It is easy to be cynical in the middle of an election campaign, but attempts to question Labour’s commitment to Trident renewal are not simply election ploys exploiting painful legacies and fears around the rise of the SNP. Those leading the charge know full well the pressures that lie ahead for any future government in affording the Trident programme, yet they are so blindly committed to the symbolism of the project that they willfully close their eyes to the full extent of the opportunity costs. Promises to protect the defence budget and conventional forces from Trident renewal have been broken before. This time, in an age of austerity, it could end up gutting the rest of the armed forces. It’s almost as if they have aligned themselves with some group of pacifists or UKIP fanatics with the strategic objective of taking Britain out of any future international interventions, for good, and rendering its contributions to NATO irrelevant. These wouldn’t be the strangest of alliances we’ve seen in recent times.
There has been a good deal of unnecessary confusion around the cost of Trident. On the surface, it’s quite simple. By the government’s calculation, the capital cost of the project will be in the region of £25bn to £30bn over the next 18 years, though to this you might add several billion for investment at AWE Aldermaston. Annual running costs in today’s prices amount to around £1.5bn. The figures of £100bn (possibly more like £85bn) are arrived at by adding the capital and running costs over 30 years together and adding some for decommissioning, other costs and some uncertainty.
On current projections, for the next 15 years the Trident burden will be between £3bn and £4bn a year and swallow a full one third of defence procurement. This at a time when the defence budget is already under such tremendous pressures that it is set to dip below 2% GDP for the first time and Conservative MPs have been revolting against their leadership in recent months and briefing openly against George Osborne for caring little.
An incoming Prime Minister will have a headache over Trident, whatever the complexity of his governing position.
It could be worse. Deborah Haynes, defence correspondent at The Times, recently called official figures into doubt. She reports that the Prime Minister earlier this year instigated an urgent confidential review from Jon Thomson, the top MoD civil servant on the basis that the project and associated infrastructure may be a mess and end up costing a great deal more than planned.
The election discussion has been under-developed, and public opinion on the issue superficial, and therefore fickle. For the incoming Prime Minister to feel obliged to stick indefinitely to policy positions that harm UK interests would be the height of irresponsible governance.
The last Trident Alternatives Review had limited scope and several questionable assumptions that led to distortions in its findings. He would do well to expand the current investigation to include the broader security and defence priorities that will be considered in the forthcoming Strategic Defence and Security Review, and review against options, of which there are several. If this were done in an open and honest manner, he would quickly find changes to the project that could come to be seen as a yardstick for reconnecting with the priorities of the country, the concerns and hopes of an emerging next generation focused on the future and unburdened from the neuroses the past.