Memorandum from Dr Eric Grove
1. Much of Cm 6994 presents a good case
for retention of an SSBN based deterrent, perhaps at 25% reduced
strength in submarines. There are, however two connected issues
relating to submarine life and construction capacity that need
further investigation by the Committee.
2. Although the arguments in paragraphs
1-4 and 1-5 are powerfully made, as one of those who have made
the "suggestions that we should replicate the US plans to
extend the lives of their Ohio- class SSBNs" I am still far
from convinced that this is such a difficult option as Cm 6994
argues. I am aware of American opinion that finds the White Paper's
3. The use of the "past experience"
with both SSNs and SSBNs with PWR 1 based propulsion systems to
draw lessons for life extension of the PWR 2 powered Vanguards
is questionable. The PWR 1 based system has indeed had its problems
over the years but these may well not occur to the same extent
with the more advanced PWR 2 system. The fact mentioned in the
White Paper that a PWR 1 powered SSN lasted for 33 years is an
argument in favour of further life extension rather than the opposite,
with that unit's being powered by the older system and also its
shorter inherent hull life, given the different operating profiles
of SSNs and SSBNs. Even if the White Paper's arguments are indeed
sound, one might question the policy of building SSBNs for a life
span much shorter than that expected by our closest ally for its
4. The likely key to this problem seems
to be the use of more stringent civilian safety and regulatory
standards with the Royal Navy's nuclear propulsion systems, as
mentioned in paragraph 1.6, compared to the more robust service
standards within the US Navy. If further investigation reveals
this indeed to be the case then it ought to be given a higher
profile as a factor enforcing new construction. The fact that
the USN is adopting a service life extension (SLEP) policy with
its SSBNs shows it must think there are advantages in such a course
of action. If there are such advantages might not the Ministry
of Defence exploit them also?
B. NUCLEAR SUBMARINE
6. The really key issue is Britain's capacity
to design and build nuclear powered submarines. The new class
of SSBNs is probably essential to maintain Britain's capacity
to do so at anything like acceptable cost. As the White Paper
rightly said in paragraph 6.2, the "Astute" programme
began with "less than optimal industrial and design arrangements"
for which a serious price had to be paid in time and expense.
This was because of the gap between completing the "Trafalgar"
class programme in 1991 and beginning the "Astutes"
10 years later. Assuming the building of a total of eight "Astutes"
to replace the entire SSN force this would mean the last boat
being delivered about 2023 when the last Trafalgar is due to pay
off (after a life of over 30 years). If the new class of SSBN
was not built this would leave another decade or so's gap before
any more SSNs, a gap that would have similarly serious industrial
implications. The 25 year lifespan for submarines would mean that
a new generation of SSN would be due in the early 2030s just after
the entry into service of the last SSBN, so maintaining the production
base into the future. The quarter century lifecycle thus has powerful
7. Taking the decision now therefore has,
perhaps, less to do with the maintenance of the deterrent and
more to do with maintaining nuclear submarine building capacity.
This should be faced still more openly than it is in Cm 6994. With
the surface fleet facing further major and significant cut-backs
there is a case for reconsidering whether Britain can afford a
fleet containing nuclear powered submarines while retaining a
sufficiently powerful surface navy. There have been non-nuclear
powered options put forward for the Maritime Underwater Future
Capability under consideration by MoD to replace the "Trafalgars".
There also exists a school of thought within the Service that
is very doubtful about the high cost of nuclear power and its
opportunity cost implications.
8. My own view is that Britain should indeed
retain a force of SSNs given these assets' unique capabilities.
This may well be a powerful case for a new generation of SSBNs
on the Government's timescale but it is one that needs to be clearly
recognised for what it is, an argument about Britain's future
maritime capabilities and naval industrial infrastructure as a
whole as much as one about her nuclear deterrent alone.
17 January 2006