The navy’s headquarters in Scotland is the home of Britain’s nuclear weapons. Photo: Urbanmyth / Alamy Stock Photo

Is the UK capable of maintaining its nuclear arsenal?

The nuclear threat is rising. But do we really know how to manage deterrence in this new landscape?
April 16, 2022

For some time now, former No 10 adviser Dominic Cummings has been blogging about the fragility of deterrence and the possibility of nuclear catastrophe. But perhaps his most interesting remarks—phrased carefully to avoid spilling official secrets—come on the topic of the UK’s fraying nuclear weapons infrastructure. Whatever you think of Cummings, and whether you support or oppose Trident, the point is worth listening to.

The UK’s facilities for making and maintaining nuclear weapons, wrote Cummings in a recent post, are characterised by “rotten infrastructure” and “truly horrific bills” amounting to “many tens of billions” over the coming years. He tried to get Boris Johnson to listen to a briefing on this topic, he claims, and was told by the PM that he’d wasted his time.

Even allowing for a touch of exaggeration, Cummings’s basic account rings true. For decades and across Conservative and Labour-led governments, ministers and MPs have failed to pay proper attention to the detail of the UK’s nuclear weapons programme. Westminster has been interested in little more than whether the parties support or oppose Trident and whether their leaders would use it. The nuclear dilemmas posed by Putin’s war in Ukraine remind us this is not good enough. And the huge sums of public money being spent on the nuclear enterprise should make this everyone’s concern, whether or not they have strong views about the bomb.

Build it and the weapons will come

Cummings won’t talk in detail about the condition of the nuclear enterprise, but some details are public, and they make for tough reading. The UK is beginning the process of designing a new generation of nuclear warheads, while at the same time maintaining and upgrading the existing ones. This is a huge challenge.

The warheads which sit on the top of Britain’s Trident missiles are designed and manufactured by the Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE), the government-owned weapons factory headquartered at Aldermaston in Berkshire. AWE has never before built a new warhead without being able to validate the design through nuclear test explosions, something that the UK has forsworn since signing the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in 1996. For AWE to be able to produce the new warheads—and indeed, even to maintain the existing ones—it needs to update a number of crucial facilities, all of which are ageing. AWE has received a £20 billion cash injection since 2005 to get up to speed, and yet serious problems remain.

Two big projects illustrate the extent of AWE’s struggles. A new facility called Mensa is urgently required to replace AWE’s ageing “gravel Gerties,” the buildings where warheads are assembled and disassembled, designed to be able to ride out an accidental detonation of the warheads’ high explosives and minimise the release of radioactive material. Mensa was originally supposed to be in service by 2017, at a cost of £734m. The date has now slipped to 2024 (a delay that recently increased by an extra year, announced on the day of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine) and the cost to nearly £2 billion.

The British debate rarely rises above the old binaries: should we still have the bomb, and, as PM, would you push the button?

Another new facility called Pegasus is needed to replace the UK’s capability to store and manufacture enriched-uranium components of its warheads and submarine fuel. Here, the slippage is even more dramatic. Pegasus was reportedly meant to be up and running by 2016 at a cost of £634m. Instead, the MoD recently decided to divide the project into two phases: the storage facility will not be operational until 2025, and the manufacturing capability won’t arrive at least until 2030. There is no updated cost estimate, but the government has already conceded that completing the second phase will blow the budget.

These infrastructure failures (and these are only two of the public ones—there could be more whose details are undisclosed) suggest bad programme management. In the case of Mensa, the National Audit Office said in 2020 that construction began with immature designs, the initial contract lacked commercial instruments to deal with delays and the MoD and AWE failed to oversee contracts effectively, including those given to subcontractors. The NAO did not examine Pegasus in that report, because the project was at an earlier stage. But the MoD itself has since blamed “poor contractor performance” and excessively complicated initial designs for “significant” cost increases and “severe delays,” leading to the project’s suspension while the plans were re-evaluated.

These issues, among others, led the government last year to renationalise AWE—reportedly at Cummings’ behest—which was previously operated by a consortium of private contractors. More direct control and less profit motive certainly seems like a good start, and the government said it has learned lessons from Mensa’s early problems. And yet it was purportedly owing to MoD failings that AWE was originally privatised in the early 1990s after slippages in infrastructure that started to look like they would jeopardise the timeline for producing the first Trident warheads. It is not immediately obvious that the department will be more successful in managing the nuclear enterprise this time around, unless its approach changes much more fundamentally. This demands serious, top-level political attention.

What we talk about when we talk about Trident

The issues at AWE are a symptom of a political culture where Trident is a marker of political positioning first and a weapon system second. The British debate rarely rises above the old binaries: should we still have the bomb, and, as PM, would you push the button?

Under Blair and Brown, Labour governments were sceptical of nuclear weapons’ usefulness and yet determined to renew the submarines for fear of returning their party to the unelectable 1980s. The Coalition continued along similar lines: the Liberal Democrats thought Trident should be replaced with something simpler and cheaper, but were told by officials that there was no workable option, and so the subs stayed.

