Factometer: unrated

The claim
“It sets out very, very explicitly from people with impeccable authority on the issue of Trident precisely the argument that we have been making. In their words it would be ‘a strategic blunder’ to do what both the Labour and Conservative parties want us all to do, namely commit up to a hundred billion pounds now on the full renewal of the Cold War Trident nuclear missile system when, as the generals explain in their letter, there are a number of other alternatives, cheaper alternatives which are not being explored.”
Nick Clegg, Liberal Democrat leader, 21 April 2010

The background
In a letter published in The Times today, four former senior military commanders including former Chief of the Defence Staff Field Marshal Lord Bramall and Major-General Patrick Cordingley, erstwhile Commander of the 7th Armoured Brigade.

It is about the options facing the UK when the Trident nuclear system is replaced. They write:

“With an estimated lifetime cost of more than £80 billion … a number of options may be more affordable than a like-for-like replacement of the Trident system.”

The decision “will have a direct impact on our overstretched Armed Forces,” say the commanders. “It may well be that money spent on new nuclear weapons will be money that is not available to support our frontline troops, or for crucial counterterrorism work; money not available for buying helicopters, armoured vehicles, frigates or even for paying for more manpower.”

They also assert that the elimination of UK nuclear weapons should be considered.

The analysis
Labour and the Conservatives both favour replacing Trident with a like-for-like submarine based nuclear missile system.

So what is Lib Dem policy on the post-Trident age, and how much will it cost?

Their manifesto says: “We will strive for global nuclear disarmament, showing leadership by committing not to replace the Trident nuclear weapons system on a like-for-like basis.” They claim that a potential cost of £100bn is too much and they would find a cheaper alternative.

Professor Malcolm Chalmers, a former advisor to the Defence Secretary, is an expert in defence procurement with the independent think tank Royal United Services Institute (RUSI).

He described a figure of £100bn for the total lifetime cost of a like-for-like Trident replacement as “plausible”. However it should explained that when politicians talk about the “lifetime” of this nuclear deterrent the timescale spans 20-40 years.

The government has never given an overall cost for the project. A white paper, published in December 2006, cites an initial procurement cost of £15-20bn just for the submarines (at 2006/2007 prices) but this doesn’t take into account any annual running costs which could run into the billions.

And, while Greenpeace have also calculated a figure of £97bn, this estimate is at the upper end of the scale and some say the £80bn cited by the military men is closer to the actual cost.

On the suggestion that expenditure on Trident would inevitably lead to cuts in other areas of defence, Professor Chalmers said:

“It’s a zero sum game in terms of the government budget as a whole, but whether it is for the Ministry of Defence is less clear. Civil servants tell me that the capital costs (not the running costs) of Trident replacement are a separate provision from the Treasury. On the other hand, this all comes down to artificial walls in Treasury accounting which a new government could overcome quite easily.”

In other words, even if the Lib Dems find an alternative to the like-for-like replacement of Trident there’s no guarantee the money saved, if any, would go to front-line troops as suggested.

One of the signatories to the letter, Major-General Cordingley, told us “our statement is trying at this critical moment to draw attention to the importance of including Trident in any strategic defence review.

“There is not going to be enough money to increase defence expenditure and therefore if you press ahead with the extraordinarily expensive Trident something else is going to suffer. The two major parties must know in their heart of hearts that this is really true… You can rest assured that the defence budget would go down as a result of a like-for-like Trident replacement coming from central resources.”

The Major-General’s point is a good one – both Labour and the Conservative’s have not included Trident as part of the upcoming strategic defence review but have committed to a like-for-like replacement.

But FactCheck understands that in a survey of over 2,000 security and defence experts – due to be published tomorrow by RUSI – the majority agreed that the political and strategic benefits of Trident outweighed the economic costs.

So what about alternatives to a like-for-like replacement of Trident?

The white paper concludes that a like-for-like replacement is less costly than some alternatives:

“In terms of cost, maintaining a submarine-based deterrent has a significant advantage over the large aircraft and silo-based [i.e. land-based] approaches and is broadly similar to the surface ship option.”

And the Shadow Chancellor, George Osborne, also dismissed the concept of cheaper alternatives today saying “from the discussions that I’ve had over a couple of years all the other options when you look at it are extremely expensive and have a high degree of uncertainty about it.”

However, the Liberal Democrats are proposing a different approach. When we asked them for more detail on their policy they outlined five options: extending the life of nuclear submarines; ending continuous at-sea patrols (current policy is that at any given time a UK nuclear sub must be at sea); modifying submarine platforms to carry a smaller number of Trident missiles or nuclear-tipped cruise missiles; maintaining nuclear weapons know-how at the Atomic Weapons Establishment (as “a long-term hedge against any unforeseen threats”) and complete disarmament.

But they were unable to give us any costings for these options.

It’s worth noting that while the Lib Dems say that they “believe that the UK should continue with a nuclear deterrent for the foreseeable future” they believe the UK should consider disarmament if global talks made significant progress.

The verdict
What would be an effective alternative to the status-quo, and how much that will cost, will continue to be a matter of much debate.

The Liberal Democrats could not show us costings on their suggested alternatives for Trident so it’s hard to say if they would be less expensive than the cited £100bn lifetime expenditure.

And while it is not inevitable that a like-for-like replacement for Trident would mean cuts in other areas of the defence budget it will certainly continue to squeeze an already stretched budget in these straitened economic conditions.