Senior civil servants have handed David Cameron proposals to radically reshape the way in which the UK's nuclear weapons programme is managed, following a confidential review undertaken by the Ministry of Defence (MoD).
The four-month review was undertaken before the election by Jon Thompson, the top civil servant at the MoD, and Air Chief Marshal Sir Stuart Peach, vice-chief of the defence staff, amid claims that the UK's nuclear weapons programme is in a “complete mess”, according to The Times newspaper.
One of the options considered by the review team is said to be the creation of a dedicated new nuclear command, which would bring all military and civilian defence personnel involved in nuclear weapons policy-making, the Trident submarine programme, and the Atomic Weapons Establishment, together into a single unit.
Concerns are growing within government that the Ministry of Defence and its industrial partners are facing difficulties in delivering the programme to upgrade the infrastructure and facilities needed to deliver a fleet of Trident replacement submarines, costing billions of pounds. “The whole nuclear side of things is in a complete mess,” a senior defence source told The Times, and there is “a concern that the issues were symptomatic” of a wider malaise.
Earlier this year Nuclear Information Service reported that flagship construction projects at the centre of plans to rebuild the Atomic Weapons Establishment had been put on hold following a series of setbacks. Large-scale construction projects for new facilities are also underway at the BAE Systems shipyard at Barrow-in-Furness, where the new Trident submarines are to be manufactured, and the Rolls-Royce plant in Derby, where submarine nuclear reactors are built. More new infrastructure is expected to be built at HM Naval Base Clyde, where the new submarines will be based.
Anxieties also extend to the submarine programme following the discovery of a leak in a reactor at the onshore test facility at HMS Vulcan at Dounreay in Scotland. As a result of the discovery HMS Vanguard is to have an unplanned second refit, at a cost of £120 million, and other submarines in the Vanguard fleet may also require refit. A separate technical study is underway to establish whether the UK has the nuclear propulsion capability to continue to maintain the policy of ensuring that a nuclear armed submarine is on patrol at all times.
The review, which was endorsed by Defence Secretary Michael Fallon, covered the whole of the MoD's 'nuclear enterprise' – all operations related to the Trident nuclear weapons programme, covering dockyards, submarines, and warhead manufacturing and maintenance. As well as considering civil service and military involvement in the nuclear enterprise the review has also focused on the role industry plays in delivering the programme. Key nuclear contractors such as BAE Systems, Babcock, and Serco have been involved in the review process and it is expected that arrangements for contracts relating to delivery of the Trident programme will be scrutinised and consolidated as a result of the review.
The review is believed to have highlighted confusion over where accountability lies for delivering the fleet of 'Successor' class Trident replacement submarines, with lines of responsibility currently extending to the Cabinet Office, MoD headquarters, MoD's Defence Equipment and Support organisation, and the Royal Navy.
There is a similar lack of clarity over who is responsible for the MoD's nuclear estate, which includes the facilities at Barrow, Derby, and the Atomic Weapons Establishment as well as naval dockyards at the Clyde and Devonport.
The review report is on the Prime Minister's desk for action immediately after the election, with recommendations hinging in part around the direction nuclear weapons policies will take under the new government.
“There is going to be a major shake-up one way or another because it cannot continue as it is now,” an MoD insider told The Times.
“It is such a huge job to control the relationship with the United States, build the weapons, run the current flotilla and build the new flotilla. It means more work, responsibility and money than the army, the air force or the surface fleet.”
It is likely that proposals to reshape the nuclear enterprise will be further developed during the Strategic Defence and Security Review, which will take place during the summer and early autumn, and will inform next spring's 'Main Gate' decision on Trident replacement. According to the Herald newspaper, a new Cabinet subcommittee has now been set up to drive through the Trident replacement programme, and as part of its role the subcommittee is likely to oversee progress on major construction projects associated with the programme.
A spokesperson for the MoD said: “We regularly review all major programmes, including those relating to the nuclear deterrent, to ensure that they continue to operate in the most efficient and effective manner possible.”