The United Kingdom's Future Nuclear Deterrent Capability - Public Accounts Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20-39)



  Q20  Nigel Griffiths: If that took this programme to 2027 or beyond, how would you plug the gap?

  Sir Bill Jeffrey: I am very reluctant, if I may say so, to reply to a hypothetical question because we are not planning to suffer that sort of slippage. As I said at the beginning, it is conceivable that the Vanguard class could be further extended beyond 2024 but we are not counting on it. There is work going on at the moment to assess what the implications would be were it to prove necessary so to extend it.

  Q21  Nigel Griffiths: I cannot imagine you ever saying that you were counting on it. What sort of problems has the Ministry had bringing in major projects on time?

  Sir Bill Jeffrey: We have had the problems with Astute that you alluded to earlier.

  Q22  Nigel Griffiths: How late was the type 45 destroyer?

  Sir Bill Jeffrey: The type 45 destroyer also is one of these projects that has suffered significant delay over time.

  Q23  Nigel Griffiths: How late is the Nimrod maritime reconnaissance aircraft?

  Sir Bill Jeffrey: Ditto. I accept that.

  Q24  Nigel Griffiths: I think that was seven years. The question is hardly hypothetical. There would be concern that if you go beyond 2024, which seems to me to be a tight deadline, we would no longer be able to operate our defence strategy with a nuclear submarine in the way that you are planning. What would we do?

  Sir Bill Jeffrey: It is not a hypothetical question. In relation to Astute, by some way the most significant factor, as I understand it, was the substantial loss of skills between the end of Vanguard construction and the commencement of the Astute programme. A great deal of our problems are down to that and to an unrealistic view of how much risk we could transfer to suppliers. The fact that we are now for example taking over responsibility for the design ourselves, adopting a more hands on approach—and this is beginning to improve the Astute position in recent times—adopting a more active partnership approach with the company gives us some grounds for optimism that we can do much better this time. Let us not forget that Vanguard itself was delivered on time and to cost.

  Q25  Nigel Griffiths: Let us go on to Vanguard. If I can expand on one of the answers you gave to the Chairman, Vanguard came in in 1994 with what should prove to be a 30 year life span. Is that right?

  Sir Bill Jeffrey: Twenty-five years was the original, projected life span but we are now talking about a five year extension.

  Q26  Nigel Griffiths: If I extend my logic, that will give you the benefit of the doubt. What you are saying in terms of the Ohio class going out of service then is that, around about two thirds of the way through Vanguard's replacement lifetime, the Americans are going to bring in a new system.

  Sir Bill Jeffrey: That is, broadly speaking, the position.

  Q27  Nigel Griffiths: What happens if we make a design breakthrough and require a larger or smaller replacement for the Trident D5? Larger, I presume, it could not launch. Can it launch a smaller missile?

  Sir Bill Jeffrey: There are two broad answers to that. The first is the one I gave the Chairman earlier, which is that at the highest political level we have an undertaking about compatibility prospectively. The second is that in recent months—and I have been involved to a degree myself in these—there have been discussions with the Americans about work together on a common missile compartment which ought to derisk this issue in the slightly longer term.

  Rear Admiral Mathews: One of the enduring strengths of this programme has been our relationship with the Americans on the missile system, whether it is Polaris, Trident or into the future with this system. Both countries recognise that. As you rightly point out, the significant risk of being ahead of the Americans is one we have to manage. The Americans have brought forward their Ohio replacement programme[1] to align the dates with ours now and we are currently working on what we call a common missile compartment design. We are going through the approvals process in the UK at the moment, just as the Americans are going through the approvals process the other side of the Atlantic. Our aim is to deliver a common missile compartment to service both submarines. What we are looking to do is future proof beyond that 2042 date, if there is a decision to change from the Trident D5 life extended missile to another generation missile. Both countries will have identical missile compartment designs and be able to take that future missile design, whenever it is. One of the things we are looking at in that design is what flexibility we need to incorporate into it.

  Q28 Nigel Griffiths: What was the exchange rate when you costed the elements of this programme that the Americans are involved with or that we are buying from America?

  Sir Bill Jeffrey: I do not know offhand.

  Mr Lester: 1.82[2].

  Q29 Nigel Griffiths: How much has this fall now pushed up the costs? Can you update the Committee on that?

