Select Committee on Defence Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 380-399)



  Q380  Willie Rennie: I am obviously not an expert in these areas but is there not a possibility of doing a kind of random approach to deterrence at sea where you can vary the length of time that we are at sea and not always have a continuous deterrence? Is that not a possible option?

  Des Browne: I am no expert either but can I just say to Mr Rennie that I came to this job as the Secretary of State for Defence with a degree of scepticism about continuous-at-sea deterrence. I asked all of those questions in my early days in the department, and some of the people here will remember me asking them, just simple questions like, "Why do we need to keep a boat at sea all of the time? Why do we need to do this when we are saying that at the moment there is no capability and intent that amounts to a threat?" I have to say that as I have come to understand the nature of what we are doing and what we are asking people to do, and, importantly, the effect that deploying a submarine into an environment of conflict or potential conflict might have on that, the aspect of this that most persuaded me was the need to be able to maintain these boats at an operational level, which was a very high and demanding thing to do, and our ability to be able to step that up. I have come to the view that it is a key strand of maintaining a credible deterrent in this form. I do not know whether the Rear Admiral wants to add to this but he is among those who have persuaded me of this and I seek to share with you the way in which I was persuaded.

  Rear Admiral Mathews: I have little to add to what the Secretary of State has said apart from the fact that it drives a real ethos into the programme and I do not think you can put a value on that. You have to be part of it to understand it. The maintenance of continuous-at-sea deterrence and the demands it places on the system and the tests it places it on the system are of real value. It drives operational preparedness, it drives crew training, it drives the whole way the team operate. I do not know how you value such a thing as ethos but I think it is absolutely pivotal to the way we have run this programme and would wish to continue to run it.

  Q381  Willie Rennie: I have to concur with the comments abut the submariners. I had the benefit of going up to Faslane and the professionalism was quite impressive, and how they can live in those tight conditions for such long periods of time is beyond me, I have to say. The Prime Minister said that you might go down to three boats in the future, and we might get that decision at a later stage, and still have the continuous-at-sea deterrence. What cost savings would be involved in going down to three boats and roughly what time will you make that decision in?

  Des Browne: That is an ambition and it is an ambition we have put in the White Paper as a challenge to those who will be doing the concept and assessment phase of this process, but we are not certain that we can maintain continuous deterrent patrols in the future with three submarines. I have to say, and the White Paper says this, that from the evidence of Resolution and Vanguard four hulls were required to sustain continuous patrolling but, as the White Paper says, once we are clear about the design, about the operational procedures, the maintenance regimes for the new submarines, we will reach a conclusion about whether we need three or four hulls to sustain continuous patrols. Apart from all the issues that we have already discussed, continuous-at-sea deterrence is important in terms of the invulnerability of our system and I think people accept that now. If all the boats were in port at any one time our deterrent would be vulnerable. It could be attacked in port, as it were, but keeping one boat out there all the time means we can take advantage of the opaqueness of the sea, which we have considered. We certainly will not take risks. At the end of the day this will be a very hard-nosed decision.

  Q382  Mr Borrow: Secretary of State, you have dealt with the issue of the UK moving from continuous-at-sea deterrence to basically mothballing submarines and then bringing them back if the situation changed and the risks inherent in doing that, but it has been suggested that if we were not using the submarines round the clock that would extend the life of the existing boats. Is there any truth in that?

  Des Browne: Not in my understanding but I will defer to the Rear Admiral on the detail of this. The critical time from the point of view of when we measure the life of a boat is from when the reactors first go critical. My understanding is that you may well be able to bring the boat in but you cannot switch the reactor off and there are other parts of the system which will age no matter whether the boat is at sea or not, but I am sure the Rear Admiral will be able to give you more detail.

