Select Committee on Defence Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 400-410)



  Q400  Linda Gilroy: Why not? They sell the missiles to us.

  Des Browne: People do not sell these systems to each other but part of the reason for that, of course, is that once you have them you have to look after them, and because you need to be able to look after them you need the skill base to look after them, and the technology is very highly secret.

  Q401  Robert Key: Secretary of State, in his letter to the President the Prime Minister last December specifically, in that exchange of letters, spoke about increasing collaboration on the construction of submarines, and in his reply of the same date the President agreed and said there should be more collaboration on the construction of submarines, but if they are never going to sell them to us what is the point of that? Why did they say it?

  Des Browne: I was asked a very specific question about why do we not just buy them from the Americans and I gave a straightforward answer: I do not think they would sell them to us, but in any event we have a different nuclear regulation system from the United States of America, so we would then be faced with the problem of buying something that was built for a regulation system and then adjusting it to suit our regulation system. The other point is that the indications are that it would probably cost more.

  Q402  Robert Key: So why did they bother to exchange letters saying they would do that?

  Des Browne: The answer to your specific question is that, of course, we do collaborate with the Americans and have done for 40 years or longer on many aspects of defence capability.

  Q403  Robert Key: But not the construction of submarines?

  Des Browne: I would need to check precisely if we have ever collaborated with them in relation to submarines.

  Q404  Robert Key: I assure you it is in those letters.

  Rear Admiral Mathews: If I can assist the Committee here, we effectively bought the Dreadnought design lock, stock and barrel from the Americans. Admiral Rickover, who was the father of the American programme, insisted at that stage that that was the end of collaboration in a sense, because what he was trying to do by that decision was to say to the British that we had to be responsible for this submarine, we had to understand its design, we had to be able to operate it, and we had to be able to maintain it through life, and so the American position was, "You have got to own what we have just given you". That position has not really changed. The Secretary of State is absolutely right about regulatory regime. There are some major implications there. You cannot just take an American design and expect to license it in the UK. There is a cost issue because the American submarines are different and we would be operating mixed fleets as well, so there are not real advantages and at the end of the day, if we go down that route that would, I think, shatter the confidence of the UK submarine building industry, and part of the evidence that you have had before you has been about how to re-establish that confidence and sustain it.

  Q405  Mr Borrow: I just want to get absolutely clear that the 17 years is what is actually needed to design and build a new nuclear-powered submarine to put nuclear missiles on, that that cannot be shortened at all and that that 17 years has nothing at all to do with the needs of BAA systems in constructing the Astute submarines and their long-term timetable. I am not arguing that that is wrong if that is part of the decision, but you are saying quite clearly that 17 years is the minimum that we need to do it and that has nothing to do with the industrial base arguments, nothing to do with fitting it in with the Astute programme at Barrow?

  Rear Admiral Mathews: The answer to your question is that 17 years is the time we believe is the minimum needed to do this.

  Q406  Chairman: The White Paper says the warhead should last until 2020. Will we need a new warhead then?

  Des Browne: My answer to that is that we have been as open as we can, I think, in our future warhead plans. We believe it will last until at least the 2020s but we are not clear on the longer term position and that is why we continue to invest in the facilities at Aldermaston. Once we have a better feel for its life, and this is unlikely to be before the next Parliament, as we say, we will decide whether it is better to refurbish our existing stockpile or develop a new warhead. In the interim we will look at replacement options to ensure that we have a firm basis on which to make our decisions, so we are in an area of consideration.

  Mr Bennett: I think that is fine.

  Q407  Chairman: So there is no decision that is taken as to whether the warhead is going to be redesigned or designed to the same design?

  Des Browne: No decisions have yet been taken and I think it would be an error for me to pre-judge those decisions or to indicate how I think they may come out because I simply do not know.

  Q408  Chairman: Do you have a view as to whether, if there is any need for such a redesign, it would fall within our legal obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty?

  Des Browne: I do not have a mature view in relation to that. That is to some degree speculative in terms of the environment I have been working in and preparing for because we are not having to make that decision.

  Q409  Chairman: Fair enough.

  Des Browne: If it is absolutely necessary for the Committee to have an answer to that then I will try to get an answer to the Committee.

  Q410  Chairman: I think it is, as you suggest, too speculative and I will not pursue it.

  Des Browne: Thank you.

  Chairman: If there are no further questions I will simply say thank you very much indeed for helping with that final evidence session.

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