Select Committee on Defence Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 200-208)


23 JANUARY 2007

  Q200  Linda Gilroy: When in your paper you said to us that the most credible alternative would be the submarine-launched cruise missile, you are satisfied with the comparison that is made in the annex that really says that on cost, effectiveness and on capability it really is not a comparison?

  Dr Stocker: Indeed. In fact, as part of the original Trident procurement decisions, there was a study done by Chatham House in the late Seventies which did some quite detailed open source work, and it demonstrated then as an alternative to four or five Trident submarines, if you wanted cruise missiles fired from submarines you would need eleven submarines and 800 missiles. The figures probably do not exactly equate today but it indicates the order of magnitude of difference of capability as between cruise and ballistic.

  Q201  Linda Gilroy: Professor Garwin, if I could turn to you, invulnerability and the ability to survive a first strike were key considerations in opting for a submarine-based deterrent during the Cold War. Do you attach any importance to that argument now? How would you view that?

  Professor Garwin: It keeps me awake at night to think that the submarine base will be destroyed by a nuclear weapon, all the submarines that are in port, so a submarine at sea with survivability is a very good thing to have. But they are to survive, not to fire, and this question of 800 cruise missiles versus 50 D5s is not a matter of a deterrent, that is a matter of prompt strike. A submarine at sea could, within days or weeks, move to the shore where it wants to fire its cruise missile so if you are satisfied with the eventual response you do not need more cruise missiles than you need ballistic missiles. In that regard the White Paper is incorrect in saying any programme to develop and manufacture new cruise missiles will cost far more than retaining the Trident D5 missile. The UK could manufacture the Tomahawk, a perfectly good cruise missile; it would not have to do any development but it might have to get licences from the US manufacturer. But it did not want to do that, it wanted to rebuild the Trident submarines without thinking, it did not mention the small inter-continental range ballistic missiles, which is a good thing to do. The development costs are far less than for one of these multiple warhead missiles and would be reflected throughout the entire system.

  Dr Willett: As Dr Stocker pointed out, we have gone round this buoy twice before with Polaris and with Trident first time round, and the issue with the cruise missile is discussed in detail in the White Paper, but the key issue of course is that not only can it be shot down, as the White Paper mentions, but then your warhead falls into the hands of whoever's territory it happens to land on, and you cannot have that risk. The important point about the Tomahawk is that you cannot just take the current warhead and stick it into a Tomahawk, you would need a new warhead and a new missile because the airframe was designed only for conventional purposes and not as a deterrent weapon, and the problem is that it is just not fast enough. The interesting thing about the current decision though and going down the road in years to come is whether there is any possibility that the Government will look at options for multi-roling the submarine in terms of giving it a broader range of capabilities—D5 missiles, yes, perhaps with some intermediate range missiles, whether they are modified Trident or others, perhaps with some cruise missiles that have either nuclear or conventional warheads on them. The US has conventional Tomahawks in its Ohio class submarines so it can be done; the question of course is, is the strategic requirement and rationale there to do that, but that would potentially give the submarines a greater range of options.

  Professor Garwin: I am sorry, that is not true. If you do not want your nuclear warhead unexploded to fall into other people's hands then there is a well-established technology with insensitive high explosives or other explosives to explode the warhead—of course you disseminate the plutonium, but that does not matter, we did that at Palomares, and you clean up afterwards.

  Q202  Linda Gilroy: Is not a more important issue in weighing up the pros and cons of this how it stands in relation to missile defence systems?

  Professor Garwin: Oh yes, that is a different point, but one should not adduce all of the arguments, some of them correct and some incorrect, so, yes. Tomahawk is not very vulnerable to missile defence but it could be countered by certain defences. When I inveighed against missile defence, it was only mid-course. Terminal defence is entirely possible, it is possible when you are defending individual silos, it is not easy to do when you are defending cities.

  Q203  Chairman: I do not want to go into the various options, I just want to be sure that you believe that they have been sufficiently covered by the White Paper. Dr Pullinger, do you want to comment on that?

  Dr Pullinger: Yes, specifically on the choice of this platform which, looking from a non-proliferation perspective, helps to give us the most stable nuclear posture deployment. I would prefer to have designated platforms, which this system is, I do not want to have dual use platforms with nuclear and conventional that might get mixed up.

  Chairman: That is Dr Willett's point.

  Q204  Linda Gilroy: One of the issues that is raised about the submarine platform is the possible future developments in terms of transparency of the oceans. Do any of you have any observations to make on that area?

  Dr Willett: Very simply, people have been trying to do it for a long time and it has not happened yet.

  Mr Ingram: However, if we were to be in a position to delay this decision then that would be another advantage, we would be that much closer to the point at which we were deploying to be able to make exactly this decision in greater confidence that it would be still possible to hide a submarine and perhaps also to be able to deploy other missiles than the D5, for reasons already suggested.

  Q205  Willie Rennie: Professor Garwin, could you just summarise quickly what the United States are doing in terms of their deterrent and what the significance of the reliable replacement warhead programme is in that deterrent?

