The Ministry of Defence (MoD) must pay the entire cost of renewing the Trident nuclear weapons system, the government has confirmed today (30 July). The decision increases the chances of Trident renewal being delayed or scrapped, as nuclear weapons have previously been funded separately by the Treasury.
The MoD is reported to be privately furious about the decision. There have been a number of leaks in recent weeks suggesting that the MoD and the Treasury have been battling over the issue. The Treasury appears to have won.
The cost of Trident has been put officially at around £20bn. But the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) calculate the sum at £76bn, while a report commissioned by Greenpeace estimated a cost of £94bn.
Trident renewal is opposed by a number of faith groups, including the Baptist, Methodist and United Reformed Churches, the Church of Scotland and the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers). It has also been criticised by several Anglican and Roman Catholic bishops, as well as by a range of NGOs, charities and trades unions.
The effects of this decision remain unclear. One possibility is that the government delay Trident replacement, another is that they eventually choose a cheaper nuclear system instead. Campaigners may see this as an opportunity to put forward a case against the ownership of any nuclear arms at all.
But another possibility is that renewal will go ahead, with severe cuts to other military spending instead. This is likely to increase hostility to nuclear arms amongst the armed forces.
Defence Secretary Liam Fox has let it be known that he wanted the Treasury to fund Trident separately. He said this week that it would be “very difficult” to fund all other MoD projects while also funding Trident. The MoD is facing cuts of between 10 and 20 per cent, less than many other government departments.
The Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, confirmed that Trident would be funded from the MoD budget this morning. “All budgets have pressure,” he said, “I don't think there's anything particularly unique about the Ministry of Defence”.
His words are likely to anger those who say the MoD should have a privileged status and not be compared to other areas of expenditure.
CND said that the cost of building new Trident submarines would consume at least 25 per cent of the MoD's equipment budget.
“Cost over-runs are a near certainty, with the current Astute submarine programme running 48 per cent over budget and almost four years late,” said a CND statement, “Similar cost over-runs on the Trident replacement submarines could decimate army, air force and surface naval projects”.
CND chair Kate Hudson said that the MoD seemed to want Trident, “but not badly enough to pay for it”.
She added, “Whichever budget it comes from, the reality is that we're all having to endure huge cuts elsewhere so that this white elephant can be retained. The vast spending on nuclear weapons is the millstone round the neck of British defence policy, distorting priorities to face a threat that simply doesn't exist”.
Liam Fox defended Trident to the media last week, saying that “Should Iran became a nuclear weapon state, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey would be likely to follow suit and we could see ourselves in a new nuclear arms race”.
Hudson responded, "Liam Fox is reduced to scaremongering about runaway nuclear proliferation, but if it really is the government assessment that countries like Saudi Arabia will renege on their treaty commitments and develop nuclear weapons, why are we continuing to supply them with vast amounts of weaponry, subsidised by taxpayers?”
The Saudi government is one of the biggest customers of arms manufactured in Britain and/or promoted by the British government, particularly through the multinational arms company BAE Systems. The sale of arms to such an oppressive regime has long been criticised by the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT), as well as other human rights groups.
The Scottish National Party (SNP), which is opposed to Trident renewal, said that “absorbing Trident into the core defence budget is unsustainable and would have a devastating impact for spending on conventional forces”.
Earlier this week, the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), who consider issues of war and peace and generally take a pro-military line, urged the government to consider dropping the requirement always to have a nuclear submarine on patrol. They said that this would save money.
Trident renewal is supported by the Conservative and Labour Parties, and opposed by the SNP, Plaid Cymru, the Green Party, and a number of Labour backbenchers. The Liberal Democrats opposed Trident renewal until their coalition deal with the Conservatives, under which they will be allowed to abstain in votes on the issue. It remains to be seen whether Liberal Democrat MPs and ministers will use the latest decision on Trident funding to push for alternatives.