'Supreme National Interests': The Official History of Britain's Strategic Nuclear Deterrent and the Chevaline Programme, 1962-1982

Lead Research Organisation: University of Nottingham
Department Name: American and Canadian Studies

Abstract

In the late 1960s, it became apparent to Britain's most senior defence planners that the ability of the United Kingdom's Polaris submarine-launched ballistic missiles to reach their targets in the Soviet Union was threatened by the deployment of a new Soviet anti-ballistic missile (ABM) system around Moscow. After prolonged debate, it was decided in 1970 by the new Conservative Government to begin a feasibility and project definition study for a highly-secret Polaris improvement programme which was designed to give the missiles the capability to penetrate Soviet ABM defences. Having rejected other alternative options, in late 1973 full development of the improved system was approved by ministers. Despite intense budgetary pressures, growing technical problems with the project (leading to major escalation), and anti-nuclear sentiment within the Labour Party, the Labour Government that assumed office in 1974 continued with the project, restricting knowledge of what was now called the Chevaline programme to only a small group of ministers and top officials. When its existence was revealed to the House of Commons in January 1980, immediate attention was drawn to the high costs of the programme (then amounting to about £1 billion), the technical problems it had apparently encountered, and the consequent slips in timescale. In 1982, just a few months before Chevaline was finally deployed, the Public Accounts Committee issued a report which heavily criticised the Ministry of Defence's management of the whole programme, and the way it had been hidden from any form of parliamentary scrutiny since instigation of feasibility and project definition. The Chevaline programme has since become renowned as one of the most controversial aspects of post-war British defence policy.
The proposed research will examine the history of the Polaris improvement programme in the context of the development of the British strategic nuclear deterrent from the decision to acquire the Polars system at the Nassau Conference in December 1962, to the final deployment of Chevaline two decades later. The focus of the research will be on the policymaking of successive British governments as they sought to maintain the credibility of the deterrent, and the problems that were faced by the improvement programme during the 1970s, as timescales slipped and costs escalated. The research will result in the production of a volume in the Cabinet Office's official history series, and will constitute a comprehensive and standard work of reference on the subject, of interest to academics, policymakers, and a more general audience interested in modern British history, defence policy, and the topical issues surrounding Britain's continued possession of a strategic nuclear deterrent.

Planned Impact

The connections and parallels that can be drawn between the issues raised by the current debate over the future of Britain's strategic nuclear weapons programme with previous periods of policy toward the deterrent, are the key areas where the proposed research has the capacity to produce impact. In December 2006, the Ministry of Defence published a White Paper ('The Future of the United Kingdom's Nuclear Deterrent', Cmnd 6994) which argued the case for retention of a nuclear deterrent capability, and outlined the Government's intention to replace the current force of four Vanguard class Trident submarines when they reached the end of their service life in the 2020s, with a new class of ballistic missile carrying submarines. The formation of a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition Government in May 2010 brought into office two parties with starkly contrasting approaches to the issue of Trident renewal. This was given graphic illustration by the production in May 2011 of a further document by the Ministry of Defence ('The United Kingdom's Future Nuclear Deterrent: The Submarine: Initial Gate Parliamentary Report'), which explained that around £900 million had been spent since 2007 on initial submarine design work, and other investment in the successor system programme, and that before a final Main Gate decision point was reached in 2016 (when contracts for building the submarines would actually need to be placed) a further £3 billion was to be committed to certain long lead items and design services with contractors. Although total programme costs were still estimated at £15-20 billion, the delay of the Main Gate decision to 2016 means that the first new submarine would not be available until the late 2020s. However, along with his announcement of the Initial Gate investment and in recognition of the Coalition Government Agreement, the Secretary of State for Defence also established a Cabinet Office-led study to review the costs, feasibility and credibility alternative deterrent systems and postures. The approach of the next general election in 2015 is likely to feature a renewed debate over Britain's strategic nuclear weapons policy, in view of the differing stance of the main political parties over the issue of Trident renewal.

Discussion and debate concerning the past, present and future of British strategic nuclear weapons policy has arguably never been more topical and is of major political and policymaking importance. One example of current interest is the recent formation of the UK Project on Nuclear Issues under the auspices of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), which has been formed as a forum to foster debate over nuclear policy, and transfer knowledge from current specialists to a new generation of nuclear specialists in the military, academic, industry, and policy communities. Within the context outlined above, and outside academia, the research conducted in compiling the official history, and its final publication, will therefore benefit:

1. Officials in central government engaged in policy debates concerning the future of the strategic nuclear deterrent. Relevant departments here include the Ministry of Defence, who initially suggested the project for treatment as an official history, the Cabinet Office, who sponsor and support the whole official history programme, and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Volumes in the official history series are expressly commissioned with the idea of 'learning from history' in an effort to inform current policymakers.

2. Professional groups and opinion-formers, such as those at RUSI, ready to engage with Britain's past nuclear history and apply this knowledge to current issues and concerns.

3. Informed members of the public and media commentators keen to learn more about the history and background to current UK strategic nuclear policy.
 
Description Briefing for Treasury officials on the cost escalation and problems of the Chevaline programme 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Policymakers/parliamentarians
Results and Impact This briefing (held on 29 November 2012) informed current Treasury officials engaged in funding issues related to the current operation of the deterrent to about the financial problems encountered during the Chevaline programme during the 1970s, and included reflection on relations between the Treasury and Ministry of Defence on nuclear matters.

The convening Treasury official of the briefing has kept an informal dialogue going concerning some of the issues we covered.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2012
 
Description Briefing for senior Whitehall officials on history of UK deterrent policy 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Policymakers/parliamentarians
Results and Impact The briefing on UK deterrent policy (held on 20 November 2012) was attended by senior Cabinet Office, Ministry of Defence and FCO officials. The briefing itself was conducted at a high level of security classification.

The convenor of the meeting expressed his appreciation for my presentation and the Q and A that followed as it gave his colleagues an insight into the historical issues and problems that serve as the background to the current conception of deterrent policy
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2012
 
Description History and Policy seminar held at Treasury building 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Policymakers/parliamentarians
Results and Impact This was a seminar for Whitehalll officials organised by the History and Policy group at Kings College London (held on 18 September 2013) where an outline of the Chevaline programme was offered; the aim of the session was to extract relevant lessons for current policymakers.

Feedback from officials was very good, and it helped to stimulate better understanding of the historical problems of maintaining an effective UK deterrent force.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2013
 
Description Ministry of Defence 'learning from history' seminar 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Policymakers/parliamentarians
Results and Impact This seminar, held on 26 September 2013, was designed specifically to extract the relevant lessons of the Chevaline programme for current policymakers and officials at the Ministry of Defence: topics covered included programme management and technical risk, as well as the relationship between defence scientists and senior officials.

The Ministry of Defence official who convened the seminar was very pleased with the outcome, which he felt had given those present a deeper insight into the pitfalls of such major nuclear programmes.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2013
 
Description Presentation to Defence Science and Technology Laboratory on technical aspects of Chevaline programme 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact This presentation, held on 3 December 2013, was on some of the technical challenges and problems faced during the Chevaline programme and delivered to an audience at DSTL, an off-shoot of the Ministry of Defence which specialises in advice and support in the defence science and technology field.

The convenor of the seminar was very pleased with the outcome, feeling that DSTL officials had been exposed to some of the longer-term historical issues and problems involved with maintaining the credibility of the deterrent when faced with a swiftly changing technological environment.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2013