Has The Decision To Replace Trident Already Been Made?

February 2011

From a series of parliamentary questions and Freedom of Information requests, Greenpeace has learnt that the government plans to sign and seal a huge list of contracts before the promised 2016 vote on whether we really want to build a new fleet of nuclear submarines.  Items to which the government will commit itself include the submarine hull, the nuclear reactor, generators, switchboards, and “various components of the combat systems”.

Greenpeace estimates that at least £1.1-£2.1bn will have been spent before the decision is formally taken.  Will the government then say that it has to go ahead, because otherwise all this expenditure will have been wasted?  The Lib Dems and Scottish Nationalists are demanding to know how much has already been spent.  It has just been announced that the decision to go ahead will be subjected to “independent” scrutiny by a group of senior defence, diplomatic, scientific, and political figures, headed by the former Labour defence secretary, Lord Browne, the former Conservative defence secretary, Sir Malcolm Rifkind, and the former Lib Dem defence spokesman, Sir Menzies Campbell.

The Guardian, 15.1.11, reported that, at a recent conference attended by senior military officers, Trident was described as the “elephant in the room” and one highly ranked defence official referred to it as a “giant Mars bar-fed cuckoo”.

Parliamentary statements about Trident

Dr Fox [Defence Secretary]: We remain committed to a policy of Continuous At Sea Deterrence. The cost of replacing the Trident submarines, as set out in the summary of the Value for Money Review, is based on building four submarines. However, the Strategic Defence and Security Review is clear in stating that the decision to finalise the detailed acquisition plans, design and number of submarines will be taken at Main Gate around 2016.  Hansard, 10.1

Tessa Munt (Wells) (LD): It would appear from the answers to freedom of information requests that the steel, the computer systems and the combat systems, among other things, for the first submarine have been ordered and will have been paid for. It also appears that the three reactors for the first three submarines will have been ordered and paid for before MPs can scrutinise the main gate business case. What will remain unspent for the first submarines? Will we be so financially committed that the whole main gate decision is made irrelevant?

Dr Fox: Whatever amount of money is spent on the lead items, technically it is up to any Parliament at any time to determine whether any programme can or cannot go ahead. It is clear from the coalition agreement that we are committed to maintaining a continuous at-sea minimum credible nuclear deterrent that will protect this country from nuclear blackmail and ensure that we make our role apparent in reductions in total nuclear armaments.  Hansard 31.1

Paul Flynn (Newport West) (Lab): How can the Government, who plan to save money by closing libraries and selling off our forests, justify wasting tens of millions of pounds on a useless virility symbol when they cannot give any plausible future situation in which Britain might use a nuclear weapon independently?

Dr Fox: … What is important about the concept of deterrence is deterrence; that we do not need to use it. The whole point of deterrence is to make it clear to any potential aggressor that we will not even consider the impact of nuclear weapon strikes against the United Kingdom and so will maintain a nuclear deterrent to ensure that we never get to that position.

Hansard, 31.1