UK Defence costs rise again

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by Stephen Maxwell

The UK Government is expected to confirm this month that costs for two of the UK’s biggest defence projects are due for another rise.

The first rise will be for the installation of a more advanced nuclear reactor in the planned replacements for the UK’s four current Trident missile submarines based at Faslane. This follows a report by the former head of the Ministry of Defence’s Nuclear Safety Regulator Commodore Andrew MacFarlane that the reactors currently in use fail to meet modern safety standards. The new reactors are expected to add several £billions to the estimated cost of £20-25billion for the new submarines.

The other increase follows a decision to change the specification of the aircraft to be used on The Prince of Wales,  the second of the new aircraft carriers being built as an eventual replacement for the now decommissioned Ark Royal.

The original plan was to equip The Prince of Wales with a short take-off and vertical landing version of the US Joint Strike Fighter.  It is reported that a decision has now been taken to replace it with a cheaper deck landing version. However, the costs of the ‘cats and traps’ required to make this viable are expected to increase the combined cost of the two carriers to as much as £7billion from the current £5billion budget, itself an increase on the initial cost of under £4billion.

The first aircraft carrier, The Queen Elizabeth, is due to be mothballed on completion leaving the UK without an operational carrier for about ten years.The decisions come at a politically sensitive time in London and Edinburgh. In a leaked letter UK Defence Minister Liam Fox has told the Prime Minister that he cannot support his proposal to write into law a UK commitment to allocate 0.7% of the UK’s GDP to overseas aid when other UK spending budgets are threatened. The Defence Minister’s allies have interpreted the letter as a warning that additional defence costs should take precedence over aid spending.

The expected increase in the costs of the Trident replacement and the aircraft carriers comes amid a rush of speculation about an independent Scotland’s relationship with UK defence policies. Former SNP Deputy Leader Jim Sillars has suggested that in order to minimise British opposition to independence Scotland might offer London a long lease on Faslane as a nuclear submarine base as part of a shared defence stance.

To the surprise of some SNP supporters, rather than stamping on the idea, the First Minister and SNP Westminster leader Angus Robertson spoke of “modern realities” requiring the sharing of military facilities. Their suggestion that the sharing of facilities would be consistent with a separate Scottish foreign policy was challenged by defence experts and described by Dr Fox as “extremely worrying”. There was no word from the SNP leaders on whether shared defence arrangements might extend to the costs of major items of equipment.

The escalating budgets for the aircraft carriers also raise questions for a SNP Government beginning to think about future intra UK relationships. Over 5,000 Scottish workers on the Clyde and at Rosyth are working on the carriers. Yet the increasing cost pressures on UK budgets, already reflected in the reduction of UK defence expenditure in Scotland including the closure of RAF Kinloss and the threat to RAF Lossiemouth, mean that even with the Union, the carriers could be the last big capital defence projects contracted to Scottish yards by a UK Government prompting further doubts among supporters of Scottish independence of the timing and realism of SNP’s apparent swing towards ‘military unionism’.