Select Committee on Defence Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 260-279)


21 NOVEMBER 2006

  Q260 John Smith: But it says that for the foreseeable future the country will retain the sovereign capability. In all this discussion about the skills and the so-called drumbeat, surely the only conclusion you can draw is that if you do not replace a submarine-based Trident system then you will not be able to maintain that continuity and that sovereignty.

  Lord Drayson: You have to put this in the context that the Defence Industrial Strategy identified those areas of defence equipment that the defence need determined we needed to have a sovereign capability to fulfil from this country. To discriminate between those areas of defence equipment where we had satisfied ourselves that we would be able satisfactorily to procure those items of equipment outside the United Kingdom and those pieces of equipment where we have judged that it is not possible or not in the defence interest of the country to procure them outside of the United Kingdom, we said that there was a relatively short list, and we spelled them out in the Defence Industrial Strategy, of those items of equipment which we do not believe it is possible for us to procure outside the United Kingdom and that is what we mean about sovereign capability. Therefore, if one requires that equipment as the defence need, and it could be for a particular piece of equipment that we decide we do not have that defence need, in which case we do not have the need for that sovereign capability. It is important for us to be very clear the order in which this decision is taken. It underpins the whole approach to our defence policy with industry.

  Q261 Mr Jones: I accept that the defence need comes first in any of these debates and that is one of the refreshing things in the Defence Industrial Strategy. However, there is also a crunch date coming there for industry in terms of their investments, in terms of skills and knowing when to ramp up and what long-term needs are. When is that crunch date for industry then in terms of links to the defence need?

  Lord Drayson: The crunch date with regard to what?

  Q262 Mr Jones: A date by when decisions on the submarine capacity building, for example, in this country need to be taken in terms of investment in skills. There is no way you are going to have BAE Systems and others just waiting for the next five years, just saying it might be next year or it might be the year after when these decisions are taken. When is that crunch date for that capability, because the alternative is that they turn round and say they do not want to be in this business, it is not worth their while being in it.

  Lord Drayson: In terms of making sure that if the decision is taken that we need to replace the nuclear deterrent and if the decision is taken that that is submarine based, then to ensure that we have the capability to deliver that in time for when the existing submarine-based deterrent comes to the end of its life, then we need to take a decision on that next year.

  Q263 Mr Hancock: At least three of us in the room have a direct constituency interest in the outcome of the naval base review. I am interested to know how much of an issue the replacement of the deterrent is in reflecting how that decision is going to be made, particularly considering the suggestion that Devonport have an irreplaceable opportunity here when it comes to their role in servicing these boats. I really want to know whether the naval base review is being done on a fair cost basis of what can be saved, what can be achieved and the good of the Navy, or is it simply being done to facilitate KBR and DML being able to service nuclear submarines in the future.

  Lord Drayson: I can be very clear on that. The naval base review is being carried out very clearly to address what the needs are that the Royal Navy has going forward from here in terms of the maintenance and upkeep of the fleet. It is not about those industrial considerations that you are talking about. It is what it is that we need in terms of the maintenance of the fleet, to match that with those needs and to make sure it is then done as efficiently as possible, consistent with having an industry which can be healthy and can prosper to meet those needs.

  Q264 Linda Gilroy: I would just follow on from that by asking whether there is some relationship nevertheless between being able to drive out costs in both areas, coming from the synergies that can be obtained by co-locating certain activities.

  Lord Drayson: I am sorry; I do not really understand the question.

  Q265 Linda Gilroy: I took from your answer just now that you were saying that there is no relationship between the two. Perhaps I could very simply ask whether there is in fact a relationship because there are savings to be made that can be achieved by co-locating activities on submarine work next to naval support work.

  Lord Drayson: You are absolutely right that there is an inter-relationship in that we have existing facilities around the country which are carrying out various parts of the supply chain relating to submarines. Those facilities are also connected in terms of where they are located on a naval base and therefore there is an impact across the two. It is important for us to be clear as to the purpose of the naval base review which is a separate objective to the objective which we have in terms of the maritime industrial strategy but, being smart about joined-up government is important. The way in which we manage those two is that we understand that inter-relationship and we manage it effectively.

  Q266 Willie Rennie: Although Rosyth does not have a naval base I shall not turn down the opportunity of asking a question. How radical are you prepared to be with this naval base review?

  Lord Drayson: Radical. It is absolutely right for us to have a proper look at what the Navy needs, how we can most efficiently provide that to the Navy and how we can do that in a way which is, firstly, taking into account the needs of our people in the Royal Navy in terms of where base porting is, how the fleet operates, what it is that makes the Royal Navy as effective a fighting force as it can be and how we can make that as sustainable as possible and then how we can do it in a way which allows us to develop modern facilities in which industry is incentivised, because of the environment which we create, to invest and to maintain into the future. What we want is something which is for the long term, delivering absolutely what people need within the Royal Navy to enable them to do their job properly and, secondly, that is sustainable for industry so that industry can make a healthy profit in working to supply these services to us but consistent with providing real value for money in the way in which it does it.

