Trident damned as ‘deadly farce’ after costs rise £1bn

The cost of UK programmes to replace Trident and nuclear submarines on the Clyde increased by over £1 billion in a year, according to data released by the Ministry of Defence (MoD).

The construction of new reactor cores, replacement submarines and major new facilities at the Faslane and Coulport bases in Argyll are also facing prolonged delays, with growing doubts over whether some projects can be successfully delivered. Most of the delays are unrelated to the coronavirus pandemic.

Four major nuclear projects have been officially rated as “amber” or worse, meaning that they have “significant issues”. Two have been “rebaselined” by the MoD, meaning that costs have risen significantly and timescales lengthened.

Critics warn that escalating delays will make it increasingly difficult for Westminster to meet its objective of always keeping a Trident submarine on patrol. Existing submarines will be forced to keep operating for much longer than the 25 years for which they were originally designed, they say.

The Scottish National Party accuses the MoD of “a pattern of dysfunction” that wastes billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money. Campaigners say the UK’s nuclear bomb programme has become a “deadly farce”.

The MoD described the new data as “the most up to date information available on all our key programmes”. But it declined to comment “on matters relating to submarine activity or operations”.

Under UK government transparency rules, the MoD releases data every year on its major spending projects. The latest information for 35 projects up to September 2019 was posted online in July 2020.

These include four big nuclear projects now totalling over £44 billion which are vital to the UK government’s bid to bring new nuclear submarine fleets to Faslane over the next two decades. Four Dreadnought submarines armed with Trident missiles and powered by nuclear reactors are planned, along with three more nuclear-powered Astute submarines.

The rising cost of replacing nuclear submarines

ProjectCost increase 2018-19New total cost
New Astute submarines£799m£10.77bn
Reactor core production£167m£1.83bn
New Dreadnought submarines£39m£30.1bn
Rebuilding at Faslane and Coulport£3m£1.77bn
Source: Ministry of Defence

One of the key projects is to build reactor cores for the new submarines at factories run by Rolls Royce in Derby. The anticipated cost of the “core production capability” has risen by £167 million to £1.83 billion between 2018 and 2019.

This is due to a “rebaselining” of the project incorporating “a revised scope and updated cost estimates,” said the MoD. No further explanation is given.

The project has been given an amber “delivery confidence assessment” by the Infrastructure and Projects Authority, which reports to the Cabinet and the Treasury. This means that delivering the project “appears feasible but significant issues already exist, requiring management attention,” according to the authority.

The MoD said the amber rating recognised “the remaining schedule and technical risk in delivering a new core to meet the Dreadnought build programme”. The current project delivery date of April 2028 will be “revised” when designs have “matured”, it added.

Critics suggested that the core construction problems had mostly been caused by a fuel leak discovered in 2012 at the MoD’s Vulcan reactor testing facility at Dounreay in Caithness. This triggered a previously unplanned refuelling of HMS Vanguard, the oldest of the Trident submarines.

Vanguard has been undergoing a major overhaul at the Royal Navy’s Devonport dockyard near Plymouth since 2015. This was originally due to have been completed in 2019, but the MoD told The Ferret on 30 July 2020 that “planned deep maintenance has not yet concluded.”

Astute submarine delivery ‘in doubt’

The building of three new Astute-class submarines to add to the four already based at Faslane has also been “rebaselined”. Costs rose by £799 million to a total of £10.77 billion between 2018 and 2019 as “understanding of the overall schedule and costs matured”, the MoD said.

Over the same period the rating for the Astute programme declined from amber to “amber/red”. That means that “successful delivery of the project is in doubt, with major risks or issues apparent in a number of key areas”.

The Ferret reported in October 2019 that the Astute programme had been delayed because of “emergent technical issues”. The fourth boat, HMS Audacious, was delivered to Faslane in April 2020, eight months later than scheduled.

The MoD said that Audacious had required “unplanned repair and rework”. To help do that, work on the next submarine, HMS Anson, had been “paused”, though the MoD promised to “significantly improve the situation in the medium term”.

New nuclear submarines delayed by technical problems

The estimated cost of building the four new Dreadnought submarines by BAE Systems at Barrow has increased by £39 million to £30.1 billion between 2018 and 2019. The project has also been given an amber rating.

