The UK has been secretly upgrading its arsenal of Trident nuclear weapons and is working on a new warhead, a report shows.
The UK Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) is running a program to produce a more powerful and accurate nuclear warhead called the “Mark4A,” the Nuclear Information Service (NIS), a London-based research body, reported Tuesday.
The Mark 4A warhead program is running in tandem with a US program that seeks to improve the performance of the W76 warhead and extend its operational lifetime, the NIS says.
A joint working group of British and American experts has also been established to allow collaboration on the program, and new warheads have been tested at Sandia National Laboratories in the US.
“The Mark 4A warhead modification program will allow Trident nuclear warheads to remain in service until the middle of this century, and plenty of money is being spent to pave the way for developing a new generation warhead which will remain in service for even longer,” said Peter Burt, a research manager with the NIS.
The British Parliament has been kept in the dark about the upgrade program’s cost and timetables, according to the report.
The existence of the program has been confirmed in a July 2014 letter by the Ministry of Defense, where Jon Thompson, then top civil servant at the Ministry of Defense, confirms Dr. Paul Hollinshead’s appointment as the senior official responsible for the “nuclear warhead capability sustainment program.”
Hollinshead was also put in charge of “commencement of Mk4A production in accordance with the Trident Manufacture Plan,” the letter shows.
The report revealed that AWE’s design studies for the new warhead have already cost British taxpayers nearly £85 million.
Prime Minister David Cameron’s government is expected to submit a Commons motion in favor of retiring the existing fleet of Trident submarines and replacing them with four new boats.
The government put the cost at £31bn, but has set aside a £10bn contingency fund in the event of overruns.
So far the Ministry of Defense has refused to disclose the Trident program’s overall cost on the grounds that it is classified. The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, however, has estimated that it will cost at least £205 billion.
“The government is committed to maintaining minimum continuous at-sea deterrence to deter the most extreme threats to the UK and to protect our vital interests; a decision on replacing the warhead will be taken when necessary,” said a ministry spokesperson.