LONDON — The British government has decided to replace the Royal Navy’s four Vanguard-class ballistic nuclear missile submarines (SSBN) with new boats on a one-for-one basis.
After years of indecision, caused largely by global economic crash-induced fiscal austerity, ministers have effectively acknowledged that reducing the SSBN force to three submarines would signal the end of a half century of continuous U.K. sea-based deterrence.
Prime minister David Cameron is expected to seek parliamentary approval next year to start building the four Vanguard replacement or “Successor” submarines, with the first of the 16,000-ton boats due to enter service in 2028.
Although the opposition Labour Party’s new hard left leader, Jeremy Corbyn, is a vociferous opponent of nuclear weapons, the ruling Conservatives enjoy a 12-strong majority in the House of Commons and a ‘yes’ vote is almost guaranteed.
Both Cameron and his defense secretary, Michael Fallon, have now spoken publicly about the decision to retain four SSBNs, with the latter setting out the government’s position most explicitly at an industry briefing last week.
“Cold War certainties have been replaced by an unpredictable new nuclear age defined by weapons proliferation, more nuclear states, and rogue nations wanting nuclear weapons and the technology to develop them,” Fallon said.
He pointed out that an “expansionist” and “revanchist” Russia was commissioning a new class of eight SSBNs, and that North Korea was conducting its own nuclear and ballistic missile tests.
“When there are 17,000 nuclear weapons in the world we can’t wish away threats that may emerge in the 2030s, 2040s and 2050s”, he said.
While a nuclear deterrent “with a Union Jack on the top of it” would not prevent another 9/11-type tragedy, it would fulfil the need “to deter state-sponsored terror and to counter nuclear blackmail,” he told shipbuilders.
And Fallon aimed a direct blow at Corbyn, who was recently named vice-president of the London-based Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, an organization that wants the U.K. to give up its nuclear weapons unilaterally as a step towards global disarmament.
“Despite taking our nuclear non-proliferation obligations seriously; despite reducing our stockpile by over half from the height of the Cold War; and despite reducing the number of deployed warheads on each submarine from 48 to 40, emerging states have not stopped seeking nuclear capability”, Fallon said.
The Successor program is nearing the end of a five-year assessment phase which began in 2011. Work this year has focused on maturing the design of the platform and nuclear power plant, and collaboration with the US on a Common Missile Compartment (to be shared with the Ohio-class Replacement Program (ORP_) is also continuing.
The Ministry of Defence has estimated that procuring the Successor submarines will cost $19.82 to 25.2 billion (at 2013/14 prices), with total program costs of $26.89 to 35.95 billion if warhead and infrastructure costs are included.
“Spread across the 30-year life of the new boats, this represents an annual insurance premium of around 0.13 per cent of total government spending”, Fallon said.