“The understanding of the Dreadnought design has matured significantly,” said the MoD. “Over this last period major suppliers have firmed up their costings.”

The MoD also reported “technical complications” and “build quality issues” with the manufacturing of the Trident missile tubes for the submarines. “A greater understanding of the technical requirements for the combat systems have increased material cost,” it added.

The MoD insisted however, that the Dreadnought programme was “within budget” and “on track” for the first boat to enter service at Faslane “in the early 2030s”.

The official delivery rating for new onshore submarine facilities being built at Faslane on the Gareloch and Coulport on Loch Long has worsened from amber/green to amber. The projected cost has risen £3 million to £1.77 billion between 2018 and 2019.

“A greater understanding of existing asset condition has highlighted the fragility of some aspects of the key complex technical waterfront infrastructure,” the MoD said.

With “greater operational demands on facilities”, this had lead to “uncertainty on the volume of intervention required and the ability to deliver within programme time and cost parameters,” it added.

“The volume of concurrent activity that can be commissioned simultaneously across the site is limited by the need to maintain operations and deconflict activity in a geographically constrained highly secure environment.”

Faslane to dump up to 50 times more radioactive waste in the Clyde

The subsequent impact of the Covid-19 lockdown in 2020 is now also subject to a “capability audit” which could “impact on the programme completion date” of March 2032, the MoD said.

“All non critical onsite projects ceased on 24 March 2020 to moderate viral transmission and mitigate the risk to continuous at sea deterrence.” The MoD is committed to keeping at least one Trident submarine on patrol at sea 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

The former conservative defence minister, Tobias Ellwood MP, warned in April that the Royal Navy had been “limping on” with two of the UK’s four current Trident submarines out of commission. The Times reported that, in addition to the prolonged HMS Vanguard refit at Devonport, another unnamed submarine had been in maintenance at Faslane for a year.

Trident programme ‘mismanagement’

The Nuclear Information Service (NIS), which monitors the UK’s military nuclear activities, argued that the MoD’s latest admissions reinforced fears that it was struggling to maintain continuous deterrence.

“If the MoD is not certain whether it will be able to fulfil its goal of keeping a submarine permanently at sea, we really need a public debate about whether it is reasonable to spend eye-watering sums of money towards that end,” said NIS director, David Cullen.

“If it is not prepared to level with the public, parliament needs to step in and provide ongoing scrutiny and oversight of the nuclear weapon upgrade programmes.”

Perfect storm: MoD report says Trident nuclear plans in trouble

The SNP’s defence procurement spokesperson, Angela Crawley MP, said: “This mismanagement of yet another project by the Ministry of Defence marks a new low for this out-of-control department.

“In the midst of the global pandemic that we now face, this kind of frivolity is reflective of a pattern of dysfunction in the MoD when it comes to value for the taxpayer and accountability for billions of pounds in overspend.”

Crawley suggested money would be better spent on protecting the economy in the wake of the Covid-19 outbreak. “The UK government needs to finally get to grips with the waste coming from the MoD,” she added.

“It should address the impact of the delay of these projects on supply chains and personnel, and urgently review its wasteful position in favour of weapons of mass destruction in order to match modern capabilities to modern threats instead.”

The Scottish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament urged the UK government to sign up to the UN Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. “Now is surely the time to stop channelling resources to an unusable British weapon of mass death and environmental catastrophe,” said campaign chair, Lynn Jamieson.

“The history of the British nuclear weapon system has always been one of escalating costs, near-miss catastrophic accidents, radioactive discharges and dependence on the US for supply and operation. It is time for this deadly farce to be replaced by genuine security.”

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Defence said: “The details included in the Infrastructure and Projects Authority report were provided by the MoD as part of our information transparency approach and includes the most up to date information available on all our key programmes.

“It is UK policy that we do not comment on matters relating to submarine activity or operations.”

Photo thanks to the Ministry of Defence. This story is being published in tandem with the Sunday National

1 comment
  1. Earlier this year, the National Audit Office released its report on the Ministry of Defence’s 10-year forward Equipment Plan. It concluded that for a third year in a row, the Equipment Plan is not affordable and went on to list failings in MoD’s procurement processes which has led to this sorry state of affairs.

