Trident: now the Treasury and MoD squabble over who foots the bill

Posted by jossc — 19 July 2010 at 3:52pm - Comments

HMS Vanguard, Britain's first Trident submarine

No one has been more insistent that Britain must commit to replacing Trident than new defence secretary Liam Fox. Despite the lack of credible targets and the exorbitant cost, Dr Fox has fought doggedly for a new generation of nuclear weapons to protect Britain from "nuclear blackmail" by other states - apparently North Korea (possibly four missiles at most) and Iran (none at all) give him palpitations and sleepless nights.

But now, in a deliciously ironic twist, Dr Fox is being asked to put his department's money where his mouth is. Traditionally the Treasury pays for the capital investment in nuclear weapons, but such is the pressure to cut-back on government spending across the board that the Chancellor is now keen that the MoD should foot the bill instead.

Which places Dr Fox in a very awkward position. Even using doctored government figures, replacing the Trident system will cost about £20bn over the next two decades (the true figure, of course, will be getting on for five times as high over its lifetime). With an annual defence spend of under £40bn, it will be impossible to deliver a Trident upgrade without decimating the armed forces even further than the 10-20 per cent cuts outlined in the recent emergency budget.

Could this be a political masterstroke by the prime minister? Having appeased the right-wing of his party by giving the defence ministry to one of their own in Dr Fox, he can now effectively force them to make the choice between a new generation of nuclear weapons or savage cut-backs in the number of armed forces personnel and conventional equipment.

Faced with such a choice, it's hard to see how Fox can favour Trident ahead of the real needs of the navy, army and air force. Senior MoD officials are already insisting that incorporating Trident into the MoD core budget would be "prohibitively expensive" - some reckon that by 2020 the cost of the submarines alone could take up to 25 per cent of ministry spending.

Perhaps having to foot the bill will give Dr Fox a new perspective on the true value of Trident. He recently made a speech to the Chatham House thinktank in which he contemplated a Trident replacement with fewer missiles and warheads, and three (rather than four) submarines. And on yesterday's Andrew Marr show he claimed to see "an opportunity for us to diminish our reliance on some of our cold war legacy and start to reshape ourselves".

If the MoD loses this battle with the Treasury, it will effectively mean that the capital costs of Trident replacement become the ministry's financial responsibility ahead of the Strategic Defence and Security Review. Which begs the question, how much do Dr Fox and his ministry really want this outdated nuclear doomsday machine? Given that significant numbers of senior top brass see no military value in nuclear weapons (particularly if they have to be paid for by cuts in their own services), the outlook for the replacement system begins to look distinctly dodgy.

Of course, since Dr Fox is currently negotiating a 10 year capital budget with the Treasury, this could just be a shot from the Chancellor across the bows of the MoD to ensure that it keeps its financial demands to a minimum in these difficult economic times.

Either way, it's an interesting and welcome development. The case for Trident replacement has never been strong - if it were really essential it would top the MoD's spending priorities - and if high profile politicians like Messrs Osborne and Cameron withdraw their active support, the project's days could start to look numbered.

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About Joss

Bass player and backing vox in the four piece beat combo that is the UK Greenpeace Web Experience. In my 6 years here I've worked on almost every campaign and been fascinated by them all to varying degrees. Just now I'm working on Peace and Oceans - which means getting rid of our Trident nuclear weapons system and creating large marine reserves so that marine life can get some protection from overfishing.

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