  Q267 Willie Rennie: Could it involve the closure of one of the Navy bases?

  Lord Drayson: We need to look at all of the options and it would not be right to pre-judge that by saying anything is off the table. We are looking at all of the options. You asked me directly and I did give a straight answer: radical. That does include looking at the potential closure of one of the Navy bases, but we have not made any decisions about that as yet.

  Q268 Chairman: Can we move on to Aldermaston? It has been a recurring theme of the evidence session this afternoon that in essence the decision has already been taken. If you look at newspaper reports of the Prime Minister talking to the Cabinet a couple of weeks ago about the strategic nuclear deterrent, all the implications are that he has made his own private decision even if there has been no formal government decision. Is it not a bit unpersuasive to say that the Government have just not made up their mind?

  Lord Drayson: No. It is absolutely right for me to set out the situation as it exists, which is that we are now looking in detail at the options and no decision has been taken at present. I can understand why people look at the Aldermaston decision next year and I do believe that in some quarters people have become confused about what the Aldermaston investment is for. I can understand where the worry has come from and I shall ask Nick to give some more detail on this. In essence it is very important for us to understand that the investment in Aldermaston is about ensuring that we make the proper investments in both the infrastructure and the scientific capability of the country to ensure that we fully understand, given the developments which we know take place in terms of nuclear physics and the technology which is available to us, that we invest in those tools as they develop, for example computational power, to make sure that we fully understand the existing nuclear deterrent, that we are doing everything we properly need to do to characterise it, to ensure that it is effective and to ensure that it is safe. The investments in Aldermaston are into those facilities, the Orion laser project is all about using laser technology to make sure that we fully understand the hydrodynamics within the warhead because under the treaty which we have signed we cannot carry out tests to ensure, as the warheads age, that they are operating correctly. We therefore have to do the physics, the computational analysis to ensure that they are. The investment which we are making in Aldermaston, both in terms of people and facilities, is addressing that issue.

  Q269 Chairman: I wonder, when Mr Bennett expands on that, whether he could possibly tell us why this could not have waited until there was a formal decision on the strategic nuclear deterrent, which seems to be any moment now.

  Mr Bennett: Because the investment at Aldermaston is unrelated to decisions on a future strategic deterrent. The work which is in place there is essential to maintain the current deterrent. If we wish to maintain the Trident warhead through until the mid 2020s then the work which is in place at Aldermaston underpins that; it underpins that entirely. It does not underpin currently a future deterrent.

  Q270 Chairman: But it underpins that, so far as I can remember, according to Dr John Reid when he was Secretary of State, and it provides for the future level of skills needed in order to keep our options open to renew the nuclear deterrent.

  Mr Bennett: Yes, that is quite correct. The way in which we go about ensuring ourselves of the surety and performance of the current stockpile is what we call science-based surety. There is a programme, as the Minister has said, which puts in place across a number of strands, hydrodynamics, plasma physics, materials and high-powered computing, the means of understanding the way in which the current warhead works. You need all of that and if you were in the future to wish to develop a new warhead, then you would need the skills that will produce to allow you to do it; in essence the capabilities that Aldermaston will be putting in place will allow us, should we ever wish to, to develop a new warhead, but they are absolutely essential to the maintenance of the current one. The two are actually indistinguishable.

  Lord Drayson: The important point is that the existing laser, for example, that we have been using up to now to enable us to replicate the conditions to be able to do this work to ensure the warhead, is 25 years' old. You can imagine the way laser technology has moved in 25 years, therefore we need to replace and update this laser. It is a very major investment and whether or not we make a decision to replace the existing deterrent, we have a responsibility to make sure that the existing deterrent we have today is safe and is effective in the context of the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and therefore we have to make this investment.

  Q271 Chairman: So suddenly we introduce a brand new Orion laser and you can understand how this misunderstanding that a decision has already been taken might arise, can you not?

  Lord Drayson: In describing this area in my introduction, I absolutely understand the concerns people may have, which is why it is very important for us to explain very clearly what this investment in Aldermaston is for.

  Q272 Chairman: What do you think the Chancellor of the Exchequer meant in that speech back in the summer when he said we would retain the nuclear deterrent?

  Lord Drayson: I think the Chancellor was—

  Q273 Chairman: Was he repeating manifesto policy?

  Lord Drayson: It is the policy of the Labour Party, on the basis of which we fought the last general election in terms of the manifesto commitment.