  Professor Garwin: The United States continues to operate the three components of the deterrent: the aircraft, which has been downplayed in importance, the land-based missiles, mostly single-warhead missiles now, deployed in the vast spaces of the United States in silos and the Trident submarines. So they will continue to upgrade those. There is an initiative for conventional strike so that some of the Trident missiles and perhaps some of the land-based missiles will be loaded with conventional warheads with an accuracy of a few metres so that they could attack point targets, but it is very difficult to get the effects of nuclear weapons in destroying large targets. You can destroy a concrete silo with a conventional warhead, a shaped charge, delivered by one of these missiles, but it would be easy enough, as I said, to defend that silo by passive and active means. So this conventional strike has not yet been realised and there are problems that people will understand as they think more deeply about it. The United States Navy is confident that a prudently operated strategic submarine is invisible and essentially undetectable in any strategically important sense, so they are not worried about that. They spend a lot of effort to make sure that it is true and the US also spends a lot of effort to see whether they can compromise other people's submarines. The Reliable Replacement Warhead is a programme which was generated a few years ago; it may or may not go forward. Its purpose is to be able to build new-design warheads under a comprehensive test ban treaty without testing them, and not for new military missions but to replace the current warheads if they deteriorate. It has just recently been announced in November by the National Nuclear Security Agency that the metallic component of our two-stage warheads—the so-called "pit", containing plutonium, surrounded by metal—has a life of at least 85 years, probably more than 100 years. The previous official estimate was 45 years—I mention this in my testimony—and this has a great influence on whether you need a so-called reliable replacement warhead or not because all of the other parts of a nuclear weapon are testable and replaceable apart from the pit and you just reuse the pip while you substitute new electronics, new neutron generators and new other things in the nuclear weapon of existing design. So Reliable Replacement Warhead is a programme for maintaining skills, nuclear designer skills, in case the comprehensive test ban treaty vanishes or in case we do need to make new-design nuclear weapons, but it is not essential for the preservation of the deterrent and the National Nuclear Security Agency has also said that.

  Chairman: That is helpful, thank you. I would like to move on, very briefly, to the costs question.

  Willie Rennie: In the White Paper it says that the cost would be in the region of £15-£20 billion and that would be a price worth paying. First of all, do you agree that that is an accurate estimate and, second of all, when would it not be a price worth paying?

  Q206  Chairman: Can we leave that second question because I think we have got a general impression from each of the witnesses as to what their view is about the worth of it, but I would like to know whether they accept that money estimates, please.

  Dr Willett: There is a very interesting point made in the White Paper. The £15-£20 billion of course looks at the upfront acquisition costs and what we need to try and understand here is not only how much it costs to buy it but how much it costs to run it through life as well for the 50 years. The very interesting point that the White Paper raises is that it makes reference to the running costs being between 5 and 6% of the defence budget, and that figure is a very important one because it requires some considerable clarification as to what it means, because it contrasts previous statements which detailed the running costs as being between 2 and 4%. If you use the 2 and 4% example as your baseline, then based on the calculations that we did at the previous Trident programme the whole programme costs come in at around £25 billion over the whole life, which is in keeping with previous statements, and one could argue that on that basis, if you are looking to reduce the number of submarines, reduce the numbers of missiles, the numbers of warheads and that you have a blueprint for doing everything as you have done before, you actually could do it for less than last time, but the issue of the 5 to 6% of the defence budget is a very interesting one because it is somewhat new, so I would be looking for the MoD to explain in coming weeks what that 5 or 6% actually consists of and what that therefore means to what the likely overall costs would be, because that is somewhat different from what has been said in the past in my understanding.

  Q207  Willie Rennie: Do you think the 5 to 6% is in addition to the £15-£20 billion?

  Dr Willett: It is, yes. In my understanding it would be £15-£20 billion although of course that is based on four submarines and probably a worst case scenario because politically it would be unacceptable to get this one wrong. Of course, in the past it is very important to note that both Polaris and Trident the first time round came in on time and on cost so there perhaps may be some fat in the estimate to ensure that the MoD does come in under budget—understandably, given the flak that it may generate. One could argue that that £15-£20 billion could be reduced, but the issue of the running costs through life is one that requires further clarification.

  Q208  Chairman: Dr Stocker, do you have anything to add?

  Dr Stocker: I was just going to clarify that the surprising thing about the costs is the big price ticket put on the four submarines, which is approximately double the cost of the Vanguards at 2005 prices. Allowing for some cost escalation, that is surprising. The four Vanguards came in a little under £6 billion and the Government is reckoning on double that. That may to some extent reflect the bitter experience with the Astute programme and the fact that as we have a much smaller submarine force each individual boat is going to cost more, but even so that doubling of costs of the platforms is surprising and it might be helpful to get clarification from the MoD on why the submarines are projected to cost as much as they are budgeted.

  Mr Ingram: It is not quite double but it is almost, and that actually reflects previous experience where the Trident cost double Polaris and the Trident costs in today's prices were £15 billion. I think it could well be a reasonable estimate today, but as with so many things—Olympics, Domes and things like this—things do go up in price, so it could easily be more than £20 billion for the acquisition, and as has already been said you have also got the running costs, so this is where you are getting estimates of £76 billion or whatever, which is not a particularly helpful figure because money depends on when you spend it, how you spend it, if we do not have £76 billion that we could spend elsewhere if we did not spend it on Trident today. It is very difficult, but I would say that £15-£20 billion—you can probably go under, you can have arguments in favour of going over. If you were simply to purchase four Vanguard class submarines as I was hinting at earlier today it would be considerably less than £15 billion, but that is not the option that we are being given today. There are choices that we could make to reduce that cost, but we are not going to for some reason.

  Chairman: That is it for this morning. Can I say thank you very much indeed to all the witnesses, particularly, if I may say so, to Professor Garwin for coming such a long way to help another country with decisions that are very important to us; we are most grateful. We are most grateful to all of you, however.

previous page contents

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2007
Prepared 7 March 2007