Vanguard, Dreadnought, and Holbrook: the UK’s nuclear upgrade triad

Royal Navy nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines, Trident II D5 missiles, and the current Mk4/A Holbrook warhead form the UK’s nuclear deterrent. Richard Thomas reports.

As the UK’s current nuclear deterrent nears the end of its service life, a new generation of submarines and warheads are under development. Credit: UK MoD/Crown copyright

As UK defence prime Babcock announces a contract for a deep maintenance and life extension (LIFEX) process for the nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) HMS Victorious, parallel programmes are also running that will introduce an entirely new nuclear weapon capability to the Royal Navy.

Revealing the estimated £560m ($707m) LIFEX programme with the UK Submarine Delivery Agency (SDA) on 1 March, the upgrade to HMS Victorious, one of four Vanguard-class SSBNs in service with the Royal Navy, will see the vessel continue “well into the 2030s”.

The cost of HMS Victorious’s maintenance is significantly more than the work carried out to HMS Vengeance, which underwent a refit from March 2012 to February 2016 at a cost of £322m and included a refuel of the boat’s reactor and update to its electronics and machinery.

HMS Victorious is the second Vanguard-class submarine to undergo a LIFEX package at Babcock’s Devonport facility, which itself is undergoing an extensive modernisation programme that includes improvements to submarine sustainment facilities, including the ability to defuel decommissioned nuclear-powered submarines.

The UK’s Atomic Weapons Establishment is among the most secretive sites in the country, and is where nuclear warheads are maintained and manufactured. Credit: Ben Gingell via Shutterstock

Likely home for at least the next four years, 5 Basin at Babcock’s Devonport Royal Dockyard houses HMS Victorious, which will require 7.2 million personnel hours of work to be carried out in order to provide a third and final commission for the vessel before it leaves service.

HMS Victorious will see upgrades to 90% of its systems, including the combat management system, as part of its complex LIFEX programme.

The first in class, HMS Vanguard, sailed out of Devonport in mid-2023 after a delayed seven-year long LIFEX programme that included a refuelling of its nuclear reactor. It is understood that the reactor of HMS Victorious will not be refuelled during its upcoming multi-year stay in 5 Basin and 9 Dock.

Once the LIFEX of HMS Victorious is completed, Boat 3 (HMS Vigilant) will take its place for its own refit. 

Dreadnought programme progresses

Meanwhile, in October 2023 the UK Royal Navy announced that construction of the largest segment of the future HMS Dreadnought – lead boat of a new class of ballistic missile submarines – had been completed at the BAE Systems submarine yard in Barrow-in-Furness, Cumbria. The new class will replace the current Vanguard SSBNs in Royal Navy service.

BAE Systems was originally contracted in 2012 to begin its initial design of the four future SSBNs – Dreadnought, Warspite, Valiant, and King George VI – and another detailed design task in 2015. Upon completion, the Dreadnought-class will become the Royal Navy’s largest submarines, with a length of 153.6m and displacement of 17,200t. 

The new Dreadnought-class SSBNs are currently under construction. Credit: UK Royal Navy

The four boats will replace the incumbent Vanguard class and thought to feature new technologies derived from the new Astute-class nuclear-powered attack submarines, including a new pressurised water nuclear reactor design.

Speaking in January 2024, UK Defence Procurement Minister James Cartlidge stated that the Dreadnought programme remained “on track” to replace the Vanguard class, at a cost “within the original £31 billion plus £10 billion contingency budget made in the Strategic Defence and Security Review 2015.” 

UK upgrading its Mk4/A ‘Holbrook’ nuclear warheads

While the LIFEX processes of the Vanguard class and the ongoing build of the new Dreadnought boats are well understood, the UK Government has been engaged in secretive work to develop a new type of nuclear warhead that will form the centrepiece of the country’s nuclear deterrent.

Each of the Vanguard-class SSBNs can each carry up to 16 Trident II D5 ballistic missiles, which contain up to eight multiple independent targetable re-entry vehicles (MIRVs) housing Mk4/A ‘Holbrook’ nuclear warheads with a yield of up to 100 kilotons. The new Dreadnought class will be able to accommodate 12 Trident II D5 missiles.

The nuclear weapon dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, during WW2 had a reported yield of 25 kilotons.

The UK maintains its nuclear warheads at Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) Aldermaston and Burghfield in Berkshire, west of London, with the sites in 2020 announced that they would be brought back into UK Government control from a consortium led by US defence prime Lockheed Martin.

In 2021, the UK announced that it would increase the number of nuclear warheads in stock, from around 225 currently to about 260. The UK’s current warheads are claimed to be of a UK design but thought to be derived from the US-origin W76 weapon. 

A Trident II D5 Missile, fired from HMS Vanguard in 2005, contains the UK’s only nuclear weapons capability. Credit: UK MoD/Crown copyright

An unexpected outing also in 2020 by a senior US Navy official, speaking to the US Senate, of a joint US-UK nuclear warhead upgrade initiative called the W93/Mk7, prompted the then UK Secretary of State for Defence Ben Wallace to confirm the existence of a UK warhead replacement programme.

The new UK warhead will be designed, developed, and manufactured in the UK and housed in the US Mk7 aeroshell, which will house the planned W93 warhead. The Mk7 aeroshell will be procured from the US along with some other non-nuclear components under existing nuclear treaty arrangements, stated a 2023 UK parliamentary report.

Although relatively little is known about the potential costs of creating a new nuclear warhead, it is thought that the UK could spend up to £4bn on the programme.

A March announcement by the UK Ministry of Defence revealed the Government’s plan to develop a new “sovereign warhead” for use in the Trident II D5 missiles as part of a wider strategy revealed in its Defence Nuclear Command Paper. In the same document, the UK Government confirmed it had completed the upgrade of its current warheads from the Mk4 to the Mk4A variant.

The UK Government stated in the paper that the Replacement Warhead Programme had been designated the A21/Mk7 (also known as Astraea) and was being delivered in parallel with the US W93/Mk7 warhead, with each nation developing a sovereign design.

However, in February it was revealed that UK tests of the Trident II D5 ballistic missile weapon system off the US east coast had suffered a second successive failure, raising questions about the ability of the UK’s existing nuclear deterrent.  

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Australia could be one of the main beneficiaries of this dramatic increase in demand, where private companies and local governments alike are eager to expand the country’s nascent rare earths production. In 2021, Australia produced the fourth-most rare earths in the world. It’s total annual production of 19,958 tonnes remains significantly less than the mammoth 152,407 tonnes produced by China, but a dramatic improvement over the 1,995 tonnes produced domestically in 2011.

The dominance of China in the rare earths space has also encouraged other countries, notably the US, to look further afield for rare earth deposits to diversify their supply of the increasingly vital minerals. With the US eager to ringfence rare earth production within its allies as part of the Inflation Reduction Act, including potentially allowing the Department of Defense to invest in Australian rare earths, there could be an unexpected windfall for Australian rare earths producers.

Total annual production

$345m: Lynas Rare Earth's planned investment into Mount Weld.

Phillip Day. Credit: Scotgold Resources