  Rear Admiral Mathews: There are two parts to the answer. First, there is the crew, and one of the reasons we need to keep operating submarines is to maintain our operational capability to operate them, and so training and operating them is a vital part of that brief. The second thing was about could we just wrap them up in cotton wool and bring them out when we need them. It would help to extend, for instance, the core life. We put a core in these submarines now that will fuel them for around 20-25 years. We planned on 25 years for an SSN and that is what this core was designed to do. For an SSB it will be slightly less because the boat is bigger and we use them in a slightly different way, so we would save fuel. There are other bits of the boat, for instance, the hull, and Professor Garwin mentioned hull fatigue. Hull fatigue is not an issue for the UK. The hull itself is good for as long as we want to operate these submarines, so you are not making savings there. However, there are issues just about the ageing of things like cables, which do not depend on operating; it is a time-related thing. There is still a whole host of things that you would have to do if you just wrapped them up. Other parts of the submarine you would continue to operate very likely, such as, you have to remove heat from the reactor because it continues to produce heat, so you have to run pumps. You have to maintain the chemistry, so there are things you are doing and there is therefore maintenance you have to do. It is not a straightforward "if you just shut them down for five years you gain five years in their life"; it would not be like that.

  Q383  Chairman: Secretary of State, am I right in thinking that you have to get away at quarter to four?

  Des Browne: It would certainly be helpful, yes.

  Chairman: We will do our utmost to get you away by then.

  Mr Jenkins: I expect a note on this then rather than going through all the figures, Secretary of State, but we are told it is 17 years between making the decision and getting one in the water, but that would take us to about 2024, yet our first one was out of service in 2022, so there is a two-year gap, so we would be down to three ageing boats to keep continuous-at-sea service, and then if we do that we would have the three boats but then we would have six years and if we cannot make the decision at the end of six years that takes it a bit further. Can you give us some indication on that timescale of when the existing boats are going to go out, when the new boats are going to come in and when the decision needs to be made to add the fourth boat, and how do you get the experience of running three boats but then make the decision in time, sort of thing? Would you let us know about the thinking on that, please?

  Q384  Chairman: Would it be possible for you to send us a note?

  Des Browne: I am happy to write about that.

  Mr Jenkins: If you would write it would be very helpful.

  Q385  Chairman: Although to some extent it is covered in your memorandum.

  Des Browne: It is, yes.

  Rear Admiral Mathews: It is the same question we virtually answered at the last session.

  Q386  Robert Key: Secretary of State, the United Kingdom is a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty and the White Paper says that we are fully compliant with all our NPT obligations, and the White Paper goes on, "Nevertheless, we will continue to press for multilateral negotiations towards mutual balance and verifiable reductions in nuclear weapons". What is the Government currently doing to press for those multilateral negotiations?

  Des Browne: Mr Key, we not only say that; we actually set out in some detail in a fact sheet and an annex to the White Paper itself how we address our international legal obligations and particularly the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, so there is no need for me to read that. In summary, and we have set out in the White Paper what we have done over the last 10 years in dismantling our maritime tactical nuclear capability and the RAF's WE177 freefall bomb, reduced the maximum number of operational warheads, and our ambition is to reduce that further, and ceased production of fissile material for nuclear weapons. We have in my view, and I think this has been recognised even in evidence before this Committee, a good record in living up to our international obligations in this regard. For the future, we continue to support and we have made progress in 13 practical steps towards the implementation of Article VI agreed in 2000; we have ratified the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty; we have increased our transparency by publishing historical accounting records of our defence fissile material holdings; we have pursued a widely welcomed programme to develop expertise in methods and technologies that could be used to verify nuclear disarmament on which we have produced a series of working papers culminating in a presentation to the 2005 NPT Review Conference. Looking to the future, our priority remains to press for negotiations in the Conference on Disarmament of the Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty; we welcome the draft text which the United States tabled last year; we hope that all concerned are able to accept the very broad mandate proposed and agree to open negotiations towards a treaty without delay, and we are also actively engaged in the global initiative to combat nuclear terrorism where we will be playing a key and active role in shaping and contributing to the forward-looking programme of this important new development. That is all to be read in the context of what we have already put into the public domain with the White Paper and in the accompanying fact sheet.

  Q387  Robert Key: That is a stunning answer, Chairman. I congratulate the Secretary of State. I think our most cynical witnesses, who have all, interestingly, agreed that you are making steps in the right direction, might argue that they are not big enough steps. Some have argued that they are not being made in good faith, but I think that that is a pretty good catalogue of success, but, of course, we will all wish to hold you to the forward-looking part of it. Could I turn to the deterrent effect of upgrading our deterrent here as regards international terrorism? How will upgrading our deterrent add to the security of the UK in the face of international terrorism?

