The government is facing accusations that it has misled the public and the international community over the number of missiles which could be carried on the 'Successor' class Trident replacement submarines following the disclosure of details of a contract to build missile tubes for a new submarine.
The Ministry of Defence has struck a £37 million deal with the US Navy to build twelve new missile tubes for the first of the Successor submarines – despite announcing in 2010 that, as a disarmament measure, it would be reducing the number of missiles carried on board each Trident submarine from 12 on the submarines which are currently in service to eight on the replacement boats.
The order for the twelve missile tubes – which form part of a 'Common Missile Compartment' that will be an integral part of both the US and UK's Trident replacement submarines – has been placed even though the UK parliament will not take the main decision on whether to renew Trident nuclear weapons, and how many submarines will be built, until after the next General Election in 2016. An announcement from the US Navy states that a total of 48 missile tubes will be built for four new UK Trident replacement submarines.
In the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review the Government declared “we will reduce the number of operational launch tubes on the submarines from 12 to eight”. This would be done “in line with our commitment vigorously to pursue multilateral global disarmament” and would also deliver cost savings to the Trident replacement project.
Ambassador John Duncan, at the time the UK's Ambassador for Multilateral Arms Control and Disarmament, told a meeting of the the United Nations' First Committee in October 2010 that the UK would “configure the next generation of submarines accordingly with only eight operational missile tubes”.
Critics fear that not only has the government gone back on its disarmament pledge, but a future government could use the additional tubes to expand the UK's nuclear firepower. Scottish Nationalist MP Angus Robertson said: “Extra empty tubes at the cost of millions would be farcical, but sadly that extra capacity gives the UK the ability to quickly escalate nuclear tensions by filling them with missiles and armed warheads”.
John Ainslie of the Scottish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament warned that the MoD was “leaving open the possibility that a future government could increase Britain's nuclear firepower by 50%."
The US Navy awarded a modification to an existing contract with the General Dynamics Electric Boat Corporation on 29 October to fund manufacturing of missile tubes as part of the project to develop a Common Missile Compartment, which will form a common part of the design of the next generation Trident submarines for both nations.
The contract modification has a value of $83.8 million (£52.5 million) of which $59 million (£37 million) will be paid by the UK, with the remainder provided by the USA.
The contract is for 17 missile tubes: 12 of which are for the first of the 'Successor' class Trident replacement submarines, four for the US Navy's Ohio class submarine replacement programme, and a single tube for the US Strategic Weapons System – Ashore (SWSA) test facility at Cape Canaveral, Florida. The contract "represents over five years of design and prototyping efforts between the US and UK governments and their respective industry partners," according to the US Navy.
The Common Missile Compartment will be a jointly-specified common element of both the UK's Successor submarine and the planned replacement for the US 'Ohio' class Trident submarines. The two governments have agreed that the compartment will be a common element of both submarines to allow the Trident II D5 ballistic missile and its eventual replacement to be carried and launched from each of them. Design of the Common Missile Compartment will in turn exert a heavy influence on the design and specifications of the submarines themselves.
A total of 241 missile tubes are currently scheduled to be manufactured: 192 for the planned 12 US Navy Ohio replacement submarines, 48 for four Royal Navy Successor submarines, and one for the SWSA test facility.
Each of the missile tubes will be about 45 feet tall – the height of four-story building - and weigh just over 50 tons.
The Ministry of Defence (MoD) has said new UK Trident submarines will still have only eight "operational" tubes, but has not said what will happen with the other four. "Unfortunately we're not able to go into that level of detail at this stage," an MoD spokesperson said.
The missile compartment was needed to give sufficient space in the centre of the submarine for equipment, services and crew accommodation. "To move away from this common design would add cost and risk into the programme," said the spokesperson.
Costs beyond the first 17 tubes have “yet to be agreed and it would prejudice commercial interests to estimate costs at this stage”. There are no plans to commit to the purchase of further missile tubes before the Trident replacement Main Gate decision in 2016.