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Trident delay by the Coalition: Cunning plan, or bad idea?

Depends whether you pay taxes or spend them

By Lewis Page, 16 Sep 2010

Analysis The Coalition government, as part of its ongoing strategic review of UK defence, may decide to postpone replacement of the Trident nuclear deterrent by five years. What would that mean?

Immediately in practical terms it would mean that spending on the replacement systems would be pushed mostly back out of the ten-year projections. As it has been made clear that the replacement is to be paid for from the regular Defence budget, this would mean some billions of pounds freed for other MoD areas.

However, there's a reason why things should be replaced or renewed at the end of their planned life: if you keep on operating them, running costs start to climb. Five years of running life-expired Trident boats will cost more - a lot more - than five years of running new ones. Then, as defence kit in general inflates in price faster than normal things do, delaying five years will also make the replacements significantly more costly in real terms than they would have been.

Bottom line, looking back in 20 years' time with a new like-for-like replacement of Trident in service, analysts would probably assess that the Coalition's five-year delay back in 2010 had cost the British taxpayer several billion pounds compared to going ahead in this decade - as both Labour and the Tories promised the voters they would.

There is, of course, another possibility - that there might be no like-for-like Trident replacement. One obvious plan is that instead of Trident intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and the necessary special submarines to carry them, the UK might use cruise missiles shot from the torpedo tubes of relatively ordinary nuclear-powered attack submarines such as the Astute class now being delivered. The US-made Tomahawk, already in service on Royal Navy attack boats with conventional warheads, would be the obvious choice - it was originally developed to carry nukes, in fact.

This would be hugely cheaper than ICBMs and vertical-launch subs to carry them. This is because a cruise missile is actually just a robotic jet aeroplane, whereas an ICBM is a suborbital space rocket.

Unfortunately, a robot jetplane flying along at normal aeroplane altitudes and subsonic speeds can be shot down relatively easily. An enemy nation with a capable modern air-defence system will be able to do so - the prospect of retaliation by nuclear-tipped cruise missiles will not deter such a nation from mounting strikes against the UK if it really wants to. (And if it keeps some of its own ICBMs in reserve, it can still deter our allies from avenging us.)

By contrast, an ICBM-launched warhead falling out of space at many times the speed of sound is effectively unstoppable. Even the mighty USA, after decades of effort and scores of billions spent on Star Wars and missile defence, cannot reliably defeat ballistic weapons hurtling far above the atmosphere. No other nation has even the ghost of a chance of doing so.

That's why everyone wants ICBMs. They are a much, much more effective deterrent than cruise missiles or nukes delivered by manned aircraft. That's why North Korea and Iran and uncle Tom Cobbleigh work so hard to build "space rockets" - because if you can build an orbital launcher you can build an ICBM, and drop things out of the sky anywhere on Earth that you choose to do so.

You get what you pay for, with nuclear deterrents. This is why the last Labour and Tory governments, both elected on a platform that included an effective deterrent, have stuck to the gold standard of submarine ballistics. (The nuclear-powered submarine is also vital, as opposed to a land silo, as it is the only way of being sure that nobody knows where your missiles are. Thus an enemy cannot launch a strike at them, hoping that you will not be able to identify who is attacking and get your own missiles away before his arrive - perhaps in less than twenty minutes.)

Forces don't want to pay for nukes - well, duh. (They probably don't want to pay for child benefit either, but nobody's asking them to do that.)

Last time, the MoD was not compelled to pay anything for Trident - extra cash was provided by the Treasury. Thus the Army and RAF had no axe to grind, and the Navy only had to pay some of the running costs. As a result there was no opposition to Trident from within the armed services.

This time, the situation at the MoD is very different. The coming ten-year budget is already short of the MoD's projections of what it needs to pay for existing forces and procurement plans by a large amount - billions each year. This, in large part, is the result of several decades in which time and again ministers delayed expensive decisions - just as they are considering delays to Trident now - causing things to cost a lot more than they should have done.

On top of the need to cut many billions off the existing plans, there is also now a need to cut the already-insufficient budget by 10 per cent or more due to the wider public-finances crisis.

If as well as all this the Trident replacement goes ahead on schedule, it will mean even more severe pain for the three services: battalions disbanded and new FRES supertanks not bought for the Army, jet fleets closed down and Eurofighters left without the desired enhancements for the RAF, perhaps no aircraft carriers and fewer attack subs and frigates for the navy.

Unsurprisingly, all three services have come to the internal opinion that if they have to pay for new Trident, they don't want it. Even the Navy would much rather have more Astute subs and nuclear Tomahawks to go on them than new Tridents: it would offer at least as many chances to be a submarine captain, and it would remove the boredom and career-deadening effect of tours aboard ballistic-missile boats*.

Politically, of course, everyone in the Coalition would be overjoyed with a postponement on Trident. At the moment the Coalition is committed only to some form of nukes, not to new Trident as such. The cheaper cruise plan would find strong support in Parliament, not just from Lib Dems but from many Labour MPs who are personally anti-nuclear in their beliefs regardless of the party platform. Labour would probably not be so principled as to whip these MPs into backing the Tories in a Commons vote on the matter, despite their promises before the election.

