Interesting news is emerging that the defence budget is facing cuts of up to £4bn next year. With the economy going into crisis because of the coronavirus pandemic, all bets are off when it comes to government spending.
The £41.5bn defence budget may be hit hard if national output falls by the 10% or more predicted by economists. Defence Secretary Ben Wallace has been appealing to the Chancellor not to let this happen. But The Sunday Times has reported that the ministry had been told to wait for a government-wide spending review, expected in November, as “everyone is considering the difficult fiscal position”.
Meanwhile the government is mired in a delayed Integrated Review of defence, foreign and security policies and it’s anyone’s guess when this will finally report. There are suggestions that nothing is being treated as sacrosanct when it comes to cuts. According to military sources, ‘A top candidate for the chop is the nuclear submarine HMS Vanguard, armed with the Trident missile, which has been languishing in a dockyard in Plymouth for five years. A project to refuel its reactor is more than a year late after serious technical hitches, raising fears that its £400m budget is out of control and could double’.
It is suggested that Vanguard may be broken up for parts to keep the other three Trident subs going until the replacement comes on stream from 2030.
This means that the UK would have a three sub nuclear weapons fleet instead of four. This re-raises the debate of a decade ago, when the Lib Dems entered the Coalition government with the Conservatives. The Lib Dems in government put forward the argument that Britain should drop to three subs instead of four, and end ‘continuous at-sea deterrence’ (CASD). The case was extensively argued in a Cabinet Office review into a range of alternatives to the ‘like-for-like’ replacement of Trident, led by the then Armed Forces Minister Sir Nick Harvey. Indeed, Lib Dem opposition to like-for-like replacement was the most significant policy difference between the two Coalition parties.
Harvey slated CASD, describing it as complete insanity, that costs too much and is militarily illogical. Quite so, but the Conservatives didn’t buy the argument and Harvey was sidelined. But what they rejected at that time they may now have to embrace.
Meanwhile, the MoD has declined to comment on when HMS Vanguard will come back into service, falling back on the habitual argument that to release this information would “prejudice the capability, effectiveness or security of the armed forces”. Watch this space.