Select Committee on Defence Fourth Report

Conclusions and recommendations

1.  This report does not seek to assess the findings and conclusions of the Government's White Paper. That will be the focus of our next inquiry. (Paragraph 6)

2.  Any decisions on the future of the UK's deterrent should be taken on the strategic defence needs of the country. Our intention in making this report is to ensure that the House of Commons, and the public, are aware of the manufacturing and skills base issues which will need to be addressed if a decision is made to renew the submarine-based deterrent. We recommend that the Government respond to this report in good time for publication before the debate in the House of Commons on the White Paper in March 2007. (Paragraph 7)

3.  The Ministry of Defence believes that the UK should retain onshore a sovereign capability in the design, construction, operation, maintenance and decommissioning of nuclear-powered submarines. It is important that the public understand clearly the reasons for this. We call upon the MoD to provide, in its response to this report, a fuller explanation of the need for this sovereign capability. (Paragraph 31)

4.  Witnesses to our inquiry maintain that the UK's current manufacturing and skills base is already at the minimum level necessary to sustain a viable onshore submarine industry. (Paragraph 39)

5.  Witnesses to our inquiry agreed that the complexity and uniqueness of a nuclear submarine, and of the environment in which it operated, called for special skills, facilities and oversight not supported by any other shipbuilding programme. (Paragraph 42)

6.  We share our witnesses' concern about the shortage of science and engineering graduates, project managers and skilled and experienced technical staff, but this raises questions which go far beyond the scope of this report. (Paragraph 45)

7.  The UK submarine industry draws on a uniquely skilled and specialist workforce. Retaining that skills base will be essential if the UK decides it wants to continue to design, build and maintain nuclear-powered submarines. The skills base is now at a critical level. Any further erosion of the workforce may have significant implications for the future of the submarine programme. Sustaining skills in this sector is only possible with regular and continuous submarine work. (Paragraph 46)

8.  Even if the decision is taken not to procure a Vanguard successor, a specialist skills base will have to be retained in order to build SSNs and maintain and finally decommission the UK's existing fleet of nuclear-powered submarines. Some indication of the order of costs would be helpful in considering arguments about affordability and we ask that the MoD provide some information about this in their response to this report. (Paragraph 47)

9.  The submarine construction supply chain is fragile and is particularly susceptible to gaps in the programme. Extended gaps are likely to result in an erosion of the UK's submarine manufacturing and skills base. There is also a risk that single source suppliers will abandon the supply chain in pursuit of more regular and assured work. If the UK intends to build a successor to the Vanguard-class, or maintain an SSN capability beyond the current Astute order book, the supply chain will have to be sustained. To achieve this, the MoD must give clear direction and certainty about the future submarine programme in order to encourage industry to invest. We call upon the MoD to provide, in its response to this report, an assessment of whether, how and at what cost the submarine supply chain could be maintained for the construction of future SSNs in the absence of a positive decision on a Vanguard successor. (Paragraph 54)

10.  Without a new SSBN it is possible that there would be insufficient demand for nuclear submarines to sustain the industry. It is important to recognise that there is an interrelationship between SSN and SSBN construction. (Paragraph 61)

11.  It is clear that the gap between the Vanguard and Astute submarine programmes had a serious and debilitating impact on the UK's submarine industry and put at risk the future of the UK's submarine fleet. If the Government wants the UK to continue to design and build nuclear-powered submarines, it will be essential to maintain a regular rhythm of submarine construction. Reducing the frequency of construction below 22 months would be risky. Without a regular build "drumbeat", the UK skills base will erode and it may prove impossible or prohibitively expensive to recreate. (Paragraph 64)

12.  It is important that the MoD and industry agree promptly on a price for future Astute-class orders. Clarity and certainty about the future submarine programme is necessary if industry is to continue to invest in the manufacturing skills base. The MoD must also demonstrate that it has learned the lessons from the Astute programme, and implemented a much tighter contractual relationship with BAE Systems, before it commits expenditure to a new SSBN build programme. (Paragraph 65)

13.  The Government will need to consider carefully whether the potential long-term benefits of designing a completely new submarine, in which through-life affordability is built in from the start, could outweigh the cost-benefits of maximising commonality of design with existing submarines. And it will need to judge whether efforts to maximise commonality with existing submarines would be enough to sustain the specialist submarine design base in the UK. (Paragraph 67)

