Will US cost-cutting threaten the UK’s Trident replacement programme?

US Defense Secretary Robert Gates – sceptical about Trident replacement


A high profile speech by US Defense Secretary Robert Gates has challenged the US Navy's plans to replace its 'Ohio' class Trident submarines – raising questions about the UK government's plans to replace its own Trident nuclear weapons programme.

Secretary Gates's speech today at the Navy League Sea-Air-Space Expo in Maryland has been interpreted as a signal of his intention to eliminate the costly program to replace the submarines if the decision is not made earlier in the lower tiers of the Pentagon.

Work on the new submarines is scheduled to begin in next the next financial year, with the intention of bringing them into service in 2027 to replace the US Navy's Ohio class submarines, which carry Trident nuclear weapons.

However, costs estimates for the new submarines have increased dramatically, with the cost of building each vessel now estimated as billion. “When that program really begins to ramp up, in the latter part of this decade, it will suck all the air out of the Navy's shipbuilding program,” Gates told the House of Representatives Appropriations Defense Subcommittee in March. “And so some tough choices are going to have to be made, either in terms of more investment or choices between the size of surface fleets you want and the submarine fleets.”

As well as concerns over costs, Secretary Gates has also highlighted international relations, the worldwide financial situation and other issues as reasons for the Navy to reconsider its plans. His speech has been seen as a warning to the Navy to cut the new submarine, or he will axe the programme himself.

The need for the new submarines has also been challenged by a key Congressman who oversees Navy programs. Gene Taylor, Chairman of the House of Representatives Seapower subcommittee, is calling for the Navy to release its analysis of the alternatives for submarine replacement programme. Rather than commit to replacing large Ohio-class submarines with similar ships, Taylor wants to investigate the option of a smaller, Virginia-class submarine armed with a lower capability missile system.

The debate in the USA raises huge questions for the UK's Ministry of Defence, which is currently embarking on a programme to replace the UK's Trident nuclear weapons.

The UK faces the same pressures over costs as the USA, with the defence equipment budget currently over-committed by £35 billion and public spending facing big cuts after the election. The government faces a dilemma as to whether it should show support for President Obama's arms control agenda by scaling back the programme to replace Trident, or proceed with a programme which is looking increasingly unaffordable.

The UK's Trident programme is heavily reliant on technology and support from the USA to remain operational, and elements of the Trident replacement programme, such as the missile compartment and reactor concept are being designed in collaboration with the USA.

Uncertainty over the US Navy's intentions is likely to add to the risks and costs of the Trident replacement programme. A decision by the US Navy to design a new missile to succeed Trident, for example, could even leave the Royal Navy without missiles for the new submarines once the current Trident D5 missile reaches the end of its life in the 2040s.

Given the squeeze on the defence budget and the significant cost implications of moving too far away from a system which is compatible with US nuclear technology, the uncertainty about the US Navy's future submarine programme can only strengthen the case for Trident replacement to be reconsidered in the post election Defence Review.


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