Is Trident about to be ditched?

1:45 pm - July 21st 2010

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contribution by Tim Fenton

The issue of defence is moving swiftly right now: I’d barely written about the lobby groups in favour when Liam Fox, minister with special responsibility for keeping foot out of mouth, held forth at the Farnborough air show and said this about the UK’s defence programme:

The defence programme is entirely unaffordable – especially if we try to do what we need to do in the future while simultaneously doing everything that we’ve done in the past

Fox has also been urging defence contractors and suppliers to “improve value for money to the taxpayer”, amid rumours that the capital cost of the Trident Missile System, formerly paid by the Treasury, would have to come out of his budget – if the system were to be replaced.

So, how much would it cost? Well, at today’s prices – and, it should be borne in mind, prices in the defence arena have a nasty but all too common tendency to escalate over time – we’re talking around 17 billion quid over ten years. And that, as far as is known, is just the capital element.

With operational costs bundled in, we could be looking at two and a half billion every year – maybe more. With the coalition looking for savings anywhere they can be found, the defence supplier that offers an air delivered nuclear option at a fraction of that – say half a billion a year – may find doors opening rather easily at the MoD.

But what of the opposition from the Royal Navy and its allies in the Fourth Estate? Indeed. Hence any move to force a debate on Trident early on in the life of this Government: the hope will be that settling the issue, and containing the chorus of dissent now, will mean that a less grand nuclear future would be established, and accepted, when a General Election comes round.

How might we know that the Government is moving to consider ditching Trident?

Expect the usual suspects in the Tory cheerleading part of the blogosphere to start suggesting that Trident is not such a big deal, that nothing should be ruled out of an upcoming defence review, and that we have to equip our soldiers properly while getting the best value for money. I’ll give that a fortnight tops.

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Reader comments

The coalition agreement leaves wiggle room for a cheaper alternative, and doesn’t specify on what basis an alternative would be judged suitable.

It’s a loophole big enough you could sail a Polaris sub through it.

2. gwenhwyfaer

My first thought, when I heard that Liam Fox had announced that the Treasury were seeking to have the DoD pay for Trident out of their budget, was that Liam Fox would be going in the very short term, paving the way for someone a little more sanguine about disposing of Trident in the long term. Let’s face it, all the known right-wingers in the Cabinet have been set up to fail in a none too subtle way; IDS has had his plans for welfare filleted, Michael Gove appears to have become one with his hobby horse in a profound and spiritual way, Liam Fox seems too disgusted to be capable of basic discretion, and William Hague has to try and get anywhere in Europe after having forced the Tories to essentially go insane in the European parliament. It could be funny. If you aren’t, you know, poor, or in need of an education, or trying to fight a useless unwinnable war.

Thinking about the “we must have an independent deterrent” argument: Can someone comment on the constraints that nuclear powers are bound to, about the kind of deterrent they commission?

Could the UK effectively do a unilateral disarmament by scrapping trident, but then commission some new, leaner, land or sea based system, in, say, a decade (when we’ve somehow recovered from the financial crisis and associated deficit, and when a new geopolitical order might demand a new deterrent)? Or, once a country disarms, does it effectively get cut-out of the nuclear club and become bound by other non-proliferation treaties?

@3 Robert

We seem to be ignoring the Non-Proliferation Treaty anyway.

I suspect the idea that we need a nuclear deterrent is based on assesments over the next couple of decades rather than the next five years. After all, what use are nukes in asymmetrical warfare when the opponent hasn’t even got a country? The military and political strategists are looking at a future where Western power will be in decline and there will be a greater pressure on resources as well as environmental chickens coming home to roost.

The question must be how we ensure our security in a cost-effective way? Any government should ask this question as the MoD has been disastrous at managing its finances. Unfortunately dogma has crept in, so the idea that privatisation will magic things better was introduced by New Labour and will now be heartily endorsed by the ConDems.

We seem to be ignoring the Non-Proliferation Treaty anyway.

In what way?

@5 We’re supposed to phase out our nukes, not replace them.

I posted this in a previous thread here about Diane Abbott and Trident:

“What’s so worrying is the absence of convincing signs that ministers or the military hierarchy are getting to grips with the rising threats from either asymmetrical warfare and subversion or cyberwarfare, all of which are relatively inexpensive options for present or prospective enemies of Britain to engage in. Moreover, the Trident missile system isn’t an effective deterrent against these threats.”

Who knows, maybe someone in the cabinet office or the Ministry of Defence reads Liberal Conspiracy threads.

Cutting Trident without abandoning BAE’s whole UK nuclear submarine building business in Barrow would defeat much of the cost savings – hence expect an almighty lobby to stop the whole business crumbling.

Both MOD and BAE think that a nuclear powered sub must be built every 2 years to efficiently use the new and expensive sub building facilities – as described in the Defence Industrial Policy. With Trident and SSN (hunter-killers – Astute class being the latest) being built that just about hangs together. Cancel Trident, then we must accept higher costs on SSNs, or abandon the business.

The maths goes like this: UK nuclear subs last about 25 years (conveniently less than US subs); so allowing a bit of slippage we need a fleet of 11 or 12 nuclear powered subs to use the Barrow facility efficiently. The plan is 7 Astutes plus 4 new Trindent subs = 11 subs, so everyone fairly happy and yards busy and churning money at a nice rate. Cancel Trident, then problems for BAE and the sub facilities; so much lobbying.