14.  Using a well-tried reactor in the new submarines would minimise design-related risk, but in the longer term there might be benefit in both safety and design costs in investing in a new generation of reactor technology. (Paragraph 68)

15.  We recommend that the MoD make clear in its response to this report the timetable for the procurement of the new submarines it proposes. This should indicate by when it will need to decide whether to opt for radical redesign or commonality of design for the submarine platform and for the nuclear reactor, and when it will need to decide between a three- or four-boat package. (Paragraph 69)

16.  A decision to abandon the construction of nuclear submarines would have a profound impact upon local communities, particularly at Barrow. Nevertheless, we believe that employment factors should not be decisive in the debate on the future of the deterrent. (Paragraph 75)

17.  If there were no successor to the Vanguard-class submarine, there would be an ongoing need to retain onshore a capability to support and, ultimately, to decommission the current SSBN and SSN fleet. We call upon the MoD to state in its response to this report how much it would cost to sustain that capability. (Paragraph 76)

18.  It is essential that the Naval Base Review take into account the implications for the future of the submarine industry. (Paragraph 97)

19.  Affordability must be a fundamental consideration in any new submarine programme. The Government is right to emphasise that orders for a Vanguard successor will be contingent on industry driving down and reducing costs and ensuring value for money throughout the submarine programme. Industry must deliver on this requirement. (Paragraph 98)

20.  We are concerned that insufficient attention has been given to the costs of through-life support. While we understand that DML is not a supplier to the Astute programme, it seems odd and regrettable that the company responsible for through-life support on the UK's nuclear-powered submarines has had so little input into the design of the class. If the affordability of the submarine programme is to improve, it is essential that through-life costs are taken into consideration at the initial design phase. Far greater emphasis must be placed on this consideration before the design of any Vanguard successor submarine begins. (Paragraph 99)

21.  If the UK goes ahead with procuring a successor to the Vanguard-class submarine, it is essential that industry collaborates far more extensively than it has done to date to drive down and control costs in the manner envisaged by the Defence Industrial Strategy. Promoting greater industrial collaboration should be a key priority for the MoD. In turn, the MoD must provide industry with clarity and consistency about operational requirements and specifications. It is vital that lessons are drawn from the problems experienced with the Astute-class programme. (Paragraph 105)

22.  Developing a Vanguard successor would be a huge undertaking. It is essential the MoD has the capacity to manage such a programme effectively. Any shortfall in preparedness must be addressed as a matter of priority. The MoD's shortage of systems engineers and project managers—skills essential at the start of a programme of this kind—is a cause of serious concern. If the decision is made to renew the deterrent, it is essential the MoD commit sufficient resources to the programme from the beginning. It will be desirable to bring in skills from industry. We recommend that the MoD state, in its response to this report, how it intends to address its skills shortages. (Paragraph 115)

23.  We recommend that in advance of any debate in the House of Commons on the future of the deterrent, the MoD clarifies what additional investment the Government intends to make at the AWE as a result of the recommendations contained in the White Paper. (Paragraph 130)

24.  The MoD and the AWE must apply the lessons from the A91 episode in managing the new infrastructure investment at Aldermaston. (Paragraph 131)

25.  Many observers have seen the investment programme at Aldermaston as a sign that the Government had already decided in principle to retain and renew the UK's nuclear deterrent. We accept Ministers' assurances that this was not the case. We accept too that investment in buildings and infrastructure at AWE was becoming time-critical, which might suggest that the decision on the future of the deterrent should have been taken in the last Parliament. But we are less convinced that investment in the new Orion Laser, the supercomputer and hydrodynamic facilities could not have waited for a decision in principle on the future of the UK's nuclear deterrent. If the investment was made to respond to requirements of regulators, the Government should state this in its response to this report. Large-scale investment should follow, and not precede, policy decisions of such paramount importance to the nation. (Paragraph 146)

26.  The widespread suspicion about the work of the AWE and the Government's investment there is partly a consequence of the secrecy which surrounds its work. We fully accept the need to maintain secrecy about some aspects of its work, but there is a case for greater openness, not least to ensure that the public is aware of the positive contribution the AWE makes to the verification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. (Paragraph 147)

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