Select Committee on Defence Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 312-319)



  Q312 Chairman: Can I say to everyone, welcome to this session, which is the final session of our inquiry into the UK's strategic nuclear deterrent. This is our third inquiry into that issue and what we intend to do is to conduct an inquiry and produce our report in order to help the public's and Parliament's debate on the Government's proposals and to publish our report at the beginning of March. Secretary of State, welcome. Thank you for the written material you have put in and thank you particularly for producing your response to our second inquiry and speeding up that response in order to allow us to use that for this evidence session, the one into the skills base. I said we will publish our report on this inquiry at the beginning of March, but can you give us an indication as to when the debate is likely to be in the House of Commons?

  Des Browne: I am afraid I am not in a position at this stage to give an indication as to when that debate will be, but I have already said, as I think you will recollect in answer to a similar question in the House, that I am anticipating it will be some time in March.

  Q313  Chairman: Would you like to introduce your team very briefly, please.

  Des Browne: Thank you very much for your welcome and for the recognition of the response to your report on skills which I was pleased to be able to respond to in time to inform this and your other deliberations. On my far left I have Mariot Leslie who is from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and she is here today because she has expertise in relation to disarmament and counter-proliferation questions. Immediately to my left is Desmond Bowen who is the MoD Policy Director and, I suspect, not a stranger to the Committee who can deal with detailed questions on deterrent policy and the rationale for retaining a nuclear deterrent and more generally how the deterrent fits in with the rest of our defence policy. On my immediate right is Rear Admiral Andrew Mathews who is Director General Nuclear in the Ministry of Defence, our expert on the Vanguard-class submarines, the development of the replacement submarines and submarine and submarine industry issues more widely and maybe busier than the rest of us! Then to my far right is Tom McKane, Director General of Strategic Requirements in the Ministry of Defence who will cover deterrent options and costs, should there be any questions requiring detail in relation to those areas. Behind me I also have Nick Bennett who is the Director General of Strategic Technologies who has come along to assist in the event the Committee wishes to go into detail on our warhead programme and at an appropriate time he may come forward to the table.

  Q314  Chairman: You are obviously very well supported. May we begin with a comment that was put to us recently by Professor Garwin that the White Paper was "highly premature" because he suggested that the life of the boats could be extended, like the US Ohio-class submarines, to around 45 years and he said that the decision was not needed now and that it was being rushed. How would you respond to that or would you like to respond to that yourself?

  Des Browne: I am content to respond to that myself. That is, I think, an accurate summary of some quite extensive evidence that Professor Garwin gave and indeed I have read the paper that he submitted. I think my immediate response is to say that the key point, and I think this is the point that informs fundamentally our recommended decision in the White Paper, is that at the outset we must recognise that this is firstly an issue about maintaining the key national capability that the nuclear deterrent is and the level of risk that we are willing to take with that capability, and you may want at some time later on or even now, if you wish, to go into the comparison with the Ohio boats which was at the heart of Professor Garwin's evidence. Fundamentally, I believe that that comparison is not particularly useful or indeed relevant because the planned life of boats is exactly that, it is planned into them at the outset, and the Ohio class are different submarines, they were designed differently and they were built and maintained for a longer life than our boats were.

  Q315  Chairman: I think it would be helpful if you could go into that in some detail because why were we buying short-life assets back in whenever it was we were buying these and what is it about the Ohio class that makes them so much longer-lived in their design?

  Des Browne: As with many areas in relation to this issue, there is information which can be put into the public domain and information that cannot be put into the public domain, but we will endeavour, in answering questions, to put into the public domain as much as we can so that people can understand the arguments and we may come to parts of this evidence where we will need to offer some confidential briefing as we will need to recognise the security classification of the information.

  Q316  Chairman: Yes, except, Secretary of State, bear in mind that the purpose of this inquiry is to put as much into the public domain as possible so that it can inform the debate. We are not necessarily asking for anything particularly confidential, we are just asking for an explanation that people can understand as to what is the difference.

