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Since the acquisition of the UK’s first strategic nuclear deterrent in the 1950s, the cost of procuring and maintaining it, and which Government department should finance it, has always been a matter of debate.

Ascertaining precise costs for the nuclear deterrent can be difficult, as this information is not easily available from public sources. The nuclear deterrent is also supported by an overarching, and complex, network of programmes, infrastructure, equipment and people, which is referred to as the Defence Nuclear Enterprise. Separating out individual costs for the nuclear deterrent from within that structure is not straightforward. Synergies between the civilian nuclear sector and the defence nuclear enterprise complicate that picture further.

Cost of the current nuclear deterrent

The UK’s current nuclear deterrent is provided by four Vanguard-class ballistic missile submarines (SSBN) which house the Trident II D5A missile and its Mk4/ Holbrook warhead. The decision to procure Trident, as the deterrent is more commonly referred, was taken in the early 1980s. Spending on the programme was largely complete by the time of the 1998 Strategic Defence Review. Total acquisition expenditure on the programme was £12.52 billion, which equates to approximately £21 billion in 2022/23 prices.

Annual in-service costs, which also include the costs of the Atomic Weapons Establishment and the Nuclear Warhead Sustainment Capability Programme, basing, decommissioning and disposals, are currently estimated at 6% of the defence budget (£3 billion for 2023/24 based on current planned expenditure).

Replacing the nuclear deterrent 

A programme is currently underway to replace the Vanguard-class submarines from the early 2030s.

The estimated cost of the design and manufacture of a new Dreadnought- class of four SSBN is £31 billion, including inflation over the life of the programme. A £10 billion contingency has also been set aside, making a potential total for the programme of £41 billion. 20% of that contingency has been accessed to date.

In-service costs are expected to continue at approximately 6% of the defence budget. Calculating overall in-service costs for the Dreadnought class is, however, fraught with difficulty as assumptions must be made about the level of defence spending into the early 2060s, what will constitute in-service costs in the future and what the UK economy may look like. For that reason, several cost estimates exist for the total cost of the Dreadnought programme over its service life.

A programme to replace the UK’s nuclear warhead was confirmed in February 2020. The programme is in its early stages and the MOD has not yet assigned an estimated total cost. It is expected that the Replacement Warhead programme will be funded outside of the current Nuclear Warhead Capability Sustainment Programme.  

Wider costs

Outside of the Dreadnought submarine and replacement warhead programmes, there are several wider costs associated with extending the existing deterrent and developing future systems:

  • Participation in the US-led Trident Service-Life Extension programme.
  • Extension of the service-life of the current Vanguard-class SSBN.
  • Various nuclear infrastructure projects.

Who will pay for it?

In line with convention, the Dreadnought programme will be funded from the MOD’s core equipment budget.

There has been a longstanding debate over budgetary responsibility for the nuclear deterrent, with frequent calls made for the capital costs of the replacement programme to be taken out of the Ministry of Defence’s budget. 

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