  Mr Lester: We do a degree of buying forward of foreign exchange anyway which mitigates the risk over the next three years or so. That is a rolling buying forward programme. If over the course of the programme it just stuck at where it was today, it would add £300 million-odd to the overall cost of the programme.

  Q30  Mr Curry: You will understand if we are tempted to say that the motto over the Ministry of Defence door should be "Everything that can go wrong does go wrong", looking at the procurement programmes that Mr Griffiths has mentioned. The motto on this programme seems to be "Nothing can go wrong because, if anything goes wrong at all, then the whole programme becomes much more difficult." Is that a fair assessment?

  Sir Bill Jeffrey: I do not think so. I do not think the first part is true either. We have some well advertised procurements which have gone badly wrong and this Committee has been involved in them in recent years. I will never be one to defend the indefensible. On the other hand, if you look at the programme as a whole, we are delivering at the moment 350 equipment projects, about 300 urgent operational requirements and, in that much wider population of unremarkable programmes, our performance is a great deal better. I would just gently contest the statement that everything that can go wrong does go wrong.

  Q31  Mr Curry: This is a very particular programme, is it not? This is a programme first of all which is wholly dependent upon American cooperation. Okay, there has been an exchange of letters but we are dependent on the Americans for key pieces of kit. We are also dependent on the Americans for the progress of their own development programme and its synchronisation or compatibility with ours. There could be dislocation there, could there not?

  Sir Bill Jeffrey: We have an independent deterrent in the sense that it is independently operable by decision of our Prime Minister. Having said that, as you observe, we are very much dependent on the Americans for the development and support of it. That is a close and, in my experience, very deeply collaborative and worthwhile relationship from which we get cost benefit as well as military benefit.

  Q32  Mr Curry: The job of this Committee is not to speculate upon the possibility of the Prime Minister ever exercising that independence; it is to focus on the costs of building the kit. You are 60 or about to be 60, I think?

  Sir Bill Jeffrey: I am already.

  Q33  Mr Curry: Some of us think 60 is quite a young age. I assume that you are not far from retirement. Is that the case?

  Sir Bill Jeffrey: Not very far, no.

  Q34  Mr Curry: As you know, when diplomats leave their posts, they write a confidential letter to the Minister. If your Minister said, "Sir Bill, you are going and I would like you to leave to your successor something which warns him of all the key things that could go wrong, just in the interests of making sure that your successor eases into service and is informed", what would be the key things? What keeps you awake at night?

  Sir Bill Jeffrey: Fortunately, very little keeps me awake at night. I think this Report which we have in front of us is a very clear account of what could go wrong. To answer your first question, the Department's position is not that this is the programme in which nothing can go wrong. We are acutely conscious of the risks that are involved in this programme. They are set out comprehensively in this Report. The principal task of the gentlemen on my right and left and me some of the time is to ensure that we manage these substantial risks as effectively as we can.

  Q35  Mr Curry: There is one point here at which my eyes slightly begin to glaze. There is quite a big section on Astute but we are going to have to build a submarine to carry these missiles, are we not, a Vanguard replacement?

  Sir Bill Jeffrey: Yes.

  Q36  Mr Curry: Where is that submarine in terms of conception? In whose eye is it a spark?

  Sir Bill Jeffrey: Principally, the project we are examining is the successor submarine.

  Q37  Mr Curry: But we do not have one yet, do we?

  Sir Bill Jeffrey: We are in the design phase of it, the concept phase.

  Q38  Mr Curry: Whereas the Astute at least exists, however late it is, meanwhile waiting for the Astute all the Trafalgar class are being absolutely clapped out and knackered, both boats and crew. We do not yet have a replacement for Vanguard. There is nothing to look at yet.

  Sir Bill Jeffrey: There certainly is not. One of the strengths of our position—and I acknowledge that there are some weaknesses—is that the current intention is to build what remains of the Astute class, which has a different purpose, as you know, from the Vanguard, in the period between now and the commencement of building the Vanguard successor.

  Q39  Mr Curry: Is there any read over from the Astute?

  Sir Bill Jeffrey: One of the things we are trying to do in an effort to derisk this is to maximise the read over and to learn as much—

1   Note by witness: The US have brought forward that element of the Ohio programme relating to development of the common missile compartment, to align with our timescales. The timing of the wider Ohio programme is a matter for the US Government. Back

2   Note by witness; The average rate assumed was 1.8 Back

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