THE BLOG

Trident - Decisions Taken and Immediate Prospects

30/11/2015 13:32 GMT | Updated 29/11/2016 10:12 GMT

The SDSR was published last week and now we know:

  • the in-service date for the Trident Successor submarines is to be delayed a third time and that some of the existing Vanguards are expected to patrol into the late 2030s;
  • there will not now be single Main Gate decision taken in the new year after all, because this is 'not appropriate for a programme of this scale and complexity';
  • the cost of delivering the submarines is going up, and will total £31-41Bn (outturn prices);
  • the programme will be put under new management, with greater flexibility and commercial involvement; and
  • there will be a debate focused on the practice of continuous patrolling.

Delay and slippage

BASIC has been advocating delay to the Trident renewal project ever since the debate first emerged a decade ago. There are many advantages in avoiding premature investment in new submarines: saving money; ensuring we account for strategic, budgetary and technical developments; and not least, putting serious effort into the multilateral disarmament and global governance we all say we believe in. The risks of delay to the capability of maintaining patrols has been overstated. The cost of maintaining ageing submarines does increase near the end of their life, but there is no inevitability to their failure.

We were told in the 2006 White Paper that the original 25 year life expectancy could only be extended a maximum of five years and that the first new Successor submarine had to be on patrol by 2024, 18 years from then. Our claims that the life of the existing submarines could probably be extended were strenuously denied. The 2010 SDSR then put off the final investment decision to 2016, and said that the first submarine was not needed until 2028 and extended the assessment phase. In response to BASIC's briefing earlier this year urging a further delay and reassessment of the programme, several experts claimed this to be dangerous and irresponsible. Nine months on the government now does not foresee the first retirement of the Vanguards until the early 2030s. That's a new life expectancy of around 40 years, and is almost 18 years away from now...

It is a shame that these rolling delays have not been exploited to give proper, holistic, informed public consideration of Britain's overall nuclear diplomatic and deterrence strategy.

Increased costs and move away from Main Gate

The shared assumption had been that this project would, like any other defence procurement project, go through a single Main Gate investment decision, after which components are ordered and assembled by the prime contractor according to the plans drawn up in the assessment phase. The Main Gate decision had been expected in early 2016, and that it would trigger a final debate in the Commons.

Main Gate has now been dropped because of the growing complexity of the project, a point driven home by the SDSR. It may be rather surprising to some that officials were so keen to 'big-up' Trident renewal by comparing it to other controversial infrastructure projects:

"This is a national endeavour, and is one of the largest government investment programmes, equivalent in scale to Crossrail or High Speed 2."

This perhaps reflects the pride and to back up the budget demand. Rather different sentiments to those expressed to the Defence Committee by Jon Thomson, MoD's Permanent Secretary, when he described the project as a monster that presented a major threat to the defence budget. The SDSR also said:

"Our latest estimate is that manufacturing the four Successor submarines is likely to cost a total of £31 billion (including inflation over the lifetime of the programme), with the first submarine entering service in the early 2030s. We will also set a contingency of £10 billion."

That is, £31-41 billion on the new submarines (up from the £25bn announced at Initial Gate in 2011 and repeated in the last update to Parliament in December 2014), additional to spend on the infrastructure, missiles, warheads and the running costs of the existing system, money to be found over the next 20 years (not 35 years as frequently implied). This increase in spend was put down to 'the greater understanding we now have about the detailed design of the submarines and their manufacture'.

It is fast becoming clear that this is not simply a reconstruction of the old Vanguards involving updated components, and involves a plethora of risks. The underwater battle space is under major transition, and it is far from clear how the new submarine will be able to evade detection from emerging sophisticated anti-submarine warfare capabilities.

Dropping Main Gate avoids commitment to the details of a particular design and thereby brings greater flexibility. This is very understandable in the light of the evolving risks. But such flexibility also brings greater risk of costs spiralling out of control as requirements change mid-project.

There is perhaps a more cynical reason for dropping Main Gate - not to avoid debate but rather to keep it on the boil for some time to come. The Conservative government knows that this is deeply divisive within the Labour Party, a signal issue for its discomfort. Downing Street strategies might want to avoid a 'final' debate on the investment that might not only close the debate but also bring down Corbyn's leadership of the Labour Party.

Debate on CASD

The move to drop Main Gate is not to avoid debate. Indeed, the SDSR went to great pains by embolden its sentence:

"We will hold a debate in Parliament on the principle of Continuous At Sea Deterrence and our plans for Successor, and will continue to provide annual reports to Parliament."

This focus on CASD reflects a relatively recent phenomenon since 2010. Julian Lewis, the standard bearer in Parliament for Trident renewal (at all costs), has succeeded in persuading colleagues and the mainstream media to define continuous patrolling not only as an essential element to minimum deterrence, but as the new, symbolic test of commitment to nuclear deterrence. The frame: CASD is a minimum, there are no further (responsible) steps down the nuclear ladder, and anyone advocating a move away from continuous patrolling must be a naive unilateral disarmer (in disguise).

Of course it is nothing of the sort. Whilst continuous patrolling may make some logical sense to nuclear deterrence in moments of crisis or near crisis, it is grossly extravagant and not-at-all minimum in periods of clear stability as today where there remain no current strategic threats to Britain (as officially confirmed in this National Security Strategy document last week).

The principle logic for CASD today centres around crisis stability. If we were to slide into a future conflict requiring a nuclear deterrent capability we may not be able to scramble an SSBN onto patrol fast enough or with sufficient assurance that it would slip into the ocean undetected. A future government may be self-deterred from doing so in fear of escalating a tense situation.

This argument is weaker than it appears because any bolt-from-the-blue attack on the UK is such a huge gamble for any aggressor because of the uncertainty of success and the near certain response from the United States, that it can be effectively dismissed as any realistic possibility. Any attempt to use such a threat as blackmail would suffer the same calculation, and would last only as long as it took the UK to scramble its SSBN. It also overstates the escalatory fear of scrambling an SSBN, particularly if patrols were irregular and unpredictable. Submarine patrols are not announced, and commencing a patrol may in any case have a perceived advantage of sending a message of serious intent.

Attachment to CASD predates the latest deterioration with Russia and should not be confused with the need to deter Putin in particular. Of course, the task for advocates in defending the practice is a great deal easier today because of him, but their passion is independent of it. They see the principle danger in dropping continuous patrolling as the start of a slippery slope to disarmament. They fear that fiscal and operational pressures could encourage further reductions in patrols. In other words, as we realise that the security of the UK is independent of patrolling, we could slacken in the discipline.

One way of seeing it. The other is that relaxing continuous patrolling presents an opportunity for a cautious, controlled and reversible step-by-step reduction in our readiness, in line with our national policy of careful and considered disarmament.

The announcement of a debate on CASD is a welcome opportunity to shift from a simple (and sometimes rather parochial) question of whether the UK has its own independent nuclear deterrent, towards Britain's widely recognised responsibilities to promote multilateral disarmament by considering further steps down the nuclear ladder.