Britain’s Trident Nuclear Deterrent Replacement Program is a Political, Financial Headache

by Dan Darling, Forecast International.

HMS Vengeance SSBN
HMS Vengeance SSBN

With an election just two months away and funding pressures bearing down on its budget, Britain’s Ministry of Defence has topped up spending on the assessment phase for a new class of nuclear-powered ballistic missile (SSBN) submarines for the Royal Navy. The funding allocation comes amidst the backdrop of campaign politics and mounting concerns over the long-term trajectory of Britain’s defense spending.

The new-generation submarines would ostensibly replace the current Vanguard class fleet of four submarines that – armed with nuclear-tipped Trident II D5 ballistic missiles – represent Britain’s around-the-clock strategic nuclear deterrent. The Royal Navy’s Vanguard submarines operate in an unbroken series of deterrent patrols in the deep seas, serving as Britain’s response equalizer in the unlikely event an attack is launched on the homeland.

HMS Vanguard SSBN
HMS Vanguard SSBN

The project to replace these submarines has been referred to as the Successor Program, while the larger deterrent revamp is often referred to simply as the Trident replacement.

The latest funding outlay of GBP285 million ($429 million) adds to the GBP2 billion already spent on the Successor Program’s concept and assessment phase and comes as the British government approaches a “dark” – or non-transparent – stretch between March 30 and the general election on May 7, during which major contract awards are banned so as not to influence the electorate.

Prior to a Main Gate (production contract) decision – which is unlikely before 2016 – up to GBP3.3 billion ($4.96 billion) will have been spent on Successor during the Initial Gate (assessment phase) period launched in May 2011.

Besides the tremendous funding pressures that would be brought on the defense budget by a Main Gate approval, there is also a political factor involved in the decision-making equation.

Even within the governing coalition there are fissures, as Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservatives favor the Trident nuclear replacement program, while their minority partner, the Liberal Democrats, made clear in the run-up to the last election their disfavor toward the project.

Pushed and prodded by the Lib-Dems, the Cameron government unveiled its Trident Alternatives Review in July 2013. That paper examined multiple nuclear-deterrent options, including land-based silos, an airborne alternative, arming the submarines with nuclear warhead-tipped subsonic cruise instead of ballistic missiles, and even extending the lives of the current Vanguard class submarines, among others. The favored Liberal Democrat position focuses on scrapping a like-for-like Successor Program in favor of fewer submarines whose sea deployment would be initiated only during periods of heightened tensions with a potential foe.

The leader of the largest opposition party, Labour’s Ed Miliband, has publicly stated he would like to see a cheaper alternative to the current Trident renewal plans, although in what form he has yet to specify. Other critics – such as the Scottish Nationalist Party, the Welsh Plaid Cymru, and the Green Party – favor scrapping Trident entirely.

This represents just the political side of the equation. Funding the Successor Program presents an even bigger challenge.

Estimates made by the previous Labour government placed the cost of replacing the current Trident deterrent (the aforementioned four Vanguard class submarines fitted with nuclear warheads mounted on Trident II D5 missiles) at GBP20 billion. That price tag included the cost of four new submarines, plus upgrades to the Trident missiles – all based on 2006-2007 prices. It does not bring into question the cost of maintaining and operating the Trident deterrent over its lifetime (political opponents of Trident cite figures in the range of GBP100 billion, or $150 billion).

Such a significant investment has to be weighed against mounting pressures on a defense budget that has been forced to endure a 7.5 percent cut over a five-year stretch in order to meet Treasury Chancellor George Osborne’s austerity requirements. If it is determined to approve Main Gate for the Trident replacement – even at a reduced three submarines instead of four, would the military equipment budget swing sharply into imbalance by investing an inordinate amount toward a single program?

One recent estimate, by the Royal United Services Institute’s Malcolm Chalmers, predicts that at its peak, the cost of Trident renewal will consume roughly 37 percent of the procurement portion of the defense budget. This would result in very little remaining to cover costs such as adding F-35 combat aircraft, new Type 26 naval frigates, a future secure voice and data communications system to replace the current Bowman system, and many other looming projects.

Still, in the end, whichever party – or coalition of parties – ends up in power post-election, consideration will be given to a third factor: Britain’s submarine manufacturing sector. With construction of the Royal Navy’s Astute class submarines wrapping up in 2022, the need to ensure a steady drumbeat of work orders for the submarine sector will put the next government under pressure to sign off on the Trident replacement program, even if it means a down-sized order.

Ultimately, tough choices loom for the next government as it crafts a new Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR). But if the last such document proved anything, it is that no major procurement program is safe in the face of cost-cutting concerns. And should Trident ultimately prove sacrosanct, a further reduction in the number of British Army personnel presents an old standby option for the politicians.

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