Then came Jeremy Corbyn, a committed unilateralist. Rather than refreshing Britain’s nuclear debate, his spell as opposition leader brought the worst out of everyone. Enthusiasm about using nuclear weapons became the litmus test for leadership. Constructive, detailed discussion of UK nuclear policy was muted on both sides of the house.

This debate is inadequate to the current moment. The past decade has seen nuclear weapons return to the centre of world politics, and not just in the form of Putin’s threats. As China’s strategic ambitions have grown, so has its nuclear arsenal, which it is expanding and rapidly upgrading. Other nuclear dilemmas—India-Pakistan tensions, North Korean tests, Iranian ambitions—have got worse.  

Some American hawks argue that to keep the peace, the US must now prepare to fight and win a limited nuclear war.

Nuclear weapons are back, and this time there are more fingers on more buttons. What’s more, evolving weapons technology—new types of missiles, new types of defences, space weapons, cyber capabilities and autonomous systems—is making the business of deterrence even more complicated.

This context made it into the government’s Integrated Review of defence and foreign policy published last year, as part of the justification presented for raising the cap on the UK’s warhead stockpile. But there are a range of questions that few of the current generation of ministers and MPs have thought deeply about, and which officials are having to relearn. In the 1970s and 1980s, Whitehall’s leading nuclear brain was the late Michael Quinlan. His brilliance might not be replicable but his interest in nuclear questions and commitment to rigorously debating them—in front of parliament and in public—should be emulated.

Perhaps the most essential of the questions we face today concerns strategy: do we really know how to manage deterrence in this new, more dangerous landscape? The Cold War was risky enough. Now we have to work out what escalation will look like when you throw all those new weapons into the mix, wielded by, among others, a Russia president unconfined by familiar taboos, and a potential new nuclear superpower in the form of China.

Then comes stability: even if nuclear abolition seems a very distant prospect, which partial arms control measures could the UK be promoting to reduce nuclear risks in the meantime? Important treaties have collapsed in recent years. Any negotiations involving Russia will be extremely difficult, and perhaps impossible in the short term. But this does not make them unnecessary in the longer term.

Another twist: if Scotland votes for independence, it will almost certainly send London back its nuclear weapons. The MoD would then find itself navigating the political and financial costs of relocating them, probably to Plymouth. It will need some convincing arguments.

But the most tangible question, as Cummings reminds us, is simply one of money and material: is the UK capable of maintaining its arsenal properly? The MoD was already planning to spending tens of billions on new submarines, and the new warhead will add approximately £7 billion to the MoD’s equipment plan over the next ten years, with more to follow after that.

Rising to the occasion

So how can we start a better conversation? The UK could take a leaf out of France’s book, where it is traditional for each president of the republic, once he or she is settled in office, to give a major speech setting out the country’s approach to nuclear deterrence. A British equivalent would bump nuclear weapons policy to the top of the news agenda, and would force the PM of the day to focus, in detail, on how the government sees the global nuclear landscape, the UK’s own doctrine, and the nuts and bolts of the weapons programme. For once, the question would be more than “Trident: yes or no?” and the debate would not be left to the experts.

Parliament should also do its due diligence. In the 1980s, select committees routinely asked ministers and officials in depth about nuclear strategy and the nuts and bolts of the programme. They should start doing so again, integrating questions about deterrence into the majority of their discussions about defence strategy, not just treating it as a specialist topic. This would also encourage budding Quinlans, making fluency in nuclear issues an important job requirement rather than a dead-end specialism.

The Defence Committee could visit Aldermaston and hear for themselves what the scientists and engineers of the newly renationalised AWE are up to, and why. They could take evidence from the officials accountable for the delivery of M0D’s major nuclear procurement programmes (the so-called senior responsible owners), and hold a post-appointment hearing with the new chair of the AWE board, John Manzoni. Meanwhile, the NAO and the Public Accounts Committee should extend their existing scrutiny of infrastructure projects. This could include both Pegasus and Teutates, the joint Anglo-French test facility which is supposed to become fully operational this year.

If the MoD insists that these issues are too sensitive for detailed public discussion, then the committee could hold closed sessions, just as they did in the 1980s when the UK was designing its last warhead. Failing that, following Cummings’s advice, Parliament could add the nuclear enterprise to the Intelligence and Security Committee’s remit, allowing MPs and staff with existing security clearances to deal with classified material.

As Vladimir Putin wreaks havoc on Ukraine, there may be some who feel entirely vindicated in their support for nuclear weapons, just as some will remain implacable that the bomb is of no use, even in the gravest circumstances. The rest of us can begin by insisting that the multi-billion-pound programme to build and maintain Britain’s warheads is properly scrutinised. Possessing nuclear weapons is a heavy responsibility. Our political establishment needs to show it is up to the task.