Helicopters and Trident face cuts as financial squeeze hits the MOD

Both Conservative and Liberal Democrats made plenty of justified political hay out of helicopter problems faced by our armed forces back under the Labour government. Now it looks as if both parties will be having to perform a sensitive political change of gear as the Ministry of Defence turns to making helicopter cuts.

Apart from the need to save money, there are good substantive policy reasons for this change. One is that the previous shortages have been tackled. As Paul Waugh recounts it,

When a newly-elected Prime Minister Cameron held his first meeting with defence chiefs in Number 10, he was clear what his priority was. “Right, first thing’s first. How many more helicopters do you need?” the PM asked the military top brass.

I’m told that he was taken aback by the reply: “Well, we actually have enough helicopters now, sir. That problem has been sorted.”

Another is that there are some defence experts saying that the planned new helicopters are no longer a smart option. The upgrade of the Lynx Mk9As has gone well, so why not upgrade more of them rather than bring in the new and expensive Lynx Wildcats, especially as the cost of an upgrade is about one-fifth of the cost of a new Wildcat?

Options for replacing Trident

Trident missile launchMeanwhile, on the question of renewing Trident there are increasing questions about whether the current policy of always having one submarine ready to fire off nuclear weapons at moment’s notice is still required. The so-called ‘Continuous At Sea Deterrence’ (CASD) policy is at odds with the defence review being carried out for our conventional forces, which is being done on the basis that a military threat to the UK itself will not suddenly appear. Instead, it would be the outcome of a period of increasing tension. If that is the logic for conventional forces, why not also for nuclear ones?

The respected Royal United Services Institute last month published a report on replacing Trident which argues,

Given the severe costs that Trident renewal could require… there is now a strong case for a re-examination of whether alternatives to current CASD policy could yield significant financial savings while continuing to meet this agreed objective. The fiscal situation facing the Ministry of Defence (MoD) is significantly worse than was assumed in 2006, when current renewal plans were drawn up by the previous government.

All this is good news from the Liberal Democrat position within the coalition on Trident’s replacement, as the party has been persistently sceptical of the financial case for the sort of replacement Labour was planning – a point that Nick Clegg has recently repeated. When it has come to the crunch at conference votes, the party has not taken a unilateralist line on nuclear deterrence, but has consistently been sceptical of the amounts of money and total nuclear firepower the other main parties have insisted on. During the election Nick Clegg raised alternatives to replacing Trident on a like-for-like basis and was often criticised by the Conservatives for this. It may yet turn out that the coalition delivers what the party was pushing for after all, though that also depends on how the Cameron versus Fox tensions over defence are resolved.

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23 Comments

  • I just misread that tweet as helicopters being proposed as replacement for Trident subs… now there’s an idea…

  • Trident has only one purpose – destruction. Helicopters can be used for the most compassionate reasons – Pakistan’s present day devastation could be eased considerably by the availability of helicopters.

  • toryboysnevergrowup 17th Aug '10 - 12:53pm
  • Roger R

    “Trident has only one purpose – destruction”

    Almost. It’s the threat of destruction that is their true purpose. Trident is a success only if BOTH us and “them” never use nuclear weapons. The theory of mutually assured destruction is as sound as it is unpleasant. If you nuke us then we will nuke you. You will die and you don’t want that so you won’t nuke us. Worry more about what that says of mankind than about the risk of it ever happening.

  • Erm, @toryboysnevergrowup if you actually read the article, you may realise that this was true as a statement, when it was made in 2009, more than a year and a half ago. Seriously, read the article before commenting like that.

  • toryboysnevergrowup 17th Aug '10 - 1:53pm

    Henry

    Perhaps you should ask some of the LibDems in Yeovil what the usual order time is for a miltary helicopter before hitting the keyboard in future? Similar comments were still being made during the election campaign – I just couldn’t find them on the LibDem website – and if you read the original post you will see that Cameron clearly held the same misconception despite being told that he wrong throughout the elction campaign.

  • toryboysnevergrowup 17th Aug '10 - 2:13pm

    Henry

    I think you will also find that Clegg was aking for more helicopters in the First PM debate. So clearly he wasn’t up to date however – or he was just trying to make cheap political propaganda.

  • They may not have been up to date – that is why Cameron asked the question and got an answer (weirdly enough, the opposition don’t have quite the same access to details eg ‘There’s no money left.’). There was a time, and Brown continued to deny it ever happened, when helicopters were denied, when they were needed, and Labour needed to be embarrassed into acting. Perfectly reasonable therefore to attack Labour’s failings and continue to call for it to be dealt with whilst Labour continue to deny there was a problem.

    (Oh, and the points about Eurofighter and helicopters in 2009 are crucial, and well made by Mr Harvey.)

  • toryboysnevergrowup 17th Aug '10 - 3:40pm

    No they just in effect accused Labour of lying when they said the helicopters had been ordered and the miltary were not requesting more helicopters (this was made perfectly clear by Brown and others on many occaisions). The fact that the helicopters had been ordered was a matter of public record at the time, but the LibDems and the Tories were more intereseted in making political capital. Some LibDems such as David Laws, who had a constituency interest, were even asking for even more helicopters to be ordered after the original order – even though the miltary didn’t want them – if you don’t believe me go and look at the the Yeovil LibDems website.

