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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 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. Extrapolating individual costs for the nuclear deterrent from within that structure is not straightforward.

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 associated warhead. The decision to procure Trident, as it 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 £20 billion in 2021-22 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 (£2.8 billion for 2021-22 based on current defence expenditure).

Cost of the Dreadnought programme

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 in £31 billion, including inflation over the life of the programme. A £10 billion contingency has also been set aside.

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 one must make assumptions 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.

Additional costs

Outside of the Dreadnought submarine programme, there are several preparatory and enabling costs associated with extending the existing deterrent and developing future systems, including:

  • Participation in the US-led Trident Service-Life Extension programme.
  • Extension of the service-life of the current Vanguard-class SSBN.
  • A replacement warhead for the Trident II D5A missile from the 2040s.
  • 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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