Trident: the issue of BAE’s relationship with the MoD

A guest post by Tilman Hartley

Trident is the UK’s nuclear deterrent, but it is not independent: its nuclear missiles are manufactured in America, maintained by the US Navy, and stored at King’s Bay, Georgia. The current renewal debate is not about building warheads, but about whether or not we should commission more nuclear submarines which could carry them.

Like the UK, the US Navy uses Trident submarines. Its 14 submarines were built between 1983 and 1996, so most of them are older than the British ones built between 1992 and 1998. Yet the UK plans to renew all four of its submarines before even the oldest of the US subs is due to be replaced. Even though they spend proportionally more time in the water, the US will run its submarines for 16 years longer than the UK. The fact is that the UK’s Trident submarines actually do not need to be replaced before 2030. So why all this talk of renewal now?

In 2007 the then shadow Foreign Secretary William Hague spoke in favour of the Labour government’s plan to renew Trident. “The government rightly intend,” he said, “subject to satisfactory arrangements, that the new submarines will be built in the United Kingdom.” He quoted evidence given to the Parliamentary Defence Committee by a spokesman for BAE Systems, the only company in Britain capable of building nuclear powered submarines: “‘If there is a further delay, or any delay, in the submarine ordering programme it will have significant and I think catastrophic impact on our ability to design and build, and, therefore, for this country to have its own nuclear submarine design and construction.'”

So the decision to renew Trident is not about deciding on a one-time recommission, but about whether BAE should retain the ability to build nuclear submarines in the UK for the foreseeable future. BAE currently produces the Astute class nuclear submarines in Barrow-in-Furness, submarines which are technically similar to the Trident submarines. Building the Astute has been difficult because no nuclear submarines had been built in the UK for nearly four years prior to the start of the project. BAE had to bring engineers from the US in order to complete the build. BAE argues that if there is a similar gap between the end of Astute production and the start of the next wave of construction, then the UK will lose the skills needed to build nuclear submarines. Of course, with every delay in the decision to renew Trident, the option of simply buying American-built submarines becomes more attractive, but that would come at the cost of highly specialised jobs, and also some national prestige.

It would also place pressure on the Ministry of Defence’s relationship with BAE Systems. There are close ties between BAE lobbyists and officials responsible for military purchasing decisions. Many BAE employees, including its chief lobbyist, have security passes for MoD headquarters. The company is the main supplier to the MoD and employs over 100,000 people in the UK. It is not afraid of using its influence. Just last week it emerged that BAE had managed to negotiate unbreakable contracts with the MoD for the delivery of two aircraft carriers for which no aircraft currently exist. The company’s activities in Bosnia, Chile, Costa Rica, Czech Republic, Egypt, Hungary, Nigeria, Romania, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Tanzania, Qatar, and Zambia have been subject to investigations by the Serious Fraud Office, and in 2006 an investigation into allegations that BAE had bribed members of the Saudi royal family was controversially halted by the Blair government, ostensibly for reasons of national security. In February this year, BAE admitted minor criminal charges connected to a $40m military radar system it sold to Tanzania, a country which does not have any airworthy combat aircraft.

The UK is the world’s only nuclear armed state that does not manufacture and maintain its own nuclear weapons. It is hard to see any strategic benefit in maintaining the capability to produce nuclear submarines designed only to carry missiles that are not produced in the UK. The debate about the future of the UK’s nuclear deterrent is important and complex. It would be worrying if that debate is being largely driven by the desires of the world’s biggest arms dealer.

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