    Commenting on the report, the Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, Meg Hillier said “This cannot carry on. The department is locked into short-term thinking, wasting taxpayer’s money ….”

    There is a desperate need for concerted leadership at the Ministry of Defence which has been plagued by whole range of problems – from a budget which is out of kilter with its Equipment Plan, to a defence industrial supplier base that has consistently failed to deliver within time and cost constraints.

    When it comes to procuring defence equipment for the Armed Forces, the government has no option but to rely on the private sector, because it no longer has the ability to produce military equipment – as it used to do.

    This is because the means of defence production, distribution and exchange is now exclusively in the hands of private interests, that is to say, the State is entirely dependent on for-profit organisations for the design, development, manufacture and delivery of new military equipment to the Armed Forces. Consequently, the government has become reliant on the private sector for all its military equipment needs, including its subsequent upkeep, when in-service with the user. The harsh reality is that, no department of state in Whitehall is as dependent on the private sector, as is the Ministry of Defence. Likewise, these private interests are completely hooked on a steady flow of taxpayer funds for their very existence.

    As the only customer of defence equipment, the government is in a powerful position to dictate the terms of trade. But it has failed to leverage this enormous purchasing power to its advantage.

    The main reason for this failure is that people in Whitehall have little or no understanding of the forces at work and commercial pressures that exist within for-profit organisations which are ready to be harnessed for the benefit of taxpayers – not least, because they have not spent a single day of their lives in the private sector – and yet, they have been put in charge of spending taxpayers’ money to the tune of £15bn per year to buy defence equipment, outsourced services and labour from the private sector.

    What’s more, the judgements made by these people, as it relates to the expenditure of public funds are distorted by the fact that they will end up in the private sector via the ‘revolving door’ to pursue a second career, later on. So, it will come as no surprise that MoD employees are likely to look upon defence contractors favourably and treat them leniently because they are completely dependent on them for their subsequent career choices, when their time in public service comes to an end, or their employment contract is terminated abruptly by political edict because they have been found wanting. Indeed, it is hard to find anyone at MoD who will aggressively defend taxpayers’ interests, once they have enjoyed a cosy relationship with defence contractors. It is fair to say that, they know which side their ‘bread is buttered’!

    This mass migration would explain why staff on defence contractors’ payroll is made-up entirely of people who were previously in the pay of the State.

    So, how did this total lack of diversity in the workforce of publicly-quoted companies, right across the full spectrum of defence engineering businesses, government outsourcing contractors and foreign-owned entities, large and small, come about? The answer is clear, through the interfering hand of the State – in the shape of the Defence Secretary, who has been actively encouraging these defence contractors to hire people who were most recently in the pay of the State – thereby discriminating against other, equally deserving groups.

    Defence contractors may very well call themselves public companies and have their shares quoted on the stock market, but they really are private sector organisations in name only, not least, because they are ‘created in the image’ of public sector institutions like MoD Abbey Wood (warts ’n all) displaying all the tell-tale features of: a workforce made-up entirely of people who were previously in the pay of the State (where they developed an unhealthy penchant for rules, regulations and processes), who have succeeded in transplanting a work culture characterised by failed practices of management by committee & PowerPoint presentations and groupthink that disallows external challenge.

    What’s more, instead doing the right thing and educating people in the pay of the State about the ways of the private sector, these new arrivals (in association with those who have gone before) then set about exploiting the ignorance of their former colleagues at the Ministry of Defence, for one purpose only – relieving them of taxpayers’ money – which has, in itself, left the public finances in pretty bad shape.

    There is something very disturbing about people who have previously, as public servants sworn undying allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, only to then engage in defrauding and ripping-off Her Majesty’s Government on behalf of vested interests whilst pursuing a second career in the private sector.

    The appallingly poor performance of indigenous defence contractors over the last several decades – characterised by persistent delays and cost overruns – has convinced some people to conclude that they pose the single biggest threat to the financial security of this country, aided and abated by people who were previously in the pay of the State.

    Remember the much-vaunted principles of selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership in public life which are supposed to guide the conduct of public servants? Well, there is pitifully little sign of them right now. It seems that these values have been left behind in the public sector for others to cherish!

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