Credit crunch cash shortage raises doubts over new nuclear weapons
Cash shortages caused by the credit crunch will force the next government to choose between replacing the Trident nuclear weapons system and meeting flagship goals to halve child poverty, raise the state pension in line with earnings, and keep education spending growing, according to a report on the affordability of Britain's nuclear weapons published today by the Nuclear Information Service (NIS).
The new report from NIS (available to download at the bottom of this webpage) reviews whether the UK will be able to afford to replace its nuclear arsenal as the country enters the uncharted economic waters of what looks likely to be the most severe recession in living memory.
It concludes that, even at the best of times, replacing Trident would be a high risk project because a long lead-in time means that changing circumstances may make the new nuclear weapons far less relevant to the nation's security needs by the time they come into service. Substantial financial risks are created by the programme's reliance on monopoly suppliers and specialist skills, and also the high overhead costs associated with essential on-shore infrastructure.
Replacing Trident would increase strains on a defence procurement programme which is already in deep trouble because of competing demands for military equipment and high cost inflation. If approved, the replacement for Trident would be likely to become the single most expensive scheme in the defence procurement programme, tying up huge sums of money with significant implications, in particular, for the Royal Navy's equipment programme.
NIS believes that the credit crunch is likely to magnify the risks associated with replacing Trident and compound the pressure on the affordability of Britain's nuclear weapons. Looking forward five years, when the replacement for Trident is scheduled for construction, the economic picture will be heavily influenced by the need to recover the costs of the short-term spending stimulus which the government is currently applying to limit the force of the recession.
Over this period, the government will be forced to make tough spending choices. Spending on a nuclear weapons replacement programme would be competing with flagship government goals to halve child poverty, raise the state pension in line with earnings, and keep education spending growing as a share of national income – goals which the Institute of Fiscal Studies has said now appear to be out of reach as a result of the credit crunch.
The affordability of remaining a nuclear weapons state has always been an issue for the UK, and during the economic crisis in 1976 the government considered scrapping its nuclear weapons in response to pressure from the International Monetary Fund to make cuts in public expenditure. Financial pressures also caused the government to abandon the independence of its nuclear warhead design programme and cancel plans for a replacement for free-fall nuclear bombs in the 1990s.
Di McDonald, Director of NIS said: "There are huge questions about the affordability of the programme to replace British nuclear weapons and its relevance to modern security needs.
"If things go badly wrong during the replacement programme, there is a danger not just of wasting large sums of public money, but of forcing defence and foreign policies in directions that may prove to be dead ends in years to come.
"The UK has always struggled to bear the huge costs of building and deploying nuclear weapons, and the credit crunch is now forcing us to make a fundamental choice between using public money to fight poverty or build weapons of mass destruction.
"Evidence from polling suggests that most of us would reject replacing Trident if we knew the costs involved and had an understanding of what else might be purchased at the same cost. It's time to take a fresh look at our security needs and ask some tough questions about whether nuclear weapons really offer us the protection we want."
NIS has calculated that the procurement costs of replacing Trident would be equivalent to funding the following schemes:
Construction of 13 Type 45 destroyers for the Royal Navy.
Purchase of 620 Future Lynx helicopters.
Construction of 350,000 affordable homes.
Provision of insulation and energy efficiency improvements for 11.5 million homes.
Construction of 600 city academy schools.
Construction of 7500 MW of offshore wind turbine electricity generating capacity (equivalent to 7 nuclear power stations).
The day-to-day operating costs of Trident's replacement could otherwise be used to fund:
Deployment of 15,800 British soldiers overseas in combat for one year – roughly double the number currently deployed in Afghanistan.
The annual costs of providing free NHS prescriptions in England more than three times over.
The annual cost of keeping 2500 post offices open more than seven times over
The annual costs of running the Greater Manchester Police Authority nearly three times over.
Employment of over 50,000 NHS staff nurses for one year.