Select Committee on Defence Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 80-99)


16 JANUARY 2007

  Q80  Mr Hancock: So the numbers are irrelevant really, it is the way you deliver them that is the issue, and we are not taking that down?

  Mr Ainslie: If I could answer you on what disarmament has taken place or will take place, I think numbers is only one measure. The MoD will assess the effectiveness and the performance and, if they are doing an effectiveness assessment, the system that we have today is a lot more capable than what we had in the early 1990s, without a doubt, in terms of the numbers of targets and accuracy, and so on, and that capability increase is continuing to move forward. They upgraded the system in 2002 to make it more flexible. They are going to upgrade it again. Apart from this thing, in a couple of years' time they are replacing the computer system, so that will make it more flexible again, and so there are at least qualitative improvements without the change in quantity.

  Mr Borrow: I need to pursue this issue in terms of whether a nuclear power that reduces the number of warheads or gets rid of a system whilst still retaining a nuclear power is a positive move and a move towards disarmament.

  Q81  Chairman: Do you think it is a positive move?

  Mr Kent: It can be. It depends if the actual aim is nuclear disarmament or the aim is good housekeeping and a so-called on-going minimum deterrent.

  Q82  Mr Borrow: So if the French got rid of one of their systems, would that be a positive move in your view?

  Mr Kent: It would be, in terms of saving money they could spend on something else, but I would not be praising the French unless they are heading towards the goal of nuclear disarmament. The Chinese should get some praise out of all this, they are the least aggressive in terms of numbers of warheads and delivery systems, but they do not get figured very much in the disarmament process, but I am saying, "Yes", to your question.

  Q83  Chairman: Might that be because they are building more submarines than the whole of the rest of the world put together?

  Mr Kent: It could well be.

  Q84  John Smith: We do not know, incidentally, whether the Chinese are continuing to develop their capability. They have always been considered a regional nuclear threat and not a strategic nuclear threat. Just on the argument about reducing stockpiles, do our witnesses accept that we have not just reduced warheads, we have also reduced capability. We have removed platforms in the last eight years, we have removed the airborne capability. So it is not just how many angels on the—

  Mr Ainslie: There is a point in Di's argument of these being logistical changes. I think in one sense the big disarmament decision was probably the scrapping of the Tactical Air to Surface Missile (TASM). The W177 had to go anyway because it was getting very old, so the decision was for that to go simply because they could not keep it going any longer, but they had made this decision a few years earlier to scrap the Tactical Air to Surface Missile. Why did they make that decision? The Americans scrapped them. It was their project. It was not an option. They looked at the possibility of doing a joint project with the French and they could not do it. It is very difficult to say are these logistical decisions or are they disarmament decisions. It is a step forward. The arms control approach is part of it. You bring the numbers down. It is what has happened between America and Russia. It is better to have lower numbers.

  Chairman: Let us move on to the deterrent options, solutions and costs and whether we should have aircraft with cruise missiles, surface ships, land-based systems, submarines. Adam Holloway.

  Q85  Mr Holloway: Mr Kent, I appreciate you are frightfully opposed to nuclear weapons full-stop, but you did say that there are other ways other than subs. Of the other options, have you any comments to make?

  Mr Kent: Of deterring countries?

  Q86  Mr Holloway: No, the other options, the other platforms, so land, air, ship based systems.

  Mr Kent: They have aircraft or cruise missiles on submarines. These are all options that are possible, I presume, though I do not claim to be an expert, and I have not come here to be an expert, on the different systems. Perhaps my colleagues know more about the other systems.

  Mr Ainslie: I will maybe make two points. There is a problem in the paper. Section 3 gives you three scenarios: a re-emerging major nuclear power, an emerging nuclear state and state sponsored terrorism. I think there is a disconnect between that and the principles that they then require. The scale and the invulnerability only apply to Russia and, if you translate that into options, there is a sense in which Trident is particularly inappropriate for anything other than Russia. It is worth watching what is happening in America at the moment. General Cartwright, Head of Strategic Command, is very keen that he has Trident missiles with conventional warheads on them. Congress has been hesitant about this because they are by no means convinced that firing any type of missile anywhere is immediately perceived by Russia as an attack on them and the whole system goes off, and so there is quite a strong argument for saying that, if you are concerned about these other things, Trident is not the way to do it. The second point is an option that the Committee raised—strictly it is not a CND line, but it is worth pursuing, I think—which is, yes, have submarines but take them off patrol. Why are we fixated with this thing of keeping them on patrol? They are allocated to NATO. NATO substrategic nuclear forces. In other words, the bombs sitting in Germany and other places, are on a state of alert measured in months. NATO has no standing nuclear plans. Why does this part of the NATO force have to be on a state of alert measured in days while the other parts of the NATO force are on a state of alert measured in months? I think it is almost the core of this mentality—"This is the way we have always done it"—and they cannot bring themselves to take it off patrol. If you take Trident off patrol, your whole urgency and everything else goes. However long it takes them to build a submarine, you can add another five or ten years into the process if you do not have them on patrol.

