With nuclear weapons and the huge cost of replacing Trident rapidly moving up the election agenda, advocates of nuclear weapons have gone on a counter-offensive, claiming that scrapping the Trident replacement programme will not deliver savings in public finances.
The Daily Telegraph reports that George Osborne, the Conservative Shadow Chancellor, has said that little will be saved in the short or medium term by ditching nuclear weapons, and has accused Alex Salmond and Nick Clegg of 'false economics' and 'trickery' over the costs of Trident.
However, the Telegraph's claims that nothing will be spent this year or next year on replacing Trident do not stand up to examination.
A recent Parliamentary written answer has revealed that, since the vote on Trident replacement in 2007, £380 million has already been spent on feasibility studies for a successor system. By my calculation this works out at a sum of around a third of a million pounds every day – hardly a trivial sum.
A further £1 billion is being spent every year on upgrades at the Aldermaston Atomic Weapons Establishment which will be needed to maintain the nuclear warhead stockpile over the lifetime of Trident's successor. [Correction note, 23 April 2010: This figure is for total annual spending at AWE. Around half of it is for ongoing operating costs, with the other half allocated for infrastructure upgrades.]
The costs of replacing Trident will rise dramatically in around two years time, when design work on new submarines is due to commence according to the current programme, and take another big step up in five or six years time when work on constructing the submarines commences. They are expected to peak in the early 2020s when a number of submarines will be under construction, possibly at the same time as new nuclear warheads are being manufactured.
The respected Institute for Fiscal Studies has predicted 'two Parliaments of pain' when cuts in public spending will be needed to rebalance the national fiscal deficit that has resulted from bailing out the banks and insulating the economy against the immediate impacts of the credit crunch. Which is likely to be more painful – axing services at local schools, hospitals and care homes, or scrapping new nuclear weapons?