Trident’s costs could be spiralling, as reported this week, though it may be too early to tell. Either way, the government is protecting this huge and most controversial military procurement project whilst deeply controversial welfare cuts are being debated. It is not considering cheaper alternatives even as the MoD itself suffers.
It claims that there are no viable alternatives, but this does not bear inspection. A BASIC briefing, written for the new government earlier this year, challenged the prevailing orthodoxy by outlining a number of options. These remain relevant today, as the Strategic Defence and Security Review reaches its conclusion and attention starts to move towards the final Trident investment decision. The alternatives outlined in BASIC’s memo included relaxing continuous patrolling, further delay and not deploying a new nuclear weapon system – instead running a safer and cheaper recessed deterrence posture. It also referred to alternative delivery systems and suggested a rethink on the platform. The results of the Trident Alternatives Review, which has informed government thinking on alternative nuclear systems, was deeply prejudiced by assumptions around the time it would take to modify nuclear warheads and the capability requirements and needed to be redone with a proper consideration of alternatives.
Crispin Blunt, Conservative MP, Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee and former Captain in the British Army, has estimated total costs of Trident renewal and operation over its lifetime to be £167bn. This follows the government’s answer to his Parliamentary question last Friday, stating that the latest estimates bring the capital costs of Trident renewal to £25bn, and operating costs at roughly the existing levels – 6% of the overall defence budget. The government’s answer suggested this to be in line with previous estimates.
Blunt’s overall figure will be contested, not least as it ignores standard 3.5% Treasury annual discount rates, applied to future costs on the basis that £10 today is worth more than an inflation-adjusted £10 in the future. Discount rates are in fact highly speculative. Some have also challenged the very idea of using discount rates at all as this devalues the future, and harms intergenerational equity. Applying discount rates would bring down the cost towards those used in public up until now, such as the £83.5bn estimated by Professor Keith Hartley on behalf of the BASIC Trident Commission
But this debate on discount rates is for another time. The fact, is, Trident is openly causing major planning headaches for defence chiefs. Jon Thompson, PermSec and lead civil servant at MoD, recently described the project as a ‘monster’, and was ‘keeping him up at night’. A decision to go ahead regardless, based upon hunches or emotional responses to future uncertainties, or the usual reference to a vague insurance policy against an uncertain world, is deeply irresponsible. Even the Trident Commission was scathing of this lazy approach to defence decision-making, saying that the justification for keeping Trident on the basis of general future uncertainty was inappropriate. This is true particularly when there are a number of nuclear alternatives on offer for people not yet ready for the UK to abandon its own nuclear weapons and place greater faith in the NATO Alliance that the UK political mainstream claims is at the heart of our security.
We may get a little more detail on the state of the Trident project when the government publishes its Strategic Defence and Security Review, expected at the end of this year or early next. It could have a significant impact on the attitude some take to the main investment decision (Main Gate) due early next year.
This article was originally published on 27 October 2015 on the Huffington Post.