UK announces reduction in operationally deployed warhead capability

The UK has reduced numbers of its operationally available nuclear warheads and deployed Trident missiles, reaching a “key milestone” which, according to Ministers, demonstrates the UK's “continued leadership” within the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

In a written statement to Parliament timed to coincide with a meeting in London of the 'P5' nuclear -weapon states the government has given an update on progress towards meeting nuclear disarmament goals which were set during the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review.

Defence Secretary Michael Fallon announced that the number of warheads deployed on each of the UK's Vanguard class Trident submarines which are available for patrol has been reduced from 48 to 40, and the number of missiles carried by each submarine has been reduced to “no more than eight operational missiles”.  This corresponds to a commitment given in the SDSR to reduce the number of operationally available warheads from “fewer than 160 to no more than 120”.

Mr Fallon said that, “as a responsible nuclear weapon state and party to the Treaty on the Non Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons”, the UK remains “committed to creating the conditions for a world without nuclear weapons”.  However, at the same time he confirmed that the government was continuing with plans to renew the Trident nuclear weapon system and that a 'Main Gate' decision would be required in 2016 on replacing the Vanguard class submarines.

Mr Fallon declined to comment on progress in meeting another promise made in the SDSR to reduce the UK's overall nuclear warhead stockpile ceiling from not more than 225 to not more than 180 by the mid 2020s, saying only that “the Government does not comment upon the operational programme” in reply to a question by Scottish National Party MP Angus Robertson.

He made no mention of steps the government might take to allow verification of the disarmament measures and gave no guarantee that the warheads and missiles withdrawn from service would not be re-instated at some future date, giving other nations and civil society no option but to take the government's statement in good faith.  However, monitoring by the independent Nukewatch network suggests that over the past few years warheads have been returned at a slow but steady rate from the Coulport arms depot in Scotland where they are stored to the Atomic Weapons Establishment in Berkshire where they can be dismantled.

Mr Fallon made his announcement a few days before the London 'P5 Conference' – a meeting of the five nuclear-weapon states recognised under the NPT to review progress towards fulfilling the commitments made at the 2010 NPT Review Conference.  The announcement is expected to form a key plank of the UK's statement at the 2015 NPT Review Conference, scheduled to commence in April in New York, as evidence that the UK is sincere about meeting its disarmament obligations under the Treaty.

As part of the Strategic Defence and Security Review undertaken by the Coalition government on taking office in 2010, the Cabinet Office undertook a 'Value for Money' review of the Trident nuclear weapons programme, which concluded that the UK could deliver nuclear deterrence credibly with a smaller nuclear weapons capability.  Mr Fallon's statement indicates that reductions in the currently deployed capability have now appear to have been delivered, and the government has said that the Trident 'successor' programme will also be based around the new lower level of capability.

Although undertaken as a cost-saving measure resulting from the need to reduce the defence equipment budget and public spending following the 2008 banking crisis, the reduction in nuclear forces has been presented internationally by the UK government as a step taken towards meeting its disarmament obligations.

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