  Des Browne: I sought earlier to answer that question put to me in a slightly different way. We have a very particular strategy which we have invested in quite significantly over the last eight years to deal with international terrorism and it is presently under review, as is known, by the Home Secretary. There is in the White Paper a reference to terrorism in a very particular context as part of the explanation of the potentially changing environment that we live in, but we do not seek to deploy this weapon as part of our arsenal, as it were, against terrorism. That is not the purpose it is for. The purpose it is for is to deter threats of the nature that would threaten the strategic integrity of our country.

  Q388  Robert Key: I can see, Secretary of State, how that might work for state-sponsored terrorism, but surely, if you are talking about something that is not state-sponsored terrorism, you are beginning to talk about a sub-strategic weapon, are you not?

  Des Browne: Quite specifically I am not. I will try and put this even plainer. This is a strategic deterrent which is designed to deter a strategic threat. We recognise that we need to have a strategy to deal with international terrorism. This is not part of that strategy, but we also recognise, I think realistically, that we may in the future live in an environment where a rogue state may seek to use a terrorist or a terrorist organisation as a proxy, and that could be part of the strategic threat.

  Q389  Robert Key: So do you agree that a nuclear weapon is a political weapon, not a military weapon?

  Des Browne: That is a question of the nature of the question that the Chairman asked me.

  Q390  Robert Key: What is the answer though, Secretary of State?

  Des Browne: I think the answer is that it is, yes.

  Robert Key: Thank you.

  Q391  Chairman: Will you not answer my question, Secretary of State?

  Des Browne: I thought I did answer your question, Chairman. My view is, as I recollect the answer I gave you, Chairman, was that I thought that deterrence was a sub-set of defence.

  Chairman: Ah, right; I see.

  Q392  John Smith: Much has been made from some quarters about the impact of the White Paper on our international reputation in the field of disarmament and non-proliferation. I do not know if any of our witnesses can respond to this question, but has there been any response since the White Paper was published on 4 December?

  Mrs Leslie: I can reply to that if you wish. Only one country has actually issued any public statement about that and that was South Africa, which was indeed critical, but we have had contacts First of all, after the Prime Minister had made his announcement we used our overseas network of Foreign Office posts to brief all countries who would have a legitimate interest in this, all our NATO allies, all the other nuclear weapon states, all other countries who are taking an active role in the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, in order to explain what the Government was saying in the White Paper and what the basis of that was and to talk to them about any further questions they had. We found a gratifying degree of understanding for the Government's decision on the part in particular of our NATO allies but also a large number of other countries. There were one or two countries, and these were diplomatic exchanges and I would rather not name them but it was only three or four, that were critical and they were people who perhaps we had expected to be critical on the basis of the stance they very often take in the Conference on Disarmament, but we were quite pleased by the degree of understanding for the nature of the decision that the Government was taking. One other point which is perhaps relevant, and also, I think, relevant to the Non-Proliferation Treaty and the 13 practical steps there, is that a number of countries went out of their way to congratulate the Government on the degree of transparency it had gone in for in the White Paper. Transparency, of course, is one of the practical steps among these 13 practical steps.

  Q393  Chairman: Secretary of State, can I ask a question about the number of missiles in the submarine, 16 on a Vanguard? Is there any need to have 16 missile tubes on a successor? Could we make do with perhaps 12? Would it have a reduction in the costs? Would it have any effect on the deterrent capacity of the submarine, or would you like Rear Admiral Mathews to answer that?

  Des Browne: I will answer the question. I am sure Rear Admiral Mathews will add to the answer, but I suspect that it will not come to much more than that we are at the very beginning of the design phase and, of course, we will have at the forefront of our mind our policy obligation to have a minimum deterrent. All of these options will need to be explored in depth by the MoD and the industry team but I am not in a position at this stage, and I doubt if the Rear Admiral will be, to be any more specific than that, but I will give him his opportunity.

  Rear Admiral Mathews: I think behind part of the question is, is the number of missile tubes a major cost driver to the design of the submarine? It is not a major cost driver. It will make a contribution, but taking four tubes off does not save a quarter of the cost of the submarine, for example.

  Q394  Linda Gilroy: The White Paper says that the design of Vanguard's successor will seek to maximise the commonality with the current submarines, but, in fact, if we want to drive through-life affordability is there not a case for a completely new design?

