As David Cameron outlines the need for deep cuts in public spending, the Ministry of Defence has quietly revealed that spending on the replacement for the UK's Trident nuclear weapons is steadily increasing.
David Cameron today gave his first major speech on the economy since becoming Prime Minister, and highlighted the dire state of the public finances and Britain's fiscal deficit. Giving a grim preview of what we can expect in the emergency budget scheduled for later this month, he warned that the scale of the nation's debt is so great that Britain's whole way of life would be disrupted for years – and no-one will escape the cuts.
No-one, it seems, except the nuclear mandarins at the Ministry of Defence. While the Prime Minister was putting the finishing touches to his speech at the end of last week, the MoD quietly admitted that spending on the programme to replace Trident with a new nuclear weapon system is creeping steadily upwards. In a response to a Parliamentary question from Scottish Nationalist MP Eilidh Whiteford, the new minister for Defence Equipment, Peter Luff, announced that spending on the Future Submarine Programme to replace Trident will reach £350 million this year – up from £290 million in the 2009/10 financial year. That doesn't include the costs of upgrade work at the Atomic Weapons Establishment, and it's on top of the spending needed to keep the current Trident system afloat.
A simple calculation shows that although the first new submarine won't come into service until the mid 2020s, we're already spending slightly under a million pounds a day on replacing Trident. The money's being spent on the consultancy and preliminary design work which is the first stage of the Trident replacement programme – the basic work of deciding what the new submarines will look like. These costs are scheduled to rise dramatically over the next couple of years as the detailed engineering design commences, and rocket even further in three to four years time when work on building the first new submarine is due to begin.
A million pounds a day may not sound much compared to the multi-billion pound figures that the UK owes its creditors in debt, but it's still a pretty hefty sum. It could pay teaching salaries at a couple of average sized primary schools for a year, or buy half a dozen brand new double decker buses. If, in a couple of years time, we see class sizes rising and traffic becoming more congested, we'll know that this is the price we're paying for new nuclear weapons.
In his speech David Cameron stressed that the deficit would not be cut "in a way that hurts those that we most need to help". Whatever decisions the government makes during the emergency budget, money will be very tight and ministers will have precious little room for manouevre. If the coalition government is serious about rebuilding the economy but protecting the needy, it will be difficult for them to justify the costs of replacing Trident. Unless, of course, those that we most need to help includes the multinational arms companies.