  Des Browne: Can I start by referring you, Chairman, and the Committee members to the letter which I wrote on 1 February and it may be helpful, since this letter is not yet in the public domain and the content of it is not, if I read part of that. This deals with some of the detail of extending the life of our boats beyond the 30-year period which is the time that we say that it is safe and appropriate and the degree of risk that we are prepared to take with maintaining this capability and in terms of the decision-making. It reads, "Life extension much beyond five years", which is the five in addition to the 25 that the original design was intended for, "is likely to require replacement of some of the systems critical to submarine operations, such as external hydraulic systems, elements of the control systems (plane and the rudder), sonar systems, electrical systems (including the main battery) and refurbishment or replacement of elements of the nuclear propulsion system. This would involve some hull penetrations. Replacing these systems would require extended additional maintenance periods, resulting in loss of boat availability", which is at the heart of our decision-making process, "and significant cost, but would not enable significantly increased life. Extension to both component safety justifications and the whole reactor plant safety justification would also be required (and could not be assured). Other systems would need careful assessment and replacement of the turbo generators, secondary propulsion gear and assemblies, deterrent missile hydraulics, hatches and mechanisms might be required. There would also be increasing risks of reliability of other major systems, including potentially the main engine, gearbox shafting and propulsor, all of which could require replacement. As was made clear in the White Paper, we do not at this stage completely rule out further life extension of the Vanguard class. The key point is that on current evidence it is highly likely to represent poor value for money. Moreover, there is also serious concern as to whether it will be technically feasible. The decision will be kept under review at each key stage of the programme to design and build the replacement submarines, but, given the severe uncertainties associated with life extension beyond the 30-year point, it would be grossly irresponsible not to start concept and assessment work in time to ensure that we can field replacement submarines when the Vanguard class reaches the 30-year point". In summary, such a life extension would entail too much risk to our national security and the evidence that we have suggests that it would be poor value for money. If I may now, I will hand over to the Rear Admiral who, I think, may be able more accurately to draw, where we can, the comparisons with the American Ohio-class boats.

  Q317  Chairman: Could you explain at the same time, Rear Admiral, whether the Ohio-class boats are worked more or less hard than the Vanguard-class boats please?

  Rear Admiral Mathews: Within the classification, I will do my best.

  Q318  Chairman: Yes, within the classification.

  Rear Admiral Mathews: The principle we aim to do is to generate one submarine from four at sea on operational patrol and Professor Garwin implied, therefore, that our submarines spend about 25% of their time available to generate that one on patrol. Clearly that is not the case because we have to train our people, submarines have to conduct trials, they have to test equipment and they actually have to change over while on patrol, so actually the time that we have our submarines operationally available is in excess of 50% and that is pretty comparable with the US Ohio class. The difference with the Americans is of course that they are generating say two or three hulls from 14 and that gives them a considerable amount of flexibility about how they operate their submarines, what decisions they can make through life and the balance of risk they can take. One from four is much tougher. Now, what we know in terms of availability with nuclear submarines from British operations is that availability reduces through life. Over the first 20 years, it typically reduces by about 5 to 7% across that period. Once we have gone beyond 20 years, the three classes which we have got operating records for, because we have not taken others beyond that yet, show that we lose availability of around 10 to 15% over the next 10 years, which is in addition to that 5 to 7%, so that is a significant drop in availability and it falls off, as I say, fairly sharply. We know from operating experience that, in getting towards 30 years, four boats becomes very tough in terms of generating one on patrol and that is where we are at the moment. We do not believe that the risk equation supports taking Vanguard class beyond 30 years. We have done a lot in terms of managing the Swiftsure class through those last difficult periods and it has not been good in terms of availability. With the Resolution class, if I go back to the early 1990s, we were really struggling to maintain one boat out at sea. We had people working on the safety justification seven days a week for a very long period of time and we were losing people from some of our industry and support because of the hours we were pressing them to work. We survived that. The point I would make to the Committee is that Resolution, if Professor Garwin was right, would still be operating today. We were struggling in the early 1990s and I do not think it would be conceivable that we would be successfully maintaining the continuous at-sea deterrence with that class of submarines now. In terms of Ohio—

  Q319  Chairman: Are you going to add to what the Secretary of State was referring to in the memo?

  Rear Admiral Mathews: Only in detail. As the Secretary of State said, Ohio started off with a more modern design and has made a different use of materials. The Americans designed for a longer-life submarine. For instance, in steam systems they made a decision about up-front investment to generate that life by using a different material from that which we do, and I am being careful about what I say in terms of actual materials. Our steam system, we are confident, will last 30 years and thereafter we would expect to have to change a large amount of it. The Americans are confident that the material they have used will last the extended life of their submarines, so that puts them in a different sort of place in terms of trade-offs through life because they designed in a longer life at the outset. We were driven quite hard in terms of unit production costs at the outset, so we set ourselves a design time-line and built a submarine to meet that. Now, the Americans built in some fat in their design; they can operate their submarines differently, as I have already mentioned, and they do have that ability to take some risks in their programme. The final thing I would say is that they have not got to 42 years yet. It is a plan and they can afford to take some risk against that plan because they will have already been bringing in their new-generation SSBN for about 14 years by the time the last Ohio gets to 42 years, so they will have a much bigger mix in terms of new and old.

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