The Tory party itself made a firm commitment to new Trident just as Labour did, so it's hard to see Prime Minister Cameron feeling able to renege outright on that in this Parliament - but he might well feel that it would be possible to switch to the cruise plan after the next election, following postponement now. A lot of his own MPs (particularly, perhaps, the noticeable number of former junior Army officers now on the Tory benches) might back him in this.

Thus it isn't too much to say that Trident is a potential Coalition-buster if the government seeks to go ahead with it on time. A decision that some future government will have to spend several billion more than planned is as easy as pie by comparison.

Given the pressure from the MoD and the Coalition cabinet in favour of postponement, it will be quite surprising if Cameron has the guts to do what he promised and what most of the electorate voted for - replace Trident like-for-like on time.

Warning - </Analysis><Opinion>

(Usual caveat: This is only one man's opinion, and worth no more than you paid for it, ie nothing really.)

Proper new Trident, with submarine-launched ballistic nukes, is the right call for the UK. Its cost is tiny compared to UK government spending - just half of a single year's Department for Work and Pensions budget would buy new Trident boats, arm them, crew them and cover their running costs for decades.

Compared to the MoD's much smaller budget the costs look bigger, but they are still small - and ICBM submarines represent far and away the best value for money in the MoD. For perhaps £20bn to £30bn in acquisition costs you get an unstoppable, unfindable nuclear hammer capable of shattering a nation in an afternoon. When one reflects that we have spent the same money to get the Eurofighter - a wildly expensive and now rather oldfashioned pure air-to-air platform - new Trident looks like a steal.

One major reason that the Eurofighter is such poor value for money, of course, has been repeated delay so as to achieve short-term savings in the past. This is also true of nearly every other procurement project in the MoD: cumulatively, past politicians failing to grasp nettles are now costing us billions every year. It has to stop, and stop now - as a taxpayer, quite frankly I don't see why I should pay still more billions down the road just to keep Mr Cameron in Downing Street and Mr Clegg in the Cabinet today.

I don't think I'm alone in these beliefs, either. The Lib Dems, showing a lot of integrity, put clear blue water between themselves and the other two parties on nukes before the election - and took a beating at the polls. In most other respects you couldn't get a playing card between them and the other parties on policy, so a lot of those lost Lib Dem votes will have been lost by the failure to promise proper deterrence. The mainstream parties, of course, for whom most of us voted, promised new Trident on time: Labour long ago learned that disarmament is electoral suicide in this country, and once you realise the difference between ballistic and cruise missiles you know that the latter are more or less equivalent to disarming.

As for the argument that our noble boys and girls in uniform deserve our support and we shouldn't take away their money for nukes - especially while we're at war in Afghanistan - that misses several points.

First, the costs of war in Afghanistan are being met by several billion in extra funding every year from the Treasury, not from the main MoD budget which is to pay for new nukes. Our boys and girls on the front line will still get their new armoured vehicles, new rifles and weapons, better body armour, PAYG satellite bandwidth and the big black bag of shiny proper kit for each of them on setting off. Afghanistan has nothing to do with the MoD core budget. Even if it did, well... you can make an argument that it makes Britain more secure to be in Afghanistan, but it isn't nearly as convincing as the the argument that having Trident makes Britain more secure - and Trident costs less, too.

Second, it is not the armed forces' money we speak of but ours. Defence chiefs grumble that the nuclear deterrent is imposed on them by politics, in other words by public opinion - this being a democracy. Of course it is, and so it should be: if the electorate want nukes instead of tanks or frigates or jets, that's what they should have.

Third, our conventional armed forces are some of the best value in the government - in the world - in terms of capability for money. They can reach round the world to do all manner of very difficult things - dominate defended airspaces, fight tank battles, hunt submarines. We get all these tools for just £35bn pa or so: and if we give them several billion a year extra as we are doing, the forces can also carry on properly-equipped counterinsurgency, albeit on a distinctly modest scale. (The US Marines on their own have put three times the number of people into Helmand that the combined UK forces can manage. The US Marines also have about the same number of personnel in total.)

We might, perhaps, need to fight a tank battle or hunt down some submarines or control some airspace against opposition one day. It's probably worth spending money to keep at least some of these tools available.

But to me the idea that we should forfeit real, serious, geopolitically game-changing, unstoppable, invulnerable nuclear strike capability in order to spend slightly more on fighting submarines or tanks or MiGs is comically ridiculous. Nonetheless that's the argument the generals and air-marshals and even admirals - and with them a lot of politicians - are making.

They are wrong. ®

*A Trident boat spends a months-long deterrent patrol driving about very slowly in a given box somewhere in the Atlantic. It never looks around it, never goes hunting for enemy ships or subs, never does anything much at all. It is very hard for a keen young sub-driver to develop his skills or his career in this situation.

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