Rushing towards disaster with Son of Trident

NEXT Wednesday, the House of Commons will vote on replacing Britain's Trident nuclear deterrent. If that is news to you, it is because the government has been a trifle shy of raising the issue in public.

The Commons defence committee - a cross-party group of senior back-bench MPs, chaired by a former Tory defence minister who is pro-nuclear - has just published a report castigating the government for failing to answer basic questions about plans for Son of Trident. Little things such as how much it is going to cost; why we need to rush into making a decision now when the existing Trident fleet will be in operation till 2025, and could have its life extended; and - not least - exactly who the new deterrent is designed to deter.

In December, the government did publish a glossy, 40-page document entitled The Future of the United Kingdom's Nuclear Deterrent. I have rarely read such a vacuous report. How about this? - "The costs of this programme will be refined as we engage in detailed discussion with industry." Which is Civil Service for: "We haven't a clue what this is going to cost the taxpayer, but we are going to do it anyway." You can just see the contractors rubbing their hands in glee.

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The document does mention a "round" figure of 15-20 billion. Note that 20 billion is a third more than 15 billion. If the government's cost parameters are that vague, you can guess we are headed for 30-40 billion before we are done. This is Kerevan's Rule: when the government announces a major capital project, double the initial cost figure to get a better idea of how much the taxpayer will eventually have to fork out.

The point about the cost of replacing Trident is not the size of the ultimate bill, but the fact that Britain's conventional defence forces are overstretched and underfunded. Our troops in Afghanistan are making do with a handful of helicopters for mobility and a few Harrier jump-jets for air support. Before spending a penny on Son of Trident, we need a proper helicopter fleet, new close-support aircraft and a heap of robot planes for real-time reconnaissance.

So why are we replacing Trident now? The official story is that, since it took 14 years to design and deploy the current fleet of four nuclear subs, if we don't start soon, the replacement boats will not be ready when the old ones have to be retired. This is baloney.

The real story is hidden in the government's December report. There you will discover that the Americans are extending the life of their D5 Trident missiles with an upgrade of the guidance system. Britain does not actually own specific Trident rockets - technically, we borrow American ones from a common pool. The Americans need to know sometime in 2007 if we are willing to commit money to developing the souped-up version - or so the MoD tells us. Add in Tony's desire for a legacy, and Gordon's desire to look macho so that he can be prime minister some day, and there you have it.

Judging by America's history of defence programmes taking years longer to come to fruition than the manufacturers swore would be the case, I don't think we need to be panicked into signing cheques for the Lockheed Martin Corporation.

Besides, the initial money for the guidance system upgrade was in the 2006 Pentagon budget, so the modification is not dependent on the UK being involved. We can easily decide to buy the new missiles at some time in the future, and pay our share of the development costs in retrospect.

WE SHOULD also be asking ourselves what these new super-accurate guidance systems are for. The US Navy intends to get in on the anti-terror game by modifying some of its Trident missiles for conventional warfare. Now, you might consider the idea of using a multi-billion-dollar submarine fleet for zapping the odd bandit chief in his cave in Afghanistan something out of the lunatic brain of Dr Strangelove. A cheap robot plane with a few pounds of TNT would make more sense. But then, you don't have shareholders and admirals to keep in a job.

The truth is that we don't need to make a move to replace Trident for another decade. In a world where everyone else is trying to acquire nuclear weapons, I've no objection to keeping ours. However, there is no pressing technical, political or military need to rush into a replacement system at this juncture. We would be far better to use the cash to beef up our under-resourced conventional forces and also develop new technologies such as robot planes.

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Alas, I fear that next Wednesday Blair and Brown will dragoon the Labour back-bench fodder into approving Son of Trident. The results will be disastrous for our defences. For Prime Minister Gordon Brown is already committed to keeping public spending in the next period to growing at only 2 per cent, as his room for borrowing and tax hikes is fast running out. That means he will squeeze all the Whitehall budgets except health and education.

If parliament is also committed to Son of Trident, Brown will have to bite deep into the rest of the defence budget. The axe will fall on the navy's proposed new carriers and the RAF will be left with only the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight.

But, heck, our boys in Afghanistan will be able to call in a Trident missile strike on that Taleban sniper with his rusty Kalashnikov.