Trident Wrapped Up?

19/07/2016 08:35 | Updated 19 July 2016

It is a mystery why Cameron and then May took Trident to a vote yesterday. OK, so it's nice to start off with a good strong issue that delivers a comfortable government majority, unites the Party and splits the opposition. But it risks slaughtering the goose that had just kept laying those golden eggs.

Just when attention is on the new Cabinet and positive opportunities, the apparent rush to vote with minimal build-up and attention is such an anticlimax. It draws much of the sting out of the Labour Party's forthcoming internal policy battles that could have dominated their Autumn conference and a subsequent Parliamentary vote. Labour strategists must be breathing a huge sigh of relief today.

And there was no operational pressure for yesterday's vote. Though there has often been confusion and obfuscation on this point, it was not a Main Gate decision linked to any contracts. Barrow's timetable to start assembly on the first submarine was completely independent of this or any other vote.

And yet Parliament's decision yesterday, though a comfortable government majority, will not be the end of the matter.

The problem facing those responsible for delivering the project, as opposed to pontificating on it, will not be any public debate. It will not be the Scottish nationalists, and any possible constitutional settlement that threatens the project. Nor will it be any shifts in the relationship with the EU, or with an incoming US President. It will not be a reassessment of Russia, nor any shifts of faith in nuclear deterrence, or a sudden realisation that we really don't have a clear idea of what it means.

No, the emerging threat to the future of the Trident programme and Britain's deployment of nuclear weapons independently arises from the spiralling costs and the technical and industrial risks.

This major project is currently costed in public at £31billion plus £10billion contingency - a great deal of money but deemed a price worth paying. But rumours were already circulating in the early summer that these estimates were looking unreliable. If the current damage to the pound sticks, the project will end up costing at least an additional £3billion or 10% from exchange rate alone. This figure was the whole cost of the Maritime Patrol Aircraft announced last week (a decision several years in the making). At what point do MoD planners judge that the pain absorbed by the rest of the armed forces is simply too great?

Recent years have seen a growing expressed unease from those parts of our military who have the freedom to voice their opinions on the matter - the retired top brass in the House of Lords. The commitment of the new government in the summer of last year to stop the continual decimation of our conventional capability by promising 2% of our GDP to defence quietened the unrest, but if GDP flat-lines or worse, this will have been only temporary comfort in real terms. The previous achievements in bringing defence equipment budgets under control will be blown out of the water. In the current climate, rumblings from RUSI (Professors Trevor Taylor and Malcolm Chalmers last week) calling for urgent wholesale reassessment of the MoD's equipment plan can only spread across into MoD Main Building.

And then there is technology. There can be no doubt that we are witnessing a revolution in processing power, driven largely by applications in the massive consumer mobile electronics market. The smart phone in your pocket has far more processing power than the latest, most sophisticated US fighter jet. This in combination with the development of artificial intelligence and swarming communication algorithms, rapidly developing sensing capabilities above and below water, deployed on cheap and numerous disposable unmanned vehicles, mean the capability to track and take out submarines is rapidly improving, month by month.

The SSBN - nuclear armed ballistic missile submarine - is the Rolls Royce nuclear weapon system today. Any self-respecting nuclear armed state has to have one. But these take 20 years to construct and deploy; 20 years in which the technology that will be used to neutralise submarines will go through many generations of development at a pace that will leave submarines exposed and vulnerable.

We can close our eyes to these probabilities now, safe in the knowledge that a 1980s-style polarised debate between unilateralists and multilateralists can only benefit the Conservative Party. But those with any genuine concern for the national security of this country must look beyond such tempting gains and see the underlying threats before we face far more painful choices later in the programme.

Paul Ingram is the Executive Director of BASIC, the British American Security Information Council