The cost of renewing the UK’s Trident nuclear deterrent could “sink” the overstretched defence budget, experts have warned.
Building four new Dreadnought-class submarines to replace the vessels that provide the UK’s continuous at-sea deterrent is already set to cost £31 billion, at a time when the Ministry of Defence faces a black hole in its equipment procurement programme of as much as £15bn over the next 15 years.
Trident renewal alone makes up a quarter of the MoD’s ten-year equipment plan. The final cost is expected to rise by another £2.9bn over budget.
The National Audit Office has put the total cost of running and updating the UK’s nuclear deterrent at over £50bn, and last year said it would be “crucial” to find ways of cutting the bill to make it affordable.
Defence secretary Gavin Williamson argued for extra money in last year’s budget, but was given just £1bn to fill the gaps.
Cost pressures have forced a two-year delay to construction of the Astute-class of nuclear-powered attack submarines.
Trevor Taylor, a naval specialist at military think-tank the Royal United Services Institute, told the Financial Times that “nuclear subs are the most demanding defence project”. “You do not get to build a prototype – you have to get it right first time.”
Mr Taylor said: “Can Dreadnought sink the defence budget? The answer is yes.”
He added: “At what point does an independent British deterrent become unaffordable? For me, there is such a commitment to this that they would spend whatever was needed.”
Richard Scott, naval consultant editor at defence journal Jane’s, said MoD officials were privately voicing their own fears about the costs of replacing Trident.
“You hear comments about the disproportionate impact the deterrent has on the overall defence budget,” Mr Scott said. “Some people are asking, ‘can we really justify this’?”
In March, the MoD was allowed to use £600m of a £10bn contingency fund held by the Treasury to ensure the Dreadnought programme, being delivered by BAE Systems at Barrow-in-Furness, remained on track.
Announcing the funding, Prime Minister Theresa May said it was “another sign of the deep commitment this Government has to keeping our country safe”.
Defence contractor BAE has described the programme as “one of the world’s most complex engineering challenges”.
Dreadnought submarines, which like their predecessors will be based at Faslane naval base on the west coast of Scotland, will be powered by a new model of nuclear reactor that will not be able to be tested in prototype, posing the biggest risk to the project, according to analysts.
SNP MSP Bill Kidd said the cost of the Trident renewal programme was “enormous and unjustifiable”. He claimed an independent Scotland would be able to avoid “paying through the nose for these wasteful and immoral weapons”.
“It is increasingly obvious that the UK Government’s single-minded obsession with nuclear weapons is going to come at a huge cost to our conventional defence,” Mr Kidd said.
“The staggering revelation that even senior military officials are now questioning whether we can justify Trident renewal should give the Tories – and Labour – a reality check.”