  Q274 Mr Havard: We had some evidence this morning from Greenpeace and they say that upgrading Aldermaston could lead to a resumption of nuclear testing by another route using exotic technologies and its access to US expertise and facilities to develop a new weapons-testing programme and that the purpose of the current investment is in fact to develop a new weapons programme. That is what they say you are doing at Aldermaston. One of the things I asked about earlier is this idea of a virtual arsenal, in other words you do not have the boat, you do not have the missiles, you retain the capability to revitalise the nuclear programme should you wish, some would say like the Japanese are and they decided yesterday not to do that in response to North Korea. I mention that now because it seems to me that what Mr Bennett is saying is what I understand the position to be and what was actually declared when you made the investment recently, which was to say that you would keep not only questions of current safety, but the minimum capability to design a successor, should it be required, and keep all the options open. So in terms of the skills there are at Aldermaston, there are all the skills required to do all of these things along this continuum. Should you wish to go to a position where Aldermaston, like Porton Down, which does not produce aggressive weapons in terms, say, of biological weapons, but is there to defend against them, should you wish to use Aldermaston more for a defensive process or a verification process and looking at those sorts of aspects, all of those skills are there because you need the same skills to do that end as you do to develop a new programme. Is my understanding right? So it is truly a case that Aldermaston is almost, as you said at the start, separate from the argument.

  Lord Drayson: I think that is right. We have a responsibility as a nation to make sure that we are doing everything we need to do to ensure the safety and effectiveness of the existing nuclear deterrent and that requires an investment in Aldermaston in terms of skills and facilities and for us to invest to upgrade those where we have the potential to use developments in physics and computer science to do so. That is the basis upon which that decision was taken, the reason it was taken, but it is absolutely true to say that those skills and that know-how does have relation to the capability within this country in terms of the potential ability in the future should it be required to design a new nuclear warhead. We have to take that decision relating to the maintenance separately anyway.

Q275 Mr Hancock: I agree entirely with that concept that you have to test the existing warheads to be sure of their capability, their suitability and their safety. You would have had to have planne about, when you started to adjust the warheads in the late 1990s?d some time ago to bring these current acquisitions into play and I should be grateful if you could explain to me over what timeframe these decisions were made to buy this new equipment that you should have had, that you were thinking about, when you started to adjust the warheads in the late 1990s?

  Mr Bennett: The programme that we put in place was started by the previous Chief Scientific Adviser some three and a half to four years ago and that led to the establishment of the current programme round about two years ago. Up until that point we had been satisfied with the process that we had there, but we were reaching a point where the majority of the facilities at Aldermaston were over 50 years' old and we were entering a regulatory regime where we were going to need either to refurbish those or replace those or we would be unable to keep those going. This is not something which came upon us suddenly: we had reached the point where finally we had to do something about it otherwise we would have found ourselves in a position where we would not be able to maintain the current programme.

  Q276 Mr Hancock: Are we talking about the facility or the kit inside the facility? You said that the facility was now 50 years' old, but that is the organisation itself, is it not? We are talking about you having in place equipment to test the existing missiles which are now currently on boats at sea, the UK's deterrent. I am interested to know when the decisions were taken, how it was agreed and how much it cost to finance the upgrade of that to carry out that same process.

  Mr Bennett: I am sorry, but I am still not quite clear as to the exact question.

  Mr Hancock: I want to know when and how much it cost. When were the decisions made? We heard this morning that a lot of the investment in Aldermaston was to re-establish the buildings, that some of those needed a lot of ... and I entirely accept that. I want to know about the specific equipment which has been purchased or is in the process of being purchased. When was that decision made?

  Chairman: Are you talking about the laser?

  Q277 Mr Hancock: The laser and—

  Mr Bennett: Europe's largest computer. That was taken in 2005. That was when the programme was approved by Ministers.

  Q278 Mr Hancock: Was there a plan before that?

  Lord Drayson: Yes.

  Mr Bennett: Yes, there was.

  Q279 Mr Havard: It followed through from the decisions made in 1998 as I understand it. That is what I am trying to establish. Aldermaston is required to dismantle things as well as build things. It is their role to keep things safe in the interim. It has to do all of these things. Even if you decided to junk the whole process tomorrow, you cannot take it down to the dump, can you? You have to do something with it, so you require these skills to do that. In a sense the institution of Aldermaston might be capable of doing one and all of these things and some might be more desirable than others but nevertheless it has to be capable of doing them all and therefore is almost coincidental, though related, to the decision about whether you are going to continue and develop. Is that correct?

  Lord Drayson: You have made a very important point, which is that the need would still be there. Even if a decision were taken to dismantle the nuclear deterrent we have a responsibility to the country to do that safely and we have to have the expertise and capability to do it. That capability would depend upon Aldermaston and we have to make the investment to ensure that the know-how and the capability are there and up to scratch. That is why that investment is needed. Whatever decision is taken about the replacement of the deterrent or not we do need to have that capability at Aldermaston.

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