UK's Nuclear Deterrent

Part of Terrorist Attack: Nice – in the House of Commons at 5:39 pm on 18th July 2016.

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Photo of Crispin Blunt Crispin Blunt Chair, Foreign Affairs Committee 5:39 pm, 18th July 2016

Yes, it is extremely straightforward. It is 6% of 2% of GDP on the basis of the Government’s proposed in-service dates of the system. The defence budget is 2% of GDP, and this is 6% of that share. That presents us with the number. It is not surprising that the number should be 6% of GDP, which is double the share of the defence budget in the 1980s, because the share of GDP spent on defence has halved since the 1980s.

The costs of this project are enormous. I have asked privately a number of my hon. Friends at what point they believe that those costs become prohibitive. I cannot get an answer, short of, “Whatever it takes,” but I do not believe that an answer of infinity is rational. It is not only damaging to our economic security; it also comes at a deeply injurious opportunity cost to conventional defence. At what point do either of those prices cease to be worth paying?

The costs are likely to rise much further. The standard programme risks, which are already apparent with the Astute programme, and the currency risk pale when compared with the technical risk of this project. There is a growing body of evidence that emerging technologies will render the seas increasingly transparent in the foreseeable future. Under development are distributed censors detecting acoustic, magnetic, neutrino and electromagnetic signatures, on board unmanned vehicles in communication with each other, using swarming algorithms and autonomous operations associated with artificial intelligence, able to patrol indefinitely and using the extraordinary processing capabilities now available and improving by the month. The geometric improvement in processing power means that that technology in today’s smartphone is far superior to that of the latest American fighter aircraft. Furthermore, unmanned aircraft will detect the surface weight of deeply submerged submarines communicating with those underwater receiving active sonar. Marine biologists are already able to track shoals of fish in real time from several hundred miles away.

Ballistic submarines depend utterly on their stealth by utilising the sheer size of the oceans, but if we are today able to detect the gravitational waves first created by big bang, how can we be so confident that a capable adversary would not be able to track our submarines 20 to 40 years from now? The system vulnerabilities are not restricted to its increasingly detectable signatures. What about the security of the Trident system against cyber-attack?

Part of the Government’s case is that all the other P5 states are also investing in submarine technology for their nuclear weapon systems. It would not be the first time that states have followed each other down a dreadnought blind alley, but the UK is the only nuclear-armed state to depend entirely on a submarine. If NATO’s technical head of anti-submarine warfare can foresee the end of the era of the submarine, our P5 colleagues will at least have their bets laid off. We won’t.