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Trident Nuclear Programme

Volume 808: debated on Monday 7 December 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether a new United Kingdom warhead is required to extend the Trident nuclear programme to 2049; and if so, by when it will be required.

My Lords, in order to ensure that the Government maintain an effective deterrent throughout the commission of the Dreadnought class submarines and into the future, the Secretary of State for Defence formally announced to Parliament on 25 February 2020 that the UK will replace its nuclear warhead. The replacement warhead programme will be delivered to a schedule that ensures that our deterrence posture under Operation Relentless endures uninterrupted. I am withholding specific information about the in-service date to safeguard national security.

I thank the Minister for her Answer. I am delighted that we are pressing ahead with this. It is a part of our armoury that is used every single day in deterring, so I am pleased about it. However, I have great concerns about AWE. Repeated ministerial deferrals post 2010 have resulted in decay of nuclear expertise and cost escalation within AWE, as has been noted by the NAO. Could the Minister confirm, after the failures of the MENSA, Hydrus and Pegasus projects to deliver on time and within budget, and the scathing assessment by the NAO earlier this year, that AWE as currently structured is able to deliver such a complex programme on time and at cost?

The MoD routinely evaluates and reviews all major contracts as they near their end dates. It conducted a review of the governance model in place for the management of AWE plc, and it was following that review that the MoD decided that AWE should revert to a direct government-ownership model. We believe that will simplify and further strengthen the relationship between the MoD and AWE.

My Lords, will the Minister confirm that the Government’s defence priorities include cyber and space projects, and that they continue to recognise, as they said in the 2018 defence review, that security challenges involve non-state actors, migration, pandemics and environmental pressures? How will the Trident programme fit their own priorities or help to tackle any of those threats?

I agree with the noble Baroness’s assessment of the threats of cyber. That is why the recent defence financial settlement reflects the importance that the Government attach to both cyber and space activity. The nuclear deterrent, which was overwhelmingly mandated by Parliament in 2016, is a very important but separate part of our capability. It is there to deter, and it has proved to be an effective deterrent.

The UK Trident nuclear programme is at the heart of our enduring and lasting relationship with the United States of America. Can the Minister undertake that any discussions on the future of that programme will articulate and take into account the enduring importance of Scotland’s contribution to the United Kingdom union, the union’s defence and the NATO alliance’s defence?

I thank the noble Baroness for making a very important point. She is correct that the Trident missile system is essential to our deterrent. That is why we work closely with the United States in that respect. She is also correct to point out the significance of defence to the United Kingdom. Faslane, where the deterrent is located, is now the UK’s submarine headquarters. That is part of a general pattern of vital defence activity which is spread throughout the United Kingdom and which Scotland benefits from significantly.

My Lords, as a timely reminder, the House of Commons voted relatively recently by a majority of 355 to effectively renew Parliament’s commitment to the nuclear deterrent by authorising the Dreadnought programme. With that in mind, the announcement of some £24.1 billion of extra funding for the MoD is most welcome, but can my noble friend confirm that there has been no Treasury sleight of hand and a corresponding—or even any—reduction in the Dreadnought contingency fund?

I reassure my noble friend that the Dreadnought programme continues to run to schedule. As he will be aware, an overall budget of £31 billion, with the £10 billion contingency fund, has been allocated to it. The remaining allocation of funding is still to be determined within the MoD following the recent settlement.

My Lords, the extension of the Trident programme is clear and, as the noble Lord, Lord Lancaster, pointed out, it has recently been reaffirmed by the other place. Could the noble Baroness tell us how Her Majesty’s Government view the extension of Trident in terms of their priorities for the RevCon of the NPT?

I did not quite get the last bit of that question but, perhaps instead of the noble Baroness repeating it, I will undertake to look at Hansard and give her a full reply.

I asked about priorities for the NPT; if we are extending Trident, how do we fit that with the NPT commitments?

I thank the noble Baroness for repeating the question. The Government take the view that, under the non-proliferation treaty, we remain compliant with international law and in compliance with Article VI of that treaty. We have a very good record of contributing to nuclear disarmament; we have managed to reduce stocks by about 50% from their Cold War peak and we are the only recognised nuclear weapons state to have reduced our deterrent capability to a single nuclear weapons system.

My Lords, the Minister confirmed to me only the other day that we have a policy of continuous at-sea deterrence, which we all very much welcome. Can she confirm that we now have sufficient submarines for that purpose and, no less importantly, sufficient crews to keep them at sea?

I reassure my noble friend that, despite all challenges, we have maintained our essential defence operations, including the operation of our continuous at-sea deterrent.

My Lords, I have mentioned several times in this House, in connection with Trident, the two definitions of affordable: first, can you afford it, and, secondly, can you afford to give up what you have to give up to be able to afford it? Can the Minister assure the House that the Government considered this second definition when assessing the recently announced increased resources for defence?

I confirm that the Government reviewed all relevant issues in determining that settlement. Of primary and perhaps principal importance is the defence of the country and the safety of its citizens. That is why the defence settlement reflects these priorities.

My Lords, the recent announcement of an extra £16.5 billion for defence is welcome, but the £13 billion black hole in the defence budget is still there. In terms of the funding for the Trident replacement programme, for more than a decade the Ministry of Defence and the Treasury have disagreed about funding Trident, the former arguing it should be the Treasury’s responsibility as it was in the past. Will the forthcoming integrated review address this matter once and for all?

As I have previously indicated to the noble Lord, I cannot pre-empt what the integrated review will say. However, a practice has clearly arisen whereby the MoD is considered responsible for the provision and management of the nuclear deterrent and the Treasury reflects that with funding. That is why the financial package for Dreadnought comprises an identified budget of £31 billion and a contingency fund of £10 billion. The other elements of the deterrent will be determined in due course by the MoD in the allocation of the budget settlement.

My Lords, nuclear deterrence may have made some sense during the Cold War of the 1950s. Today, there is no direct threat of invasion to our shores. In an inverted meaning of “defence”, we already have a military presence at 145 sites in 42 countries, a number second only to the United States. Does the Minister agree that this strutting of military might across the globe has nothing to do with defence?

With respect to the noble Lord, I completely disagree. I feel that the measure and calibre of the effectiveness of a deterrent has been reflected over the years. I said once before that the perhaps paradoxical character of a deterrent is that its lack of use confirms its efficacy of purpose. The threats we face are becoming ever more complex and diverse and are increasing in scale. We have the deterrent to deter the most extreme threats to our national security and way of life which cannot be deterred by other means. That is why the Government are absolutely clear that we need the nuclear deterrent for the foreseeable future.