UK's Nuclear Deterrent

Part of Terrorist Attack: Nice – in the House of Commons at 8:07 pm on 18th July 2016.

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Photo of Steven Paterson Steven Paterson Scottish National Party, Stirling 8:07 pm, 18th July 2016

I do accept that, but it is fair to say that, in the SDSR, the Government did make significant moves forward and invested correctly in intelligence and cyber. However, it is also true that we face a choice between investing in nuclear weapons and in conventional weapons and all those other responses: we cannot spend the money twice.

The Government have identified that £31 billion is necessary for the construction of the four replacement submarines, with a £10 billion contingency fund for unanticipated costs. However, the true costs of this programme in its entirety, including maintenance, the missiles and the nuclear warheads, will undoubtedly be far higher. As we heard earlier from the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, it could be £179 billion over the lifetime of the programme. We have form here. In the 2010 SDSR, the cost of replacing the submarines came in at £20 billion, but it is now £31 billion, with a £10 billion contingency for when it overruns, which is likely, given what happened with the Astute submarines—they overran.

I remind those saying we can have a nuclear deterrent and a capable military force that the 2010 SDSR is responsible for the Royal Navy going from 23 surface vessels to 19, with 40,000 personnel lost from the UK regular forces. Only last week, the House debated some of the appalling failures in appropriately arming and equipping our armed forces for deployment in Iraq, with Chilcot identifying a refusal to allocate a sufficient budget as a direct and damning failure. I ask colleagues to consider that before voting tonight, because this will be a vast and recurring spend over a number of decades. The Defence Secretary has said that his estimate of the cost of operating the continuous at-sea deterrent is about 6% of the defence budget, or about £2 billion to £2.3 billion per year. However, the fall in the value of sterling since Brexit could have a severe impact. One would imagine that the costs could go up, and our experience so far with other programmes is that that is what happens.

I turn to one of the central assumptions in the argument of those who support the renewal of the Trident nuclear weapons system for a period stretching to the 2060s—the assumed inability of an enemy to detect the single nuclear weapon-armed submarine on patrol at any given time. It is over 40 years until the 2060s—the projected end of the Successor submarines’ operational lives. Given the technological advances of the past 40 years—the internet, mobile phones, and satellite technology—are we seriously saying that we can predict accurately where technology will have taken us 40 years hence? This is a decision to commit a gigantic sum of money, over subsequent decades, to the continuation of the Trident programme, yet we must assume that there will be no technological advance that will allow for the detection of these vessels beneath the ocean surface. That is not tenable. Were such a technological advance to occur, even the most ardent advocate of the continuous at-sea deterrent would have to concede that it would mean the loss of the system’s most important advantage. In such a circumstance, the continuous at-sea deterrent would be rendered vulnerable, if not altogether obsolete. Sea drones are one such technology currently being considered that may have the potential to be propagated in coming decades. The Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee suggested that that might happen. Such a development would, at least, require considerable investment in counter-measures, putting more pressure on future defence budgets.

Finally, I want to mention the elephant in the room—possible Scottish independence. I have no intention of getting into why this would be a very good idea for Scotland, although it would, but it has a direct and profound bearing on our debate, and it has not come up much tonight. Whether or not hon. Members agree that Scottish independence is preferable, it is at least a possibility. I am not sure that many right hon. and hon. Members would be prepared to bet on that eventuality not occurring over the next 40 years. Make no mistake—those weapons of mass destruction will not be tolerated in an independent Scotland. The refusal to take that into account when allocating £179 billion beggars belief.