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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 100-119)



  Q100  Mr Mitchell: We are dependent on them for the missiles. We have problems now about the size of the missile part of the submarine which are dependent on what they design for their purposes, not on what we need.

  Sir Bill Jeffrey: As we said earlier, there are some very constructive discussions going on about the common missile compartment and the means of making sure that we do not come adrift of their thinking.

  Rear Admiral Mathews: There are significant advantages to being at the start of a programme with the Americans rather than buying into it at a later stage. One is that we can influence decisions. Secondly, there are much greater opportunities for UK industry to compete on a level playing field in the market of the future missile compartment. In the past we have bought an American design.

  Sir Bill Jeffrey: If I may say so, Mr Mitchell, although we need to be driven by defence capability rather than purely industrial considerations, there are many who would think that a thriving expert nuclear submarine industry in the UK is a good thing.

  Q101  Mr Mitchell: The Americans are perfectly capable of ditching us as they did with Polaris, did they not, and yet we are depending on them for the size and design of the missile compartment of this ship. At what stage in the design can you change that and enlarge it, if necessary?

  Sir Bill Jeffrey: The purpose of the discussions that are going on now is to agree on the approach to a common missile compartment that we would adopt in our successor submarines and that in due course they would adopt in theirs with an eye to getting the dimensions right in both cases.

  Q102  Mr Mitchell: CND have submitted some ideas to us and they say that the MoD is not serious when it suggests that it could keep the Trident D5 missiles in service throughout the life of the new submarine, I am told 2055. Are you saying that?

  Sir Bill Jeffrey: I do not think we are saying that. One of the things that underlie this whole approach is our realisation that even assuming, as is a fair assumption, that the D5 missile was extended, the extension will take us only partway into the projected lifetime of our successor deterrent and that is the reason we are thinking now with the Americans about what happens after that.

  Q103  Chairman: Presumably the answer to Mr Mitchell when he said why do we not buy off the Americans is if we bought everything off the Americans it would not be independent any more, is that the answer?

  Sir Bill Jeffrey: As the earlier question exposed, the independence of our deterrent lies in our ability to operate it independently and there is undoubtedly an extent to which if you view the whole thing, the submarine and the launch system, missile warhead, there are significant respects in which we are dependent materially on the American contribution, but that is not to say it is not an independent nuclear deterrent.

  Q104  Chairman: But not on the targeting of the warhead?

  Rear Admiral Mathews: No, or the communications.

  Chairman: Or the communications. Thank you.

  Q105  Mr Williams: In my 18 years on this Committee the worst case I ever came across was the construction of the Trident base and the installation of the lift. Can I ask the NAO, I do not know whether anyone goes back as far as I do there on these reports, when you were preparing this Report did any of you have a feeling, "This is somewhere I have been before"?

  Mr Banfield: No, I did not. I think some of the work that we have done in the past, particularly looking, as the Rear Admiral referred to earlier, at the D154 in Devonport, you could see then there were similar challenges around the importance of timescales. We never felt this was just a repeat of what happened before.

  Q106  Mr Williams: You do not see potential similarities? Remember, the cardinal sin as far as this Committee is concerned, because it is so often easily avoidable, is changing specifications partway through a contract when you are firmly over this bow that keeps arising in our comments because you have no power to negotiate competitive tenders. That is a fact, is it not? That was a feature of the Trident base in Scotland and the lift. You do not see similar potential here?

  Mr Banfield: There are similar challenges to other aspects of defence procurement on a lot of these things, it is the scale of some of the challenges.

  Q107  Mr Williams: I am not talking about that sort of similarity, I am talking about similarities in the potential for things going disastrously wrong. In the case of the building of the base there were not just changes of specification in their tens or hundreds, there were thousands of changes of specification. I said on the day there were changes of changes of changes. It was Christmas Day every day for the contractors. This looks to be an absolute blueprint for going down the same route. How can we be following on from the Americans when we have placed the contract and started construction before we finish the design? How can we be sure that we are not going to be in exactly the same situation we were in the with the base?

