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I am going to make some progress now. I have given way generously to Members on both sides of the House.
The benefits that I have outlined from the 2013 report could inform the strategic defence and security review that will follow the general election if we were to recast the UK’s approach to nuclear weapons. The reasons for doing so should be obvious to all; they were written about this week in an article, which I would commend to Members, by Paul Mason of “Channel 4 News”. He wrote:
“Russia, jihadis or cyberwarfare—which is the most urgent of the new threats we face? The forthcoming strategic review will force the British military establishment to ask difficult questions. It must separate real threats from imagined ones.
It is in this context that Britain’s hapless defence establishment has to carry out yet another strategic defence and security review. The last one, in 2010, was a valiant effort to impose philosophical coherence on policies, commitments and projects that had become self-perpetuating, strategically meaningless and financially unsustainable. It did not succeed.
In 2010, the essential problem boiled down to two things: maintaining (and modernising) Britain's capacity to do expeditionary warfare, as in the Falklands, Iraq and Afghanistan; and boosting the strategic end of the armed forces—Trident and the Royal Navy—so that we could still claim to be a world power.”
It is worth reflecting on what Paul Mason wrote because of the squeeze to UK conventional defence capabilities in recent years. We have seen significant cuts to personnel, basing, capabilities and, frankly and sadly, too often a substandard approach to the safety of our service personnel.
Members are well aware of the recent difficulties the MOD is in, in terms of cutting regular troop numbers and filling the gaps with reserves. Bases have been closed, including the end of flying operations from two out of three air bases in Scotland. Crucial capability gaps have been exposed, including the absence of a single maritime patrol aircraft since the scrapping of the entire Nimrod fleet. I observe that the Irish Air Corps has more maritime patrol aircraft than the UK at present. In recent weeks in my constituency, one has been able to regularly see maritime patrol aircraft from other countries operating from RAF Lossiemouth, helping to fill a capability that the UK currently has no concrete plans to fill.
Similar shortcomings have been exposed with other capabilities needed to deal with
“violations of national airspace, emergency scrambles, narrowly avoided midair collisions, close encounters at sea, simulated attack runs and other dangerous actions”.
As has been officially confirmed, the Royal Navy has on a number of occasions “gapped” the provision of fleet ready escort vessels; that is, there was no availability of the appropriate vessel to patrol and screen in UK waters.
My constituents have on a number of occasions been able to see the Admiral Kuznetsov, the largest vessel in the Russian northern fleet, and it has been widely reported about the MOD initially depending on reports from Scottish fishing boats before Royal Navy vessels interdicted the visiting vessels from Russia after being dispatched from the south coast of England.
In recent years we have also had to go through a variety of issues where service personnel equipment malfunctioned or was not up to the appropriate safety standard. Most recently, and tragically, this was exposed after the death of three of my constituents aboard two RAF Tornados that collided above the Moray firth. The Tornado fleet still does not have collision avoidance systems fully installed, decades after they were recommended, and there are no concrete plans or timetables for that potentially life-saving equipment for Typhoons or F35 jets. The MOD has the wrong priorities, investing billions in nuclear weapons that it can never use but not properly managing the conventional armed forces which are so necessary.
The national security strategy noted in 2010 that, in a period of changing security threats, it would be sensible to consider how ending the Trident replacement programme would release resources that could be spent on more effective security measures. What commitment will the Secretary of State give to the national security strategy informing the strategic defence and security review on the issue of nuclear weapons? In 2010, the NSS downgraded the threat of a nuclear weapon conflict without the SDSR downgrading the role of nuclear weapons in our military capability. That mistake should not be repeated in 2015.
The Defence Committee, in its report “Deterrence in the Twenty-First Century”, argued that at some point in the future the core role of nuclear weapons could be achieved by the deployment of advanced conventional weapons. The NSS and SDSR 2015 should model and scenario-plan such situations, and allow MPs to assess the findings, before we commit further billions to the construction of Trident replacement. Ahead of a final decision on the construction of Trident replacement submarines at the 2016 main gate, the role of SDSR 2015 should be to deliver the most open consultation and debate on the role of UK nuclear weapons and whether we should maintain them at all.
Does the Secretary of State recognise that with the national security strategy placing international terrorism, cybercrime and major accidents and natural hazards such as coastal flooding at the top tier of threats to the UK, recent experience suggests that these areas need greater resources, rather than the false priorities of the nuclear deterrent?
On the cost of Trident replacement, we know from studies, including “In the Firing Line”—an investigation into the hidden costs of replacing Trident—that the costs are astronomic and approach £100 billion. It is not just the costs of development and construction. It is also about the in-service running costs over decades. It is worth noting that despite the fact that Parliament has not given maingate approval for Trident replacement, the MOD has already spent between £2 billion and £3 billion on what are called long-lead items.
Most recently, news emerged about the purchase of the “common missile compartment” that is being built in the US at a cost of approximately £37 million. The spec of the common missile compartment has 12 launch tubes and runs contrary to claims by the MOD in the 2010 SDSR that it will
“reduce the number of operational launch tubes on the submarines from 12 to eight”.
“configure the next generation of submarines accordingly with only eight operational missile” tubes.
The Royal United Services Institute has estimated that the construction cost of Trident replacement will consume 35% of the procurement budget by the early 2020s. The Minister should be concerned that the cost overruns we have seen with other MOD major projects, such as the Astute submarines, Queen Elizabeth aircraft carriers and A400M refuelling aircraft, will be replicated with Trident replacement and will further impact on resources for other equipment and capabilities.
Has the Secretary of State read the recent media reports that the replacement of Britain’s nuclear deterrent means that his Department will be forced to make more significant cuts to troop numbers unless the next Government agree to keep real-terms increases to the defence budget—something that is not being offered to other Departments?