Trident replacement: Costs rise and timetable slips

The costs of building four new submarines for the UK's Trident nuclear weapons programme has risen to at least £31 billion pounds, with the submarines not scheduled to enter into service until the early 2030s according to the government's Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR).

The review, presented to Parliament by Prime Minster David Cameron, reveals that cost estimates for the new submarines have risen by around 20 per cent over the past year.  

In an update to Parliament on the 'Successor' Trident replacement submarine programme published by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) in December 2014 the costs of the new submarines were estimated at £25 billion – significantly lower than the latest estimate – whilst the 2006 White Paper on Trident replacement gave an even lower figure of £11 – 14 billion at 2006/7 prices.

In addition to the anticipated costs, the government has set aside a contingency of £10 billion for the Successor project, indicating a risk that costs could increase beyond the current estimates.

The SDSR report says that the costs of the design phase for the new submarines – currently underway – has now reached £3.9 billion, compared with MoD's May 2011 estimate of £3 billion when the 'initial gate' decision was made to commence design work.

The report also reveals that the schedule for bringing the new submarines into service has been put back.  The 2006 White Paper on Trident replacement stated that the current submarines “are likely to start leaving service from the early 2020s”, while the SDSR now says that the first submarine will enter into service in the “early 2030s”.  The revised cost and timetable “reflect the greater understanding we now have about the detailed design of the submarines and their

The SDSR describes the Successor submarine programme as “a national endeavour”, and one of the largest government investment programmes, equivalent in scale to Crossrail or High Speed 2.  The government is evidently concerned at the vast scale of the programme, which Jon Thompson, Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Defence, recently described as “the single biggest future financial risk we face”, labelling the project as “a monster” and an “incredibly complicated area to estimate future costs”.  The SDSR announces a number of new management changes which are evidently intended to bring the programme under closer control.

A new team is to be established within MoD to take over  management of “all aspects of the defence nuclear enterprise”, including submarines, warheads, infrastructure, nuclear policy, and recruitment and retention of skilled personnel.  Earlier this year a senior MoD source involved in a high level review of the ministry's nuclear programme told the Times newspaper that “the whole nuclear side of things is in a complete mess”.  Ministers have apparently decided to accept the review's recommendation to set up a single new body to manage the programme.

A “new delivery body” will be set up to manage the submarine enterprise and strengthen arrangements for the procurement and in-service support of nuclear submarines.  The SDSR does not say whether the delivery body will be under the control of HM Treasury, as suggested recently by some newspapers, or whether it will remain within the Ministry of Defence.

The Successor programme will also see MoD move away from its usual 'Main Gate' approach to project management “which is not appropriate for a programme of this scale and complexity”, to a staged spending programme with new commercial arrangements between government and industry.

The next phase of the programme will commence in 2016 following the finalisation of investment proposals. The SDSR confirms that, before then, there will be a debate in Parliament on plans for the Trident replacement programme and the UK's current policy of permanently deploying at least one nuclear armed submarine on patrol.  The government intends to build four new submarines in order to ensure that one can always remain at sea.

The SDSR report also announced that nine new Boeing P8 Maritime Patrol Aircraft will be procured to protect the Royal Navy's Trident submarines and aircraft carriers.

The report adds no detail to the justification for replacing the Trident submarines, stating only that “it would be irresponsible to assume that the UK will not in the foreseeable future be confronted with the kinds of extreme threat to our security or way of life which nuclear weapons seek to deter”, and that Trident “remains vital to our national security”.

The SDSR report restates policy on nuclear weapons which was unveiled following the 2010 SDSR, describing the UK's nuclear weapons as a “minimum deterrent”.  Submarines on patrol will continue to carry 40 nuclear warheads and no more than eight operational missiles.  The UK will retain no more than 120 operationally available warheads and, by the mid 2020s the overall nuclear weapon stockpile will have been reduced to no more than 180 warheads.

Policies on the UK's 'nuclear posture', outlining the circumstances under which the UK might use nuclear weapons, remain unchanged and are “deliberately ambiguous”, although they will be kept   “under constant review”.

The SDSR also quietly breaks the news that work on a possible new UK Trident warhead has been put back.  Work on options for replacing the current warhead is currently underway but a replacement warhead will not be required until “at least the late 2030s, possibly later”.  The 2006 White Paper had previously indicated that the UK's existing warhead design “will last into the 2020s”.  A decision on replacing the warhead may be required in this Parliament or early in the next.

The SDSR describes the UK as “a responsible Nuclear Weapons State” which is “committed to the long-term goal of a world without nuclear weapons”.  The UK recognises its obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty and  “will continue to press for key steps towards multilateral disarmament, including the entry into force of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, and successful negotiations on a Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty”.

In total the MoD will spend £178 billion over the next decade on weapons and equipment, of which £12 billion is extra money.  However, the number of civilians employed by the MoD is to be reduced by almost 30% to 41,000.

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