Dreadnoughts dominate MoD budget

Materials World magazine
1 Jul 2018

Khai Trung Le looks at the new submarines bolstering the UK nuclear arsenal and financial issues that may jeopardise their deployment.

Say goodbye to the spearhead. The Dreadnought-class submarine, first approved in 2011 and previously named the Successor class, will soon supersede the Vanguard-class submarine fleet in the UK nuclear arsenal, collectively known as the Trident system. While the last Vanguard submarine is expected to remain in operation until 2019, the first Dreadnought-class is expected to enter service by 2028. Four Dreadnought submarines will be added to the UK fleet.

Construction began in late 2016 at the BAE Systems Maritime shipyards in Barrow-in-Furness, but recently the escalating defence budget, Trident’s dominance within, and the possibility of shortage despite the increase have drawn strong criticism.


Technical details surrounding the new Dreadnought-class submarines are light, although the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review stated it will house eight operational missiles, carrying as much as 40 warheads. It will be powered by a PWR-3 nuclear reactor – a third-generation British pressurised water reactor, developed in collaboration between the UK and USA. In March 2018, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) received an additional £800m – of which, £600m was specified towards additional costs in the Dreadnought construction. Tony Johns, Managing Director of BAE Systems Submarines, said, ‘This additional financial investment by the MoD is an expression of confidence in our ability to build these sophisticated vessels.’

Sagacious submersibles

A further £2.5bln investment in the UK nuclear submarine programme was announced on 14 May to support the construction of a £1.5bln Astute class submarine, named Agincourt, and the remaining £960m towards the Dreadnought fleet.

UK Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson said during the opening of a BAE Systems sub construction building opening, ‘This multibillion pound investment in our nuclear submarines shows our unwavering commitment to keeping the UK safe and secure from intensifying threats.

‘Agincourt will complete the Royal Navy’s seven-strong fleet of hunter-killer attack subs, the most powerful to ever enter British service, while our nuclear deterrent is the ultimate defence against the most extreme dangers we could possibly face.’ Williamson said the increase will support around 8,000 BAE Systems jobs, ‘as well as thousands more in the supply chain’.

The Fisher Protocol

A week later, on 22 May, the National Audit Office (NAO) found the MoD risks facing a £2.9bln funding gap, as well as skills shortages among contractors, jeopardising its entire Trident programme unless the ‘affordability gap’ is addressed. Meg Hillier, Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, said, ‘In the next 10 years, the MoD must find £2.9bln to plug the gap in funding despite already requiring £3bln in savings. The department will need to make some critical decisions to get the programme on track.’

According to the NAO, design, construction, and maintenance for the nuclear fleet is expected to cost around £50.9bln over the next decade. However, Williamson has repeatedly brought up the need for nuclear weapons as the MoD moves to prevent budget cuts. In late May 2018, he reiterated the potential use for nuclear weapons.

‘It is sometimes difficult to explain to people that actually investing in our armed forces is all about making sure that things do not happen. It is about aircraft carriers, it is about a presence [across the world] with conventional frigates and destroyers that are able to say Britain is interested, Britain cares, Britain will protect our interests and our values.

‘If we do not have that conventional deterrence, and the ability to deter through conventional forces, then we will find ourselves in a place where none of us wish to be – having to turn to the greatest deterrence of them all,’ referring to the nuclear arsenal.