  Q87  Chairman: Would you then comment on the Government's point that the continuous at-sea-deterrent notion reduces the risk of increasing tension when you actually decide to send a submarine to sea?

  Mr Ainslie: These are arguments that they are basically picking up from America. They are used in a Russian/American context, in terms of the balance between Russia and America: if America were to do this, Russia would do that. Does it really apply between Britain and Russia that this is what would happen? I find it scarcely credible that that whole scenario would happen. It basically increases the risk. Having the thing out at sea on patrol is perceived as being a potential risk. If you bring it into port, and particularly if you bring it into port and then separate the components and the other side can then see those components are not put together, you are then sending out a very clear message: "We are not threatening you." There is a slight thing about: is there a risk involved in this escalation, but the beneficial effect of not presenting that threat, you know, does that then mean the Russians can have a few fewer missiles? However dramatic that reduction is, you are removing a few targets out of their target plan.

  Q88  Linda Gilroy: I am a bit confused and I would just like to go back and ask a question that I asked just now. This White Paper is predominantly about the need to take a decision in relation to maintaining the platform and the skills base that will otherwise, it is claimed, no longer be there to build the platform unless we make a decision in very short order. Is not the argument you have just put forward one that you could certainly go on and have, but unless we do take that decision, we will not have any options to maintain the deterrent of a future platform to carry the deterrent at all, and so you have taken a unilateral decision?

  Mr Ainslie: I am certainly not convinced by those arguments. We are saying at the moment it is lock, stock and barrel about North Korea and Japan. The general thing is that Japan could get into the nuclear weapons business very quickly if it wanted to, and then we seem to take a very different line when it comes to Britain, that if we do not build a new submarine now we will never ever be able to have a nuclear weapons capability again.

  Q89  Linda Gilroy: That is related to the cost of doing so and of reconstituting the base with which to do it. You obviously do not accept those arguments. Have you done any analysis of it?

  Mr Ainslie: In terms of the skills base side?

  Q90  Linda Gilroy: Yes, of the arguments which have been put fairly forcefully and clearly within particularly the last evidence inquiry that we did on maintaining the skills base?

  Mr Ainslie: Not particularly. I think the only other point is the extent to which we depend on the Americans anyway. We go to the Americans for some critical skills anyway, and so, if there was that problem further down the line, it may just be an issue of how far we go to the Americans for help.

  Chairman: Moving on to the costs, if we may, Willie Rennie.

  Q91  Willie Rennie: You mentioned the cost of £76 billion. The White Paper states between 15 and 20 billion. What is the reason for the difference?

  Mr Ainslie: I think there is a major problem with the White Paper in terms of trying to sell this. It does not give the full figures. Not only does it not give the full figures, I have been involved in helping to draft some of the PQs and they are not giving the replies back to questions to fill in some of the gaps that appear. So, clearly, they are not giving the total cost of the whole thing. The big gap is really the cost of Aldermaston. They are saying Aldermaston costs this amount at particular points. There is no figure there for the total Aldermaston development plan, which is there as a plan probably from now until the early 2020s. The other thing is when they are talking about this 5 to 6% in service costs, is that an average? I am sure there was a question down saying, "What is the average operating cost?" and we did not get an answer to it. That figure is two billion a year. So if you have a current expenditure of two billion a year, you are saying that when the new system is in service it is around two billion a year. During the period 2012, 2024 it will be higher. They are saying Aldermaston is going to be up. You have got the major costs of the submarine platform coming in there, so you have got a minimum level of two billion a year, probably more than that. Over a 50-year period, that is 100 billion.

  Mr Kent: With a question mark over decommissioning.

  Mr Ainslie: Then you have to say, if there is 100 billion, how much of that is for the existing system and how much of that is for the new one? Clearly they are saying Aldermaston is for both, so how do you divide it up? By just very roughly saying maybe 25 going into the existing system and the other 75 going into the new one?

  Q92  Willie Rennie: What do you think the Government have included? How have they come up with the 15 to 20 billion figure?

  Mr Ainslie: That is including the submarine and a couple of other components, and it includes the cost of building the new warheads, or refurbishing the warheads, but not the cost of the infrastructure.

  Q93  Willie Rennie: Okay.

