The Real Cost Benefit to the Nation of Trident
Ever since Great Britain became a nuclear armed power, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), supported primarily by left-leaning politicians, religious leaders and academics, have pressed their ‘Unilateralist’ case for the United Kingdom to give up its nuclear arsenal. The position held by many in CND and by some of its fellow travellers, is that all nuclear weapons are immoral, albeit that they seem determined to see the UK, a Western Democracy, disarm first. Notwithstanding the moral case, there are countless talking heads who argue, ad nausea, over technical points that they believe further the ‘Unilateralist’ cause – the Trident system is not independent; it is a Cold War relic; it encourages proliferation; it can never be used; and, the most often cited, it costs too much!
One might wonder why those who are opposed to UK possessing nuclear weapons on moral grounds feel it necessary to delve into the cost and operational feasibility issues at all. After all if the mere possession of nuclear weapons is, in their minds, immoral, what else is there to say?
It is not possible to understand all the dynamics at work here but it would be foolish to assume that CND and its support derive from a homogeneous mass collectively driven to achieve a universally accepted political position – nor one that is totally in tune with the national security of UK. Indeed, during the Cold War, Soviet infiltration of such organisations was de-rigour and the KGB’s reasons for becoming involved had nothing to do with moral imperatives. What we are therefore left with is spoiling noise specifically designed to complicate the debate whilst at the same time appealing to other points of view that are not necessarily in tune with the ‘Unilateralist’ approach. Russia and Mr Putin in particular would be delighted if UK unilaterally gave up its nuclear deterrent.
However, the arguments over whether the trident system is a Cold War relic, unusable or not fully independent have all been addressed and shown to be unrepresentative, misguided or simply incorrect. However, the detractors do not want to hear this. Which is precisely why CND, the Scottish National Party, the Liberal Democratic Party and elements of the Labour left are attempting to discredit a perfectly sound, efficient and cost effective security guarantee by conflating the procurement of a 4 boat replacement Ship Submersible Ballistic Nuclear (SSBN) with spurious arguments over nuclear escalation, the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and artificially inflated programme costs.
In reality all UK is doing in building a successor SSBN to replace its ageing in-place Vanguard Class, upgrading its Trident II D5 missile system and improving shore based handling facilities. There is no nuclear escalation on the part of UK and no NPT violation at all. Indeed, far from breaching its NPT obligations, UK is actually reducing its operational in-use nuclear warhead stockpile as well as the number of Trident missiles that will be carried in the new Common Missile Compartment (CMC) on the successor SSBN.
This, then, leaves the cost argument. The new build programme cost is now estimated to be circa £25bn albeit that in 2006 the forward projection the Ministry of Defence (MOD) supplied to parliament was £20.5bn as follows:
a. £0.25 billion to participate in U.S. Trident D5 missile life extension programme.
b. £11–14 billion for a class of four new SSBNs.
c. £2–3 billion for refurbishing warheads.
d. £2–3 billion for infrastructure.
The first new boat is slated to enter service in 2028 subject to ‘Main Gate’ approval. It is estimated by MOD that the Operational and Maintenance (O&M) budget to operate the 4 boat fleet and missiles will be between “£1.5bn and £2bn per year – much as now. However, official UK planning is for a 30 year lifespan so, the total spend at today’s prices would be in the order of £85bn (£25bn for 4 SSBN, Missile upgrade and infrastructure and circa £60bn O&M) over the full 30 year planned-life of the programme – up to around 2058.
The cost argument put by CND and supporters is that the sums involved are huge – they quote over £100bn, albeit rarely emphasise the 30 year time scale – and say the money would be better spent elsewhere, most particularly on welfare programmes. Some former service chiefs have been cited-in-aide of this argument, particularly by the Liberal Democrats who are not a unilateralist party and take the view that cash saved from the Trident programme could be better spent on more conventional forces or a less costly nuclear option. Putting aside that the Treasury might simply pocket the money saved, it might be helpful to consider the cost issue at a macro level by taking a look at what is actually being spent across several government departments and within the MOD itself in order to assess how sums of money involved are distributed.
The pie chart (Chart 1) below gives a UK perspective on the amount of funding the Treasury has allowed per major spending department in the FY 2014/15.
According to this, the Office for Budget Responsibility pie chart MOD funding for FY 2014/15 is £38bn for all expenditure. We already know that spending on the nuclear deterrent is on-going at the rate of circa £2bn per year. Therefore, in O&M terms the nuclear deterrent constitutes circa 5.5% of the total annual defence budget leaving 94.5% for conventional forces. Arguably the difference is not insignificant in monetary terms and additional conventional capability could be acquired if the Treasury permitted but only at the expense of UK’s national deterrent against nuclear blackmail or attack. The problem with using any savings to fund an alternative nuclear system is that the UK does not have a warhead for such use and this would need to be developed or sourced and the costs of doing so taken into account alongside the Strategic risks and technological challenges that a move towards theatre level nuclear weapons will inevitably initiate. In any case, this option would not appease the anti-nuclear lobby.
On the macro level it is worth considering that the annual cost to the UK tax payer for Social Protection is currently £222bn, Health £140bn and Education £98bn which outstrip national defence, at £38bn, by several orders of magnitude. If the data were to be projected from now until the new SSBN out of service date of circa 2060 (45 Years) – all things being equal – the total spend on Social Protection would be circa £9.99 trillion, Health £6.3 trillion, Education £4.41 trillion and Defence £1.71 trillion of which only £85bn will have been spent on procuring and operating the UK Trident II D5 system delivered by our 4 SSBN Continuous At Sea Deterrent.
Finally, the anti-nuclear constituency often put the case for more social spending as opposed to defence, most especially nuclear, so it is worth considering the current annual spend of £460bn on social protection, health and education in the UK and contrast this with the £2bn per year spent on the British Independent Nuclear Deterrent. Yet there are still people in UK who would gladly see this long serving and effective defence system scrapped on the grounds of cost. This attitude of denial is most worrying when it extends beyond mere economic sophistry to ignore a bellicose Mr Putin brazenly reminding ‘The West’ that Russia is a nuclear power not to be messed with. Therefore, Mr Putin’s dangerous rhetoric and actions, no doubt heeded by the British public, are a rallying call for UK to continue spending the very low amounts we actually do – when contrasted with social welfare – to fund the very minimum national nuclear insurance policy that prudence and experience demands.