  • toryboysnevergrowup 17th Aug '10 - 3:52pm

    Of course Nick Harvey is now looking to cancel the helicopters whose ordering he pushed for. So it looks like the LibDems having made political capital about the Labour Govt not providing the miltary with the heliciopters that they wanted, even though the military had been given what they wanted, are now looking to take the helicopters away. There is a word for such behaviour.

    http://www.thisissomerset.co.uk/news/Undefined-Headline/article-2493622-detail/article.html

  • “The so-called ‘Continuous At Sea Deterrence’ (CASD) policy is at odds with the defence review being carried out for our conventional forces, which is being done on the basis that a military threat to the UK itself will not suddenly appear.”

    That seems at odds with this report on the BBC
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-10986334
    “Since 2007, the giant Tupolev Bear and Blackjack nuclear bombers of the Russian Air Force have been flying close to British airspace, as they did during the Cold War, with increasing frequency. They trigger a Quick Reaction Alert by RAF Tornados and Typhoons which intercept them. There has also been an increase in Russian submarine activity in the North Atlantic….
    Royal Navy hunter-killer submarines are almost certainly at sea right now, making sure Russian submariners do not get close enough to the Trident submarine currently on patrol with the British nuclear deterrent to pick up and record her sound signature. Were they to succeed, the deterrent system would be seriously compromised – it relies on being undetectable.”

    Either we have a submarine based deterrent continually at sea or we go for another option. A submarine based deterrent which is sometimes landbased seems pretty pointless.

  • toryboysnevergrowup 17th Aug '10 - 3:54pm

    I wonder whether David Laws will do his job as a constituency MP???

  • I think the idea of a nuclear deterrent that would take a day or two to fire is fine – the principle is mutal assured destruction, not necessarily an immediate one. However that is provided that it is as near as 100% invulnerable to a first strike attack. If you had all the Trident submarines not at sea – and it would be fairly easy to keep an eye on when they were or weren’t – they would be pretty vulnerable to a first strike attack as

  • @Mark

    Reducing below four boats would mean a delay of somewhat more than two to three days. That delay would require a boat sitting alongside, flashed up and ready to sail at less than four hours notice. In practice it’s actually lower cost to be at sea, and from experience maintaining morale is extremely difficult when alongside and closed up for extended periods.

    There is also a common thread in defence thinking that recognises that military actions influence adversary decision making, and slipping a deterrent boat to go to sea would be an escalationary action.

    In the run up to Telic the government prevented the military procurement organisation ordering a significant amount of kit because to do so telegraphed our intentions. It’s broadly the same principle.

    The delivery vehicles could be launched from alongside, but that rather misses the point of having an afloat capability.

  • Ian Eiloart 18th Aug '10 - 5:14pm

    I’d rather have no nukes, but if we’re going to have one, it should not be vulnerable to, and therefore may attract, a first strike.

  • Mark – Prof Chalmers assessments do seem to be based on reducing the number of hulls, and while I agree that there are savings to be made I think he’s optimistic about the potential, as well as discounting some fairly fundamental points about reactor life and maintenance of operational capability. He also glosses over a number of operational issues, appearing to blithely assume a threat free environment. I’m also aware that there is some disagreement within RUSI about his conclusions.

    If there is a reduction in the number of hulls when we reduce our ability to respond promptly, we go from a situation where we have a boat tied up alongside to all intents and purposes ”running” and available to slip, to a situation where a boat would essentially be ”in maintenance” and would need to be brought back up to readiness to slip. Readiness states are classified, but it would mean somewhat more than 2-3 days to be ready to launch the delivery vehicles. The other aspect is reactor life, he seems to be assuming that by not being at sea the lifetime of the boats can be extended, but the reactor doesn’t switch off, so that runs all the time and the associated ancillary systems also run all the time. His assertions bring into play the need to refuel the reactors at some point, a lengthy and expensive process.

    So to maintain the ability to launch at short notice we need to maintain 4 hulls; no reduction in capital expenditure.

    A boat tied up alongside takes up real estate and needs protection, while that’s not a major contributor to the cost it is there. The reactor is always running, producing water and electricity as well as the primary motive power for the boat. If alongside a number of key systems would, however, be run using shore support rather than the reactor. The technical reasons could be mitigated but essentially it bears a cost. The increment of being alongside isn’t huge, a few tens of thousands a day, but it is there.

    There is a lot of potential saving to be made in manpower costs, probably the biggest single expenditure in the armed forces in general, and particularly pertinent in an environment where the boats are run at all times as if they are at sea. Nuclear engineers are very expensive to recruit, train and retain. the crewing system in the bomber flotilla does have some capacity for reduction even in a four boat ”not quite CASD” situation, and that would possibly save a few million a year.

    The other aspect that I’d consider would be the need for increased force protection. If we’re considering sailing overtly we run a serious risk that the boat picks up a tail on the way out to the operating areas. When the boat is always out there the threat of a tail is reduced, but if it sails as part of an escalation it’s highly likely that there would need to be more force protection assets available to reduce that risk. There are a number of choke points that it has to sail through. By making a potential saving in hull numbers we either increase the risk of losing the boat as it moves on task or we increase our expenditure on protection.

    The final point really is around the human aspect of what we’re asking the CO, XO and WEO of these boats to do. The checks and balances are based to an extent on the isolation of being at sea and out of contact. I’m not convinced that we’d have the same confidence in those men if we were asking them to pull the trigger after having been explicitly deployed with a couple of days notice.

  • Trident – a Cold War relic and just an over-expensive toy for the boys who like that sort of thing (I think back to Ming Campbell’s comments about Tories getting all Priapic about it). Best simply scrap it. Without the continual uninvited military interventions, we’d be less of a target…

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