Skip to main content

Armed Forces: Trident

Volume 712: debated on Thursday 9 July 2009


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their latest assessment of the timetables for and costs of replacing Trident nuclear weapons and commissioning new aircraft carriers.

My Lords, I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in offering our sincerest condolences to the family and friends of Lieutenant Colonel Rupert Thorneloe, Trooper Joshua Hammond, Private Robert Laws, Lance Corporal David Dennis, Lance Corporal Dane Elson, Captain Benjamin Babington-Browne and the soldier from the Light Dragoons killed in Helmand province on Tuesday 7 July. All were killed on operations this week in Afghanistan. We also offer our condolences to the family and friends of Flight Lieutenant Kenneth Thompson and Flight Lieutenant Nigel Morton, who were killed when their Tornado F3 crashed on Thursday 2 July in Scotland while on a routine training flight.

This Government are committed to the current nuclear deterrent and to the development of the replacement system, as set out in the 2006 White Paper. We estimate that this replacement will cost between £15 billion and £20 billion at 2006-07 prices and we expect the first successor submarine to enter service in 2024. As part of the 2008 equipment examination, we decided to delay the carriers by one to two years, recognising that this would add cost. Our latest, yet-to-be-approved, estimated cost is £4.6 billion. We expect the in-service dates to be towards the end of 2015 and 2018 respectively.

My Lords, I am sure that the whole House will endorse without reservation the tribute to the fallen in Iraq and Afghanistan. With our forces as stretched as they are, in operations that are likely to be the pattern for the future, is not the top priority to ensure that they have the very best equipment for the tasks that they are undertaking and are likely to be undertaking? Is it not, therefore, essential to reassess the replacement of Trident because of the vast expenditure involved? Should we not look at alternatives and is it not essential that the House should have an opportunity to debate this issue before initial gate decisions are made? If aircraft carriers are essential for flexibility in deployment around the world—and I, for one, believe that they are—do we really need the kind of, arguably, oversophisticated vessels that are currently planned? Would not more simple vessels do the task very well? Indeed, will the aircraft be available to make the expensive, sophisticated carriers fully operational?

My Lords, we put absolutely as our first priority the support to our troops on operations. We have shown that by providing through the UOR process more than £2.2 billion to operations. But we need to do both. It is our primary responsibility to provide for the security of this nation and we cannot do that without a nuclear deterrent. We have said that the nuclear deterrent will not come at a cost to investment in our conventional forces and, no, there is no alternative to the provision of the capability that the carriers will provide. As my colleague on these Benches said when he was First Sea Lord, this is four acres of British sovereign territory that can move 500 miles in a day without the by your leave of any other nation.

My Lords, can the Minister repeat the assurance given to your Lordships’ House the last time that this subject was raised in Oral Questions, to the effect that the two new aircraft carriers will not be diluted into any European defence force?

My Lords, in the private sector, if one trades when one knows that one’s operation is insolvent, that is a criminal offence. At the present time, the Ministry of Defence, frankly, is bust. There is a yawning gap between resources and commitments. We have a belated defence review that should have come two or three years ago, as many of us were asking for. What are a Government who place a Secretary of State for Defence 21st out of 23 in the Cabinet’s pecking order going to do about the desperate financial situation of the MoD?

My Lords, I am afraid that I do not recognise at all the characterisation that the noble Lord has just set out. On returning to the Ministry of Defence recently, I have been struck by the way in which it has been able to respond to the pressures of operations and by the success that our forces have achieved in Iraq, for example. We recognise the pressures that they are under, but we are supporting them and seeing progress in the way in which they are making their contribution to the international effort in Afghanistan. We obviously have to manage our finances adequately and we are committed to doing that, which is why we announced earlier this week the Strategic Defence Review.

My Lords, in the light of recent reports in the press about a £1 billion overrun on the two carriers, to which the Minister referred in his original Answer, what steps are the Government taking to ensure that this undesirable trend does not occur year on year?

My Lords, this increase in costs is due to the decision that we took last year to put back the delivery date of the carriers. The project itself is not leading to increased costs; the primary cost increase caused by the delay is due to the inflationary effect on working capital because of the length of the project.

My Lords, from these Benches we, too, send our condolences to the families of the soldiers and the two flight lieutenants whom the Minister mentioned. I very much welcome the noble Lord back to the Dispatch Box with his defence brief. Last month in the other place, the Prime Minister claimed that,

“it is important for us to remember that we have funded defence services for the next two years”.—[Official Report, Commons, 29/6/09; col. 31.]

Is that really the case?

My Lords, the very sad list that the Minister read out at the start of his Answer, on which I am sure the whole House expresses its condolences, draws attention yet again to the fact that the operations that we are conducting require people. The Minister has confirmed that the equipments mentioned in the Question are covered in the budget. Can he confirm or deny reports that three infantry battalions are likely to be cut from the budget, while these equipments are to be retained?

My Lords, is it the view of Her Majesty’s Government that Russia, in particular, still presents a risk sufficient to warrant our acquiring the defensive assets referred to in the Question of the noble Lord, Lord Judd, as a prudent insurance policy?

My Lords, this is not about Russia or any other country. We need to recognise that the replacement of our deterrent will come into service from 2024 and will stay in service until the late 2050s. It is very difficult for us to predict what the world will be like at that time, which is why we are committed to maintaining our deterrent and replacing the Vanguard submarines.