  Rear Admiral Mathews: There is a case for a bit of both. What we have to do here is to take the through-life approach. We have to get the support community tied into the build community better, and that is part of our intention for this project should it be approved, and we have to take a proper through-life approach. Clearly some parts of the submarine are obsolete and that means we have to redesign those, and we have to be more reliant on, where we can, commercial, off-the-shelf type technology rather than do what we have done with Astute, which is end up with a submarine that is pretty bespoke. In big handfuls, two-thirds of what we put into Astute is made for Astute and Astute only. That makes for a very expensive submarine design and we need to learn from that.

  Q395  Linda Gilroy: From that I take it that there might only be reasonably modest changes in the new submarine. No? You are shaking your head.

  Rear Admiral Mathews: No.

  Q396  Linda Gilroy: I think at the bottom of this question is that a lot of people are very sceptical about why it should take 17 years, why the decision now if there is a degree of commonality, whatever that degree is, with the current submarines? Can you convince those sceptics rather than me that 17 years is necessary?

  Rear Admiral Mathews: Let us start with the design. There are a lot of people who say, "Why do you not take Astute, cut it in half and stick your missile compartment in?". If we do that let us just think about what we end up with. We end up with a bigger submarine, so we need bigger ballast tanks. We need more air then to surface the submarine, so we need bigger air bottles, we need bigger compressors, we need more electrical power to run those compressors. You need more people, so you need more accommodation. You need more air for them to breathe; therefore you need more atmosphere purification equipment. You need a bigger galley to feed them. People produce waste. It comes in liquid, solid and gaseous form, all of which you have to manage. The point I am making is that once you start unpicking a submarine design, because it is so integrated what you have to do is that you unpick one bit and you just open Pandora's Box: you end up redesigning it all whether you really meant to or not. We tried to do it when we went from Valiant. We said, "Right; we will just cut it in half and put a missile section in and call it Resolution". There is very little of a Resolution class, apart from the engine room, that looks like a Valiant class submarine. It was a completely different design in the end. It is not about taking an Astute. It is about taking some of the systems, some of the components, some of the equipments and then designing them where we can into the future and saying, "Can we have common systems across these classes of submarines?", but it is also about taking Astute and using Astute as the vehicle to spiral development into the future classes, and that is what we want to do with the back end of the Astute programme, to de-risk the deterrent programme by doing those changes to the Astutes.

  Q397  Linda Gilroy: I understand why you are making the comparison with Astute but the people who are sceptical abut it very often tend to make the comparison with the current Vanguard class. Just now you said, I think pretty well, and I am paraphrasing, that the hull could go on for a great deal longer.

  Rear Admiral Mathews: Yes.

  Q398  Linda Gilroy: As an idea of the relative proportion between what goes into the design of the hull and the stuff that is inside it, I have had the advantage of seeing what goes on at Barrow and Devonport and just how much like rocket science all of that is. It is like putting a spaceship into outer space, which I think many people do not really understand, but therefore why can we not just take Vanguard as it is and, with the things that you said needed to be changed, just slot that into the hull?

  Rear Admiral Mathews: But it is back almost to the same arguments we used with Astute. There are things in Vanguard we would not put into Vanguard in the future because we could not afford to operate 50- to 60-year old equipment, as it would be almost when it went into service, let alone when it came out of service, so you again start changing things, and once you start making changes you are into a redesign. I used the analogy last time of building an onion but it is working from the outside of the onion and trying to put the layers inside the onion to finish it. A submarine is like that, so once you start unpicking it, because it is so integrated it is quite a difficult process, and so why we have argued the 17-years is that it is about two years to get through our concept stage: are we going to unpick a Vanguard design, are we going to unpick the Astute, how many missile tubes, those sorts of decisions; seven years in design to come out of that with a mature design that we do not want to change once we start construction because change, once you have started building (and that is my onion again), means you have to unpick it all to work out again, so it is about seven years to design, seven years to build, and then the final bit is taking it on sea trials, testing it, proving it, training the crew, putting the missiles in, test-firing the missile and putting it on operational patrol: total duration about 17 years. How do we compare with the rest of our competitors, so to speak? The same as the Americans, they think about the same time; the same as the French. That 17-year model we are pretty confident about.

  Q399  Linda Gilroy: The other million-dollar question is why do we not buy it from the Americans? Would it not just be cheaper just to do that, like we do with the missiles?

  Des Browne: In a sense there is a political answer to that: because we do not think they would sell them to us, and in any event people do not sell—

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