announce that it will be undertaking a Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR), and details are gradually emerging about the form the review will take.

The Review will be led by the newly formed National Security Council and is taking place in parallel with preparation of a new National Security Strategy. Both programmes are being overseen by the newly appointed National Security Advisor, Sir Peter Ricketts, former Permanent Under Secretary at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

The SDSR is to be “wide ranging and cross-Government”, involving several government departments. Its aim is to provide a “coherent long-term policy direction and take the tough choices required to produce the armed forces' and wider defence capabilities the country will need in the decades ahead.”

Within the Ministry of Defence (MoD) a team of about 30 people is being established to coordinate the Ministry's contribution to the SDSR, consisting of personnel from across the MoD and armed forces. Staff from the Treasury, the Cabinet Office, and the Foreign Office will also be contributing to the Review.

The SDSR will run in parallel with a review of defence spending, which will investigate all major military equipment and support contracts to ensure that future programmes meet future defence needs and are affordable. The new government is also reassessing spending approvals granted under the previous Labour government between 1 January 2010 and the general election to ensure that they offer good value for money and are consistent with the government's priorities, and is examining a number of approvals relating to defence equipment projects (see below).

The SDSR and the defence spending review will report in a coordinated way, with publication of a White Paper giving the results of consultation expected towards the end of this year.

Defence Secretary Liam Fox told the Royal United Services Institute that the SDSR “will make a clean break from the military and political mindset of Cold War politics” and that “we must act ruthlessly and without sentiment”.  Although in public Dr Fox has refused to examine the need for Trident nuclear weapons as part of the Review, he has taken a more flexible position in Parliament.  In response to a Parliamentary Question asked by Labour MP Christopher Leslie he stated “The Government are committed to a value for money review of the Trident programme within the framework of the Strategic Defence and Security Review. This is aimed at ensuring that the United Kingdom's essential minimum deterrent is maintained as cost-effectively as possible. The Ministry of Defence is working with other Government Departments on this assessment"

The value for money review will take place alongside a re-examination of the UK's declaratory nuclear policy promised by Foreign Secretary William Hague at the time of the Non-Proliferation Treaty Review conference in May (see below).  It appears that, although the issue of whether or not the UK retains nuclear weapons will not be considered within the SDSR, the review will consider options for replacing Trident and the manner in which the UK's nuclear arsenal is deployed.


Treasury Chief Secretary Danny Alexander has announced that a £66 million contract within the programme to replace Trident will be suspended as part of a review of spending decisions taken by the Labour Government since 1st January.

A contract for 'Successor Deterrent Extension to Concept Phase Long Lead Items' is to be reviewed as part of the broader Trident value for money review planned by the government, and is one of twelve spending programmes suspended by the Treasury that would have cost a total of £8.5 billion over their lifetime.

A team of around 350 design engineers from BAE Systems Submarine Solutions, Rolls Royce, the MoD and the USA, has been working on design options for the submarines intended to replace Trident for the last three years in a specially-created unit at the BAE Systems shipyard at Barrow-in-Furness.

The suspended contract relates to equipment items for the planned new submarines which have a long lead time and need to be ordered well in advance of the main construction contract.

The MoD announced “Although work on the concept phase will continue, new commitment to long lead items for the boats will be held pending the outcome of the VFM study.”

Spending on the concept phase for design of the replacement submarines has steadily risen over the past three years and is planned to reach £350 million in the 2010-11 financial year – almost £1 million per day.






A five million pound bill to cover the costs of serious flooding at the Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) Burghfield will be paid by the public, according to an answer to a Parliamentary Question asked by Green Party MP Caroline Lucas.

Severe flooding at AWE Burghfield on 20th July 2007 came close to overwhelming the site, resulting in a ‘near miss’ event and causing long-term disruption to nuclear weapons manufacture,

Unpublished documents obtained a year later under the Freedom of Information Act by the Nuclear Information Service revealed the scale of the flooding at Burghfield and highlighted a series of shortfalls in emergency arrangements. The documents showed that executives at the Atomic Weapons Establishment had covered up the true scale of the flooding, which resulted in live nuclear work being suspended for nine months.

Negotiations between AWE, the Ministry of Defence, and insurers on liability for the costs of repairing extensive damage at Burghfield have taken two years to complete.

Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Defence Peter Luff told Caroline Lucas: “The cost incurred by the Ministry of Defence as a result of the flood at the Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) in 2007 was some £5 million. The Ministry of Defence Police based at Burghfield also incurred flood-related costs totalling £110,000 which did not form part of the AWE Management Ltd claim. A small claim from an AWE sub-contractor has still to be resolved.

The £5 million flood-related costs described above were incurred by AWE Management Ltd and their operating company, AWE plc, and were the costs claimed from the Department under non-nuclear indemnity.

No costs were incurred by commercial insurers as a result of the flood, as the non-nuclear indemnity is in place to cover such events.”

The dramatic scale of flooding at Burghfield in 2007 was in part the result of failings by AWE plc, the consortium which operates the Establishment on behalf of the MoD, which had neglected a programme of remediation works and overlooked flood risks in emergency plans, even though the site had a recognised history of flooding. AWE plc will not be facing a loss in profit despite its shortcomings as the MoD has agreed to cover the costs of the flood damage.



As part of a more open policy towards nuclear weapons, the new government has revealed the full size of the UK's arsenal of nuclear warheads. Foreign Secretary William Hague told Parliament during the debate on the Queen's Speech in May that the UK's total number of warheads will not exceed a maximum number of 225.

