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
|Project||Cost increase 2018-19||New 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|
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”.
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.”
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.”
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.