  Ms Jones: If you start to look at the costs, this was something that was actually quite difficult when we began to look at the White Paper and, looking very specifically at the estimates based around the refurbishment or replacement of the warheads, you get a figure in section 5.11 which says two to three billion, but it is not actually clear how that two to three billion would differ if the decision was refurbishment or replacement. So, there is a lack of accuracy there. Also, it is not clear whether that is not only in addition to the current operating costs of Aldermaston but also the programme of investment in sustaining capabilities at Aldermaston that was announced in 2005 ostensibly as a one-off thing over three years. It is very clear, if you look at the White Paper, that there will be further year on year on investment, and they quote it as the equivalent of about of 3% of the current defence budget. In addition to that, we also have the £5.3 billion contract which AWEML have to run Aldermaston on behalf of the Government. In addition to that we have ambiguity about whether it includes maintaining the current weapons stockpile, transporting the current warheads back and forth and, presumably at some point, decommissioning those warheads if new warheads are decided upon. So, as far as we can see from looking at the industry side of this (and I think we have only tangentially mentioned the big influence on maintaining both the capacity for building the submarines and maintaining the skills base at Aldermaston, which you mentioned earlier on), basically industry analysts have expected investment of around £12 billion over the next 12 years, so they obviously know something that we do not know from the White Paper, and, as has already been mentioned, we are not going to get any comprehensive figures until after the Comprehensive Spending Review. So, one of the things that we would encourage you to do when you speak to representatives of the Government or the companies concerned is actually to give you a much more detailed break-down of what these costs actually mean, over what period of time they will need to come on line and what the whole budgeting exercise for this is. Clearly, from section five we can see that they have gone for the cheapest option, but it would still be quite nice to see how they have done their sums.

  Q94  Willie Rennie: Do you think that affordability alone is a basis for opposing the replacement of nuclear?

  Ms Jones: It is irrelevant, is it not?

  Q95  Willie Rennie: Why do you spend so much time on the costs?

  Mr Ainslie: Clearly, from our point, if it cost nothing it would still be wrong. It is wrong to have weapons of mass destruction that kill thousands of people. When you look at world opinion and you look at the polls, it is a factor. There are obviously some people out there for which cost is a key issue, so it is a factor in the judgment.

  Q96  Willie Rennie: Put yourself in the public shoes then. At what point would you think that the public would find it unacceptable or acceptable to have a deterrent? What cost would that figure be? I know you would not accept any cost, but at what point do you think the public would accept?

  Mr Ainslie: Quinlan says that it is an insurance policy. What premium do you pay?

  Q97  Willie Rennie: Would you take a stab at it?

  Mr Kent: It has got to be a lot less than at the moment. We can keep the post offices going for 125 years on the money spent, and these are figures that people understand, and we can deal with global warming, plus, plus, with these figures. I do not know what the lowest figure would be that would stop disquiet, but it would have to be very much lower than this.

  Q98  Linda Gilroy: Do you think it would be reasonable, before working out what else it might be spent on, to consider the costs of three things in particular: one would be the decommissioning costs, the second, and you might take a different view from others, but I am sure people would wish to consider having a look at the programme of maintaining nuclear powered submarines not carrying nuclear weapons, and there would be a cost to maintain the skills base for that purpose; and, in addition to that, you would have to look at the impact on the local economies, particularly, if not in the fast-lane most certainly in Barrow in Cumbria, an area where I would hazard a guess that it would be very substantial, and in Plymouth, where it would have a devastating effect on the local economy, not just in the city of Plymouth but on the neighbouring objective-one area where about a third of the dockyard workers are coming from in Cornwall. If you are going to start saying this is an amount that we can spend on post offices and health, the simple question I am asking you is would you agree that it would be reasonable to factor in all of those significant costs?

  Mr Kent: Absolutely. Decommissioning we are into anyway, are we not, because we already have the submarines. We are going to decommission them sooner or later, so that is not an extra expense.

  Q99  Linda Gilroy: It would be a very substantial extra expense, I would suggest, to decommission the entire strategic facility at Davenport dockyard. It is not the same thing to talk about the decommissioning of the submarines.

  Mr Kent: Granted, but surely part of the process of moving to nuclear disarmament is actually looking at the present workforce and how they can be used and deployed, and that is one of the factors that is lacking. You could actually see a detailed CND brief for Barrow called Oceans at Work some time ago in 1985. I think it was the first study that anybody had presented.

  Ms McDonald: I am sure you will correct me, Ms Gilroy, but, as I understand it, the numbers of jobs involved in refitting Trident is in the region of 300. Other submarine work goes on there, and, as you know, a great deal of it now is to do with decommissioning and laid up submarines. When DML were here giving evidence I heard their managing director say they were already working with the NDA in terms of looking for contracts for decommissioning, so I think there will be plenty of work in Devonport for a long time. On the question of Barrow, it is a different matter. I think that if this £76 billion, or whatever, could be saved, then certainly putting money into Barrow in terms of investment for new jobs, because certainly the Cumbrian isolation and the need for jobs there is very clear, people need support there. I do not think they should be confined and constricted for ever to be building nuclear submarines, there should be something else there for them, and that is government business.

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