A cheaper alternative to Trident, namely modifying the Astute submarine class, could free up Defence money to be spent on the front line.
Ministers and defence chiefs are grappling with the prospect of swingeing cuts to defence expenditure in the light of a projected £36bn black hole in the defence budget in the wake of yesterday’s National Audit Office report.
Even as the Ministry of Defence increases the UK troop presence in Afghanistan whilst pledging more support for front line forces, notably in the form of twenty Chinook helicopter reinforcements, the MoD is also preparing £1.5bn worth of cuts in manpower and equipment costs.
However, the scale of the problem is so great that it is only through dramatic cuts to the procurement budget that the real gap between costs and spending can be closed. As Conservative MP Edward Leigh, chair of the Commons Public Accounts Committee, said:
“[The] report reveals the unpalatable truth that the current defence programme is unaffordable.”
Citing the example of the Royal Navy’s carrier project, the report also warns of the long term cost of short term savings; these take the form of more delays to existing large scale procurement projects that could end up costing the taxpayer more than if they had proceeded on schedule in the first place.
The NAO report says:
“These decisions were necessary to ensure that the programme was affordable in the next few years, but they increased the overall procurement costs and represent poor value for money.”
That warning should be a cause for reflection amongst defence policy makers with regard to any planned delays of the new Astute class hunter-killer submarines.
The ultimate solution to the projected shortfall is therefore likely to be the total scrapping of large scale defence procurement projects and the modification of exisiting platforms to serve multiple purposes. In the case of Britain’s nuclear deterrent such an approach could be achieved by scrapping plans for a wholly new successor to the existing Trident-bearing British nuclear submarines and modifying the Astute class to possess a nuclear weapons capability.
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