Under Labour the MP for Barrow was (crazily) Minister for Defence – John Hutton. So you could hardly expect much independent thinking there from the MOD!

Tories get few votes in Barrow, but will they want to shut down the whole UK nuclear submarine building business?

9. Just Visiting

rwedland, that is an interesting angle on it.

The stark fact is that Trident is neither affordable in the current economic climate, nor an effective use of the limited defence budget. A fraction of the cost of Trident would make a huge difference to basic equipment needs of the armed services, whether personal protection equipment for service personnel in the field, extra helicopters and armoured vehicles, or even better pay and conditions for service personnel and their families.

For the kinds of conflict we are likely to be involved in, we’d be much better off spending some of the Trident money on new aircraft carriers, other equipment necessary for force projection, and mproving the “teeth to tail” imbalance in the MoD. the rest of any saving can be diverted to helping plug the huge deficit…. simple for even a Tory to understand.

11. rwendland

Continuing on my theme that the Trident replacement is strongly linked with the future of BAE’s nuclear submarine building business at Barrow.

Current Astute SSN plans for 7 boats would keep Barrow fully busy until about 2016, and at half capacity onto about 2018. That’s the underlying reason MOD and BAE want to start soon on designing the Trident replacement subs now, so build can follow on seemlessly after the Astute class.

Astute boats 6 and 7 could realistically be not proceeded with with little cost penalty (only a few long-lead items ordered), which would bring work at Barrow to an end around 2014. If we are in serious military cuts I would expect to see this happen – continuing to 7 Astutes but with a cut back surface fleet would be very unbalanced. But that would make any replacement Trident subs much more expensive as BAE would claw back the costs of maintaining an idle yard.

The obvious fix of cut-price exporting to fill the idle gap is not possible with nuclear powered subs. Besides the problem that the power plant uses bomb-grade uranium, they are packed full of secret technology, much licensed from the US who would almost certainly not allow re-export.

It might be possible to build some non-submarine military ships, but that is poor use of this specialist facility.

Converting to non-nuclear powered subs would be extremely difficult. The Germans (also France, Spain, Russia) have this market sewed up with advanced Air-independent propulsion (fuel cells) – we would have an impossible amount to catch up for a small market. (Had we been smart this is the market with worldwide export potential, and fuel cell spin off technology, we should have got into.)

Really we should be looking at cancelling Trident and exiting the nuclear submarine building business around 2014. But the lobby against that will be ferocious, unions & BAE & Roll Royce (reactors) & sub-contractors & Navy & all the union-jack wavers. I’d hope we have an interesting reasoned argument on this, but I suspect the result will be a trampling by the vested interest holders.

@11 rwendland

Presumably if Trident is scrapped, some of the resources could be channelled into either increasing the number of Astute class subs, working on long term replacements for those in service or being built, and/or diversifying into other projects? It’s understandable that the vested interests involved will fight tooth and nail to preserve jobs in Barrow… but that hasn’t stopped successive governements in the past pulling out of areas they didn’t feel were worthwhile. the decisions may not always have been right, but any special pleading is unlikely to cut much ice in current economic circumstances.

If properly redirected, the amount saved on Trident would do a lot to secure other programmes, as well as having a much greater positive impact on our national security. It’s hard to see why more of the top brass in the forces aren’t putting forward the advantages of scrapping Trident and diverting the funds elsewhere: unless of course they feel it wouldn’t be diverted into other defence spending at all!

13. rwendland


I omitted to say Barrow shipbuilding does other activities than submarines, so there is scope for some redirection there. eg it is currently building an aircraft carrier section. But the UK is not economic for building non military/specialist ships, so essentially that would take Navy ship building from other yards. I don’t understand the UK-wide scene, but I suspect that would be difficult – though as you say saving on Trident could fund other new Navy ships.

There is I think little scope for building more Astute class subs – sticking with the 7 in the current climate would I think be regarded as the high end – though originally 8 were conceived. I think the current official target SSN number is 8, down from 10 in the 1998 SDR. (6 older Trafalgar class submarine are still in service.) That compares with 12 surface ships Destroyer or larger now, planned to reduce to 11.

Contraction at Barrow looks painful, but I think it has to come. Military-industrial work is very expensive per person employed. I think the govt needs to focus spending in areas that supports the most jobs per amount spent, to try to constrain UK unemployment.

14. Rhys Williams

Fox is talking sense.
As ex serviceman, true I left in the early eighties. I have witnessed the waste.
Why do we need Trident, when even the US have been converting their subs to roles such a covert operations, not mass destruction.
We are a small nation, do we need Trident ?
Do we need Officers to have servants to feed them and wash their clothes.
Massive state pensions after 22 year service, is that right

In a letter to The Times last year, three retired military commanders urged the Government to scrap the plan to replace the Trident nuclear deterrent:

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  1. Liberal Conspiracy

    Is Trident about to be ditched?

  2. John Halton

    RT @libcon: Is Trident about to be ditched? /// No. It's just pre-spending review brinksmanship. Next question?

  3. Derek Bryant

    RT @libcon: Is Trident about to be ditched?

  4. Jasper Sharpe

    RT @libcon: Is Trident about to be ditched?

  5. andrew

    Is Trident about to be ditched? | Liberal Conspiracy: Who knows, maybe someone in the cabinet office or the Minist…

  6. Therese

    Watch this space very closely indeed… RT @libcon Is Trident about to be ditched?

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