Today’s announcement that design contracts for the Trident successor submarines have been signed is being portrayed as the Coalition Government moving a step closer to a full Trident replacement.
In reality the final decision for Trident replacement is still years away. Until 2016’s Main Gate decision, the ‘point of no return’ at which contracts are finalised and billions of pounds committed, there are still important questions to be asked about the future of the UK’s nuclear deterrent.
And if it wasn’t for Liberal Democrat influence in this Government, this simply would not be the case. It is because we are in this Government that Trident is being properly scrutinised to see if it is the right and most responsible deterrent the UK should have.
The Coalition Agreement set out the joint position: that the nuclear deterrent will be maintained, but at the same time the process of renewing Trident would be scrutinised for value for money. The Value for Money study of the Trident system took place in the summer of 2010, identifying changes to the programme by reducing the number of warheads on each submarine from 48 to 40 – as well as substantial savings to the tune of £3.2bn over 10 years.
Crucially, the Value for Money study scrutinised the timing of the Main Gate decision, the ‘point of no return’, and identified 2016 – rather than late 2014 or early 2015 – as the point at which a decision would be needed. Extending the timetable for the final decision in this way has opened the space for a rational debate on the future of Trident before the next election.
The Coalition Agreement also stated that the Lib Dems would continue to advocate alternatives to like-for-like replacement. The ongoing Trident Alternatives review, which I am overseeing, is doing just that, while asking searching questions about the relevance and cost-effectiveness of the posture of Continuous At Sea Deterrence (CASD). This is the long-sought after and non-prejudiced study necessary to inform the full and proper debate that Tony Blair promised and failed to deliver in 2006 and 2007. The study’s timescales are still on track and it will report to the PM and DPM at the end of this year.
For the time being, the Government’s assumption is to move ahead with like-for-like replacement of Trident. This is what the Coalition Agreement commits us to. However, the contracts announced today – the first Assessment Phase Design contracts and Collaborative Agreement – are part of the package of work announced last May at the Initial Gate decision. While the announcement will be seen by some commentators as the Government pressing ahead with NEW financial and contractual commitments to the Trident successor despite Lib Dem pressure to the contrary, this is just not the case. Out of everything announced today, there is nothing new.
So though these design phase contracts are being signed, the final decision as to whether to proceed with the new generation of Trident submarines – the Main Gate decision – will not take place until 2016 after the next General Election.
* Sir Nick Harvey was the Liberal Democrat MP for North Devon from 1992 until 2015 and Minister of State for the Armed Forces from 2010 to 2012