Mr Hague also announced that the Government would re-examine the circumstances under which the UK might consider use of its nuclear weapons as part of the Strategic Defence and Security Review, stating: “The UK has long been clear that we would only consider using nuclear weapons in self-defence, including the defence of our NATO allies. However we are prepared to look again at our declaratory policy to ensure that it is fully appropriate to the political and security context in 2010 and beyond, and we will begin this work now.”

The announcement was made as part of the UK's contribution to the Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference, which took place in New York in May, with the aim of demonstrating the government's commitment to working towards the long term goal of a world without nuclear weapons and building a climate of trust between nuclear and non-nuclear weapons states . It followed a similar declaration made by the United States at the beginning of the Conference when Hillary Clinton announced that the USA had 5,113 warheads in its stockpile.

At the time of the decision to renew Trident in 2007 the Labour government announced that it would cut the number of “operationally available” warheads from around 200 to no more than 160. However, this is the first time that information about the full size of the stockpile has been released.

Each Vanguard class submarine carries 48 warheads on its Trident nuclear missiles, and up to three submarines are available for deployment at any one time, with the fourth undergoing refit. This accounts for 144 deployed warheads. A small number of spares are operationally available – up to 16 – accounting for the 160 warheads mentioned in the 2007 announcement.

The Foreign Secretary's announcement indicates that up to 65 spare warheads are also in the arsenal but not operationally available, suggesting that the 40 warheads removed from the operationally available pool in 2007 were never dismantled. The spare warheads are probably stored at the Coulport Royal Naval Arms Depot with certain key components removed and are held for “routine processing, maintenance and logistic management.”

Despite the intention to increase the transparency of the UK's nuclear weapon policies, Mr Hague's announcement falls short of the standard set by the USA in Hillary Clinton's statement. The USA has declassified its entire stockpile history, giving actual numbers of warheads in its arsenal for every year in the history of its nuclear weapons programme. The UK has made the less detailed and less precise disclosure that “the overall stockpile…will not exceed 225 warheads.”

It remains possible that the UK's current arsenal is less than the ceiling of 225 warheads. During the manufacture of the UK's Trident nuclear weapons in the 1990s the Atomic Weapons Establishment faced severe production problems and there were doubts whether the total number of warheads produced at Aldermaston ever exceeded 200.

The government has no plans to allow the international community to verify the size of the UK's nuclear warhead stockpile, pleading that “we have to limit access to military sites in order to protect our national security interests and to adhere to safety and security measures”.

The final document agreed at the Non Proliferation Treaty Review Conference commits all five declared nuclear weapons states to increasing transparency over their nuclear weapons, and the onus is now on those states who have not yet declared the size of their arsenals to do so. The five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council are expected to meet over the course of the next year to discuss such actions.



Two supercomputers which together have a peak performance in excess of 70 teraflops (trillions of calculations per second) have been installed at AWE Aldermaston.

The systems are the latest bullx supercomputers launched by French computing company Bull last year, and are the first European-designed supercomputers to be totally dedicated to extreme computing – computer performance at the limits of currently available speed and memory.

The two computers, known as Willow A and Willow B, give AWE the ability to create three dimensional models and simulations necessary to model the performance of a nuclear weapon as it explodes. The two computers are a replacement for AWE's Redwood computer system and will be used to help scientists at the Establishment model the reliability and effectiveness of Trident nuclear warheads. They would also play an essential role in the design of any new warhead at Aldermaston.

Complex computer modelling of this nature will be used with data from the Orion nuclear test laser and Hydrus hydrodynamics research facility by weapons scientists as a substitute for nuclear test experiments, which can no longer be conducted by AWE since the UK government signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

AWE has also announced a £45 million new contract with HP for computing infrastructure services at AWE. HP will deliver PCs and computer and network support services to AWE staff over a ten year contract period. The deal includes site support and service desk services, asset management, licence management, and procurement of computer equipment.



AWE plc has launched a new Enterprise Strategy to set the direction of the company's business development over the years ahead.

Although AWE's traditional role of developiing and maintaining nuclear weapons will remain the priority, the company intends to use its capabilities to position AWE as a “long term national asset” and gradually diversify its work into the broader security sector (see NIS Update, April 2010).

As well as delivering its core programme of maintaining UK nuclear warheads, AWE will be aiming to 'vertically integrate' its work into other aspects of managing the nuclear weapons programme. AWE currently has a contract to manage certain elements of operations involving the convoy transport of nuclear weapons, and has recently undertaken a review of operations at the Coulport nuclear weapon store in Scotland.

The company also intends to 'horizontally integrate' into other areas of nuclear security and support the government in work on the prevention of nuclear weapons proliferation, the promotion of nuclear disarmament, and the protection of national nuclear security.

The strategy points out that: “It costs a lot to maintain our capability and new sources of income will help to ensure AWE’s future”. Cost reduction and increased efficiency is a key theme, with the strategy acknowledging that with just the Trident warhead system to manage, AWE is prone to peaks and troughs in workloads.

AWE intends to transform itself into a “leaner and fitter organisation” that is able to meet the requirements of its MoD customer and also exploit emerging opportunities. The strategy shows that the AWE consortium clearly wishes to ensure that it is not asked to re-bid for the contract to run the Establishment when it expires in 2025.

In the medium term AWE aims to be “recognised as a world class, internationally renowned, defence and security contractor to government” and intends to “raise AWE’s external profile so that it is not just a 'bomb supplier'”: In the long term it intends to develop its capabilities to work on broader national nuclear security issues.

The company is planning to expand into new areas at a controlled rate, with new work targeted to be not more than 15% of AWE’s overall activities over the next five years, representing a manageable rate of change for the company.

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