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Friday, January 15, 2010

Conservatives to delay Trident replacement by five years

The five-year delay in the programme would allow the Conservatives to meet their promise to renew Britain's nuclear deterrent but defer the cost, estimated at more than £20 billion.

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The decision could see the Royal Navy’s four Vanguard submarines remaining in service as late as 2029. That is likely to face resistance from Navy chiefs, who argue that the Vanguards should not be used beyond 2024.

The plan for a delay emerged from heated internal Conservative discussions about how to save money on defence without reducing Britain’s global reach or breaking promises like maintaining an independent nuclear deterrent.

George Osborne, the shadow chancellor, is pressing for deep cuts in defence plans, but Liam Fox, the shadow defence secretary, is resisting.

Instead of a submarine-based system, some Tories want a smaller, cheaper aircraft-based cruise missile to replace Trident. Dr Fox is strongly opposed to that and has promised that a Conservative government would have a submarine-based deterrent.

The retirement dates of the four Vanguards now in service have already been pushed back from 2019.

The defence industry would also strongly oppose the delay, arguing that without early orders for new submarines, shipyards will close and Britain will lose the ability to construct submarines.

However, there could be cross-party support for a further extension in the boats’ working lives.

Last year, Lord Robertson, a former Labour defence secretary, and Lord Ashdown, the former Liberal Democrat leader, suggested another extension of the Vanguards’ lifespan.

The Ministry of Defence has also been dragging its feet on replacing Trident. Although the decision to order a replacement was made in 2007, the formal contracts to build new submarines have not been drawn up.

The “initial gate” decision on replacing Trident was scheduled last year, but is now expected later this month.

A U.S. Navy Trident missile goes awry shortly after a test launch from a submarine off the coast of Cape Canaveral several years ago. The missile exploded shortly after this photo was taken. There was no injury to the submarine or its crew, although family members of the submarine crew who had been invited to watch the launch from a nearby ship (from which this photo was taken) were understandably quite upset. The submarine captain, watching the test through the sub's periscope, was reported to have been mesmerized for several hours.

(CNN Photo) As well as saving money, Conservative sources say a delay would have the benefit of bringing the British timetable for building new submarines into alignment with that of the US.

The US Navy is due to start retiring its Trident-carrying Ohio-class submarines from 2029

The UK submarines were originally given a 25-year lifespan, which the MoD has already suggested extending to 30 years.

By contrast, the US Navy expects its submarines to last more than 40 years.

The MoD has already spent around £7 million on research by Rolls-Royce looking at extending the life of the nuclear reactors that power the Vanguards.

Building new submarines is important to the British defence industry and the Conservatives are sensitive to suggestions that they are not fully committed to replacing Trident.

Last month, Dr Fox angrily denied Labour suggestions he is considering refitting the Vanguards instead of replacing them.

However, he has said that a Conservative government would be willing to cut the number of missile-carrying submarines from four to three, as long as it was still possible to ensure 24-hour patrolling.

A commitment to renew Trident is expected to be in the Conservative election manifesto, and Dr Fox last year told the Tory conference that a Conservative government would “guarantee a round-the-clock, submarine-based nuclear deterrent for as long as it is needed.” (Original News)