  Sir Bill Jeffrey: Can I make two comments on that. The first is that before this hearing I read the NAO's report and your Committee's report in 2002 on the Devonport facility and we have learned lessons from that. Our whole approach now is more of partnering, given the single source of supply point that was made earlier, and more of a realistic understanding of how much you can actually transfer risk to the supplier, a more hands-on approach and better management of key stakeholders like the regulators. If all of these came out of the Devonport case we are very much on them now.

  Q108  Mr Williams: If you start construction before you complete the design surely you cannot sit there and say, "We can guarantee we are not going to be having changes on specification along the route", or perhaps there is some clever way you have found of doing it, in which case I will be very relieved.

  Rear Admiral Mathews: The important thing to recognise is what we mean by completed design. Having the submarine 100% designed will lead to a much longer build programme and may incentivise people to make changes because of things like obsolescence management. If you are not careful you can take so long designing it things are out of date before you build. It is important to make a balanced decision here about cost to the programme, risk and managing the design. It is clear that you need to make the decisions about the big components, the big systems and make sure you have got the design integrated when you start construction. Some of the really detailed design about where you put some of the small bore pipe work you do not necessarily have to get done. If the aspiration is for us to sit here and say we want to have a 100% design maturity before we start construction, that is the Holy Grail, it may not be possible for us to achieve that, and nor should we try because it will drive you to additional costs in build. It is about making a balanced design and being clear about where the design has gone, you have integrated it, you understand it and you are clear about those areas that you have not finished.

  Q109  Mr Williams: How important is the size of the missile chamber?

  Rear Admiral Mathews: It is the payload for the submarine, it sets it out, which is why in our work for the concept phase we are very clear about setting out some clear design decisions about submarine diameter, the size of the missile tubes in terms of their diameter and length, so that we are absolutely clear when we proceed to the next phase of the detailed design we have got those things pinned at the start.

  Q110  Mr Williams: We are told in the Report that the size of the missile compartment depends on the US designing the missile and they have not designed it yet.

  Rear Admiral Mathews: The whole point is that the US and UK are designing a common missile compartment together which will set the bounds for the future missile.

  Q111  Mr Williams: That will all be done before—

  Rear Admiral Mathews: Those decisions and the work we are taking forward now are to reach decisions by the time we get to Initial Gate.

  Q112  Mr Williams: What sort of timescale would decisions of this sort be needed in?

  Rear Admiral Mathews: By September next year.

  Q113 Mr Williams: You are going to be able to make all of these certain commitments?

  Rear Admiral Mathews: We are intending to make decisions about the missile tube and the diameter of the missile compartment before September next year.

  Q114  Mr Williams: If it turned out to be significantly larger, what would be the implications of that for the design of the submarine?

  Rear Admiral Mathews: We are quite clear that it cannot be significantly larger because this submarine has to fit UK infrastructure. The US have exactly the same problem. If you make a submarine significantly larger you end up with a major infrastructure programme to build bigger dry docks, bigger missile handling facilities.

  Q115  Mr Williams: Bigger lifts.

  Rear Admiral Mathews: Just like the issue about setting the size of the missile before you design it, infrastructure limits you on the size of the submarine you can build.

  Q116  Mr Williams: So you can sit there and guarantee this Committee, and you are going to be 76 by that time so I do not think you need to worry about your career prospects at that stage,—

  Sir Bill Jeffrey: I am tempted, Mr Williams, to return that with interest actually!

  Q117  Mr Williams: You can sit there and say you are genuinely convinced that we are not going to see any repetition of the disastrous cycle of re-contracting that we saw with the construction?

  Sir Bill Jeffrey: If I might respond to that. I do not think we would be wise if we sat here and guaranteed anything frankly.

  Q118  Mr Williams: Well, that is what worries me.

  Sir Bill Jeffrey: These are difficult.

  Q119  Mr Williams: A moment ago you were telling me I had got it all wrong because I was casting doubt and now you are turning round and saying, "We are not here to be guaranteeing anything". I thought that was what you were here to do, otherwise the Government has got a problem, has it not?

  Sir Bill Jeffrey: What I am saying is, as the Report brings out very clearly, we are responsible for a large, complex, challenging programme extending over many years which has a lot of inherent risks but we will have to manage these risks. We think we have learned from recent experiences and can manage them more successfully now than we have done in the past, but that does not constitute a guarantee. This is a department of state doing its best.

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