It is assumed by almost every commentator in Westminster, and of course Britain’s entire military establishment, in pubic at least, that replacing the Trident nuclear missile system (I hesitate to call it a deterrent, see below) with four new submarines, is inevitable.
It may not turn out to be as easy or as comfortable as the UK government, many Labour MPs, and some unions confidently predict.
For a start, the cost is likely to be far in excess of what ministers claim. This alone could have a serious impact on other ships the navy really needs, including a new generation of frigates due to be built in Glasgow in a project scheduled to start sometime in 2016. (Trident subs are built at Barrow, Cumbria, as are the navy’s fleet of nuclear-powered Astute subs).
Renewing Trident is the biggest project the ministry was ever going to tackle, Jon Thompson, top official at the Ministry of Defence, told the Commons public accounts committee in a little-noticed evidence session on 14 October (reported by the US publication, Defense News).
Thomson described the Trident successor project as “the single biggest future financial risk we face”. He added: “The project is a monster. It’s an incredibly complicated area to estimate future costs but”, he quickly added in deference to his political masters, “we will make them”.
The government says building four new Trident subs would cost £25bn. The defence secretary, Michael Fallon, has said he does not recognise the widely-quoted £100bn cost of Trident over a 30-year lifespan.
That figure is now being questioned, not by the usual suspects among anti-nuclear campaigners, but by a leading Tory MP.
Crispin Blunt, former army officer and new chairman of the Commons foreign affairs committee, has calculated that, on the basis of the government’s own figures, the overall cost of replacing and maintaining the Trident system would amount to £167bn, significantly more than estimated so far, even by Trident’s opponents.
Blunt was responding to an answer he got from defence procurement minister Philip Dunne who told him that Trident’s running costs would be about 6% of the UK’s annual defence budget over its lifetime. “My office’s calculation based on an in-service date of 2028 and a missile extension until 2060 … the total cost is £167 bn”, Blunt told Reuters news agency.
“The successor Trident programme is going to consume more than double the proportion of the defense budget of its predecessor … The price required, both from the UK taxpayer and our conventional forces, is now too high to be rational or sensible.”
SNP deputy leader, Stewart Hosie, was quick to respond:
“This is truly an unthinkable and indefensible sum of money to spend on the renewal of an unwanted and unusable nuclear weapons system.”
The MoD, meanwhile, has signed a £859m development deal to build a new generation of frigates, the Type 26 “global combat ship”, on the Clyde. Manufacturing is due to start next year in a project which, the UK government says, would safeguard 1,700 jobs, including 600 in Scotland.
The royal navy, desperately short of surface ships, wants 13 of the new frigates. Yet defence officials are already expressing deep scepticism about whether the UK could afford so many given the budgetary pressures caused by Trident. The MoD also says it hopes the Type 26 frigate project could lead to new export orders – something Trident will never benefit from.
It is always worth remembering what, in his memoirs, A Journey, Tony Blair said of Trident: “The expense is huge and the utility … non-existent in terms of military use.” He said he could clearly see the force of the “common sense and practical argument” against Trident, but in the end he thought that giving it up would be “too big a downgrading of our status as a nation”.
Michael Clarke, director general of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) thinktank, told me:
“The one thing that politicians don’t address when they talk about Britain’s nuclear weapons is how they do, or don’t, actually figure in practical defence policy for the next 10 or 20 years. It is really very depressing.”
Is Labour, now of all times – when it has a leader who is honest about (never) pressing the nuclear button (whatever else one thinks of him) – going to go down in history supporting a weapons system which is useless in practice, and whose credibility is based on an assumption that a rational British prime minister would order submarine commanders to launch a Trident intercontinental ballistic missile nuclear weapon against an imagined enemy?