Greenpeace UK and CND have been doing some sterling work to establish how much money will be spent on the Trident replacement programme before Parliament decides whether to give the final go-ahead for the programme after the next general election.
The Ministry of Defence is expected to release its 'Initial Gate' report for Trident's successor in February, which will outline the basic design details which have been chosen for the future submarine intended to carry the UK's Trident nuclear weapons. Once the Initial Gate design has been approved, the project moves into the ‘Assessment Phase’, where detailed design and preparatory work is done. Major spending commitments are not generally made, or contracts placed, until the final ‘Main Gate’ decision is made at the end of the Assessment Phase.
However, because the Trident replacement project is so large and complex, the distinctions between the various phases have become blurred. To try to prevent delays to the programme, the Ministry of Defence intends to place advance orders for various 'long lead' items which are critical to construction of the submarine. The Ministry has told Greenpeace that the main categories of long-lead items are expected to be hull structure and structural fittings; primary and secondary propulsion systems; electrical generation, conversion and distribution; various components of the combat systems; and ship services.
A significant chunk of the first submarine will therefore be purchased in advance, before the Main Gate decision in 2016 when the new Parliament will have the chance to decide whether or not it wants to proceed with the project. The likely cost of all this spending is not being disclosed by the Ministry of Defence, but CND has made a plausible estimate that around £2.1 billion will be spent before the next election.
The risks are obvious and they are also high: all the ingredients are here for a repeat of the aircraft carrier fiasco, when the Coalition government found itself being forced into buying new ships it didn't want and can't afford because its hands were tied by contracts agreed in advance and money committed by the previous government.
Close scrutiny of the programme will be needed over the months ahead. The forthcoming Initial Gate report must include detailed information on the expected costs of replacing Trident and a transparent account of how the Ministry of Defence intends to report on spending and let contacts for the programme. Parliament – and particularly the House of Commons Defence Committee – will need to be keep a close eye on the project, be vigilant of costs creeping upwards, and be ready to pull the plug on the project if it seems to be drifting out of control.