A brief guide to the UK’s nuclear weapons
A House of Commons Library briefing paper provides a comprehensive overview of the United Kingdom’s nuclear weapons policies, capabilities, and programmes
This article summarises the key insights from the briefing paper, shedding light on the nation’s nuclear posture, disarmament stance, and ongoing modernisation efforts.
The UK’s nuclear policy focuses on minimal credible nuclear deterrence, with resources dedicated to NATO defence. The briefing paper points out that “The UK does not have a policy of ‘no-first use’.”
This means the UK reserves the right to use nuclear weapons in response to non-nuclear threats.
Post-Cold War, the UK has taken disarmament steps in line with the NPT. The 2010 SDSR anticipated a 65% reduction in the nuclear stockpile by the mid-2020s.
However, the 2021 Integrated Review stated that “2010 commitments could no longer be met due to the current security environment.”
Consequently, the cap on the nuclear stockpile has been raised, raising concerns about the UK Government’s disarmament commitment.
Capabilities and Infrastructure
The UK’s nuclear stockpile cap, as per the briefing paper, is “no more than 260 warheads.” The nation operates a continuous at-sea deterrence (CASD) and is the only recognised nuclear state with a single deterrent system.
The deterrent is based at HM Naval Base Clyde in western Scotland. Submarines are stationed at Faslane, and warheads are stored at Coulport. Maintenance for the Vanguard class is conducted at Faslane, while deep maintenance and refit take place at HM Naval Base Devonport in Plymouth.
Both HMNB Clyde and Devonport dockyard are managed by Babcock International. A 15-year contract with the ABL Alliance supports the Trident strategic weapon system at Coulport and Faslane.
The UK’s nuclear warheads are manufactured and maintained at two AWE sites in Aldermaston and Burghfield, Berkshire. In November 2020, the MOD announced that AWE would return to direct Government ownership.
Modernisation: Dreadnought Programme
The Dreadnought programme aims to replace the UK’s Vanguard class submarines with a new Dreadnought class by the early 2030s. A Common Missile Compartment (CMC) for the SSBN is being developed in partnership with the US.
The briefing paper estimates the cost for designing and manufacturing four SSBNs at £31 billion, with a £10 billion contingency. The UK is also participating in the US service-life extension programme for the Trident II D5 missile.
In February 2020, the UK Government confirmed a programme to replace the Mk4 nuclear warhead.
The UK maintains its status as a significant nuclear power with a focus on minimal credible deterrence. The nation’s disarmament commitment has come under scrutiny, while the ongoing Dreadnought programme signals a dedication to modernisation.
The infrastructure supporting the UK’s nuclear weapons underscores the extensive network enabling the UK’s nuclear capabilities. The House of Commons Library briefing paper offers valuable insights into the complexities and challenges surrounding the UK’s nuclear landscape.