Select Committee on Defence Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 190-199)


21 NOVEMBER 2006

  Q190 Chairman: Welcome, Minister and gentlemen, to the second of our inquiries into the strategic nuclear deterrent, which as you know is into the skills base. I must open by saying how welcome it is to have you, Minister, and the Ministry of Defence taking part in this inquiry, so thank you for coming. We are waiting at the moment for the White Paper, but I wonder whether I could begin by asking you to introduce your team, some of whom have given evidence before us already. If you could you tell us about your team that would be most helpful to start with.

  Lord Drayson: Perhaps if we could start on the left-hand side: Nick Bennett, who is the Director General of Strategic Technologies, David Gould who is the Deputy Chief Executive of the DPA and Rear Admiral Andrew Mathews who is Director General Nuclear.

  Q191 Chairman: The White Paper. We were told in June by the Prime Minister that the Government were likely to be publishing a White Paper by the end of the year. Is that still the expected timing?

  Lord Drayson: Yes it is, Chairman.

  Q192 Chairman: Are you able to give us any better indication of when?

  Lord Drayson: No further than that, except to say that we have indicated that the White Paper will be published once decisions have been taken on the future of the nuclear deterrent. No decisions have been taken as yet, but the expectation is that the White Paper will be published by the end of this year.

  Q193 Chairman: What sort of form will it take? Will it set out what decisions have been taken and ask for comments or will it set out the options that the Government could follow?

  Lord Drayson: It will set out the assessment that has been made of the options that there are for the replacement of the deterrent. That assessment will include the risks, the threats, the options, the costs that are involved in the different ways forward. It will set out the results of the preparatory work which has been undertaken to give Parliament an opportunity then to assess that once ministers have had an opportunity to review those issues.

  Q194 Chairman: The way you put it just now, it will set out the decisions that have been taken for the replacement of the deterrent. That contains just the slightest tinge of an implication that a decision has been taken to replace the deterrent.

  Lord Drayson: Absolutely not, Chairman. No decision has yet been taken. We are at the stage where the options are being reviewed, but no decision has been taken as yet.

  Q195 Chairman: May I put to you one point which was put to us this morning by Greenpeace? They said that the programme of investment in Aldermaston raises some concerns, that the proper procedure should be an open and informed debate first, then a decision by Parliament on whether to go ahead with the investments necessary to make a bomb and finally, the investments. Instead, the evidence strongly suggests that we have an Alice in Wonderland situation of investments first, official decisions second and public debate and parliamentary vote last of all. What do you say about that?

  Lord Drayson: That reflects a misunderstanding of what the investments that have been made in Aldermaston have been for. They are to ensure that the existing deterrent can be maintained in a safe and effective form given that under the nuclear test ban treaty the only way in which we can make sure that the deterrent is safe is to carry out very sophisticated physical and computational experiments and that requires investment in the infrastructure at Aldermaston to make sure that we continue to be able to do that properly.

  Q196 Chairman: But in any event the public debate will follow the Government's decision.

  Lord Drayson: The public debate will follow the publication of the White Paper. The White Paper will follow the position taken when ministers have reviewed the options which have been presented in the White Paper.

  Q197 Willie Rennie: Many have criticised the necessity of having this debate at this exact time. Could the reasons as to why we are having the debate now rather than in four, five or six years' time not be set out?

  Lord Drayson: The central issue that we have to focus on, which is why the debate is important now, is that we have the existing deterrent system. That system has a life and if we decide that we wish to replace that system when it comes to the end of its life, we have to take decisions now relating to the way in which we are going to do that because of the length of time it takes to develop and build and bring into service a successor system. That is the central reason why a decision is made now.

  Q198 Willie Rennie: What do you say to those who say that it is far too early in the process to do that and you should actually allow more time for events to develop and perhaps to chime in with the developments in America for the replacement of their system, which might be more economic for the UK in the long run?

  Lord Drayson: I would say that we do not have the option to do that if we wish to retain the option to be able to replace the deterrent because of the very long lead times which are involved in the design and development and the bringing into service of any successor deterrent system. Rear Admiral, would you like to give a bit more detail in terms of the timing?

  Rear Admiral Mathews: This is a compromise between the time it takes to design, build and then commission a nuclear submarine and how long we can economically and reliably run on the existing system. This really comes down to the fact that it is the platform that is driving this decision and the two questions then are: what is the time to develop a new submarine and what is the time that we can run on the existing system? If I just answer those two questions. We estimate it takes around 17 years to design and build a new platform, which is exactly in line with the American model. It is about two years to get through the concept stage, there are big decisions about the number of missile tubes, the type of propulsion, the type of submarine you want before getting into detailed design. At the end of detailed design, we have to have got it right because we do not build a prototype: the first-of-class is the first-of-class and we expect it to go to sea on time. It is a bit like building an onion in reverse once we start building this thing because we work from the outside in. So if we come to a late change, it is extremely costly because this is a highly integrated platform, it is highly complex and change means that we often have to make change throughout the submarine, which is difficult to do once we have started construction. We also have a complex safety case which, again, we have to mature before we get into serious construction. If we do not have our safety case right it causes rework. Bear in mind what we are doing with this platform: it is a complex piece of kit, it operates in a complex environment, nuclear propulsion, nuclear weapons, it has a complex safety case. It is important you get those principles right at the end of that design stage, so the design can be long, but it is a vital piece. Then we go through along the construction critical path, starting with propulsion, and we test this before we put it into the submarine. And then we build it in sections, join the sections together and integrate them. This is a complex process and then we need about two years for trials, commissioning and testing at sea and training the ship's company to operate it. A thirty-year life is about as long as we can get out of these platforms. We design them for 25 years; we estimate that we can extend Vanguard for about five years and still get reasonable reliability from it. To go beyond that, we start to get into the law of diminishing returns; we need to invest significant amounts of money. Our experience of operating old submarines is not good: they are unreliable; they cost a lot of money. We see around 30 years as the maximum life of a submarine. That drives us to making a decision about now.

  Q199 Willie Rennie: The defence industrial strategy says that the UK must retain onshore key skills in design, construction, maintenance and decommissioning of nuclear submarines. Why exactly does the UK need to have that onshore sovereign capability?

  Lord Drayson: It relates to a number of factors, but the most important is that we have a responsibility in terms of making sure that if we are operating nuclear submarines we have the capability to do so safely, to meet all our regulatory commitments and being able to do so properly. Being able to ensure that we have that capability and that know-how is intimately tied up with an understanding of the design, the development of the system, which best comes from an intimate knowledge which is generated from having the design base and the skills here in this country to do it. The second thing stems from security aspects: it is not possible for us to procure many aspects of the submarine from other parties. Therefore, for those two key reasons, we are put in a position where, if we take the decision to replace the nuclear deterrent and if we decide that the best way to do that is to continue it being submarine-based, then we do need to maintain that capability here in the United Kingdom to do so. There is a second order issue which relates to affordability and value for money for taxpayers. Our analysis shows that having the capability to do so here in the United Kingdom does also give us the best value for money in terms of the affordability of the system through doing it in this way. That is the experience which we have had from the existing class of submarines and the class of submarines which we are building at present, the Astute class.

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