This week's news has been dominated by debate about the dire economic outlook facing the nation, and the likely severity of the cutbacks we'll need to make to pay down our now massive national debt. Ministers wring their hands about it but can't escape the reality that Britain plc needs to make cuts across the board - unless, of course, it's weapons of mass destruction that are under discussion.
Remarkably the cost of maintaining our 'independent' nuclear deterrent continues to increase in inverse proportion to it's usefulness. And apparently we can't do without it, even though senior military advisers admit there's already a multi-billion pound 'black hole' in our defence procurement budget.Certainly Labour have in their wisdom decide to exclude it from their planned defence review.
New research from Greenpeace, using only the government's own figures, puts the actual cost of building and operating Trident's replacement at over £95bn, and also questions serious cost overruns in plans to build and equip two new 'supercarriers' for the Royal Navy, which are on order to help us maintain our 'global reach'.
"The government must
ask whether it can afford Trident or whether it can afford to give up what it’s got to give up in order to afford Trident."
8 January 2009
In The Firing Line, released today, has received the backing of many senior political and military figures: former shadow defence secretary Michael Ancram wrote the report's forward, while Lib Dem shadow chancellor Vince Cable says that it is "powerful evidence" that "supports claims that MOD equipment plans are totally unrealistic in the light of Britain's serious budgetary constraints".
There is so much spin around Trident that it's hard to know where to start. In the first place the government has tried to spin the renewal project as 'routine maintenance'. Which may fool us poor citizens, but not the governments of other nations. They see it see it for what it is – re-armament, and a breaking of our legally binding pledge to disarm. Secondly, the level of intentional obfuscation around timings and costs have practically been elevated to an art form.So much so that it took our researchers months to work out the real levels of expenditure involved.
The headline figure (the one the government is willing to tell us) is a sizeable £15-20 billion, but in fact this only covers the costs of new submarines, warheads, and some building work at military bases. Annual running costs of over £2bn over new Trident's planned 30 year life span have been excluded, as have hidden costs like those for the missiles on which the warheads fly, and the military escorts which accompany Trident while it's out at sea. Once these are factored in, we're won't be getting much change from £100bn.
While the headline cost of the two supercarriers is just a fraction of this at £4bn, there's the small matter of at least £10bn for 150 new F35 planes to fly from them, plus a whole host of running costs which bring the total package in at around £33bn. It's unclear whether this even covers the small matter of funding a task force of submarines and destroyers to protect them.
All this for hardware which many politicians and ex military personnel agree is irrelevant to the security challenges Britain faces in the next decades. Our biggest problems are likely to centre around international terrorism, failed states, pandemic diseases and above all, the knock-on effects of climate change. What use are Cold-War relics against these kinds of threats? They are not even popular with many in the military, who would far prefer to see the money spent on equipment which our armed forces genuinely need and find useful.
And, politicians please note, it's not as if the public doesn't understand this. Public support for abandoning Trident renewal has never been more widespread. A new poll in the Independent showed 58% of people are happy to see the project scrapped, preferring to see the money spent on key frontline public services. One can only speculate how these figures might increase if the true £97bn cost of Trident was more widely known.
If your local MP hasn't yet got the message, please take a moment to write to them. Ask them to pressure their party leader to push for a freeze on any further spending on the Trident replacement and aircraft supercarrier programmes.