Plans to replace the Trident nuclear weapons system
Recent issues surrounding the Astute class submarines of the Royal Navy have wide implications for Scotland. Firstly, twenty-five miles west of Glasgow, in Argyle and Bute, four Vanguard class submarines store the entirety of Britain’s nuclear capacity. The submarines were built and introduced in the 1990s, following the end of the Cold War; their launch and the Trident nuclear weapons system, which they carry, have marked the UK’s nuclear deterrence strategy since then.
The submarines are docked at Faslane on Gare Loch and are coupled with a weapons facility at Coulport on Loch Long. These two facilities are the bulk of HM Naval Base Clyde—one of three operated by the Royal Navy, the other two at Devonport and Portsmouth in England. The new Astute class will not replace the aging Vanguard nuclear fleet in Faslane, but similar technology is being developed to update the Trident program. Scotland’s position, with the independence referendum in 2014, is strongly tied to these developments and the future of HMNB Clyde.
The current revelations of corrosion and system failures in the HMS Astute are only the most recent troubles for the new class. Over its fifteen years of existence, the program has cost an estimated £10billion, beset by overblown budgets and delays. In 2010, the HMS Astute first landed itself in the bad light of the press when it ran aground off the coast of Skye. In a memo obtained by The Guardian, sent between senior Ministry of Defense officials, the recent issues arose due to “a severe lack of quality control and quality assurance,” as well as prioritizing cost-cutting measures without regard for long-term sustainability.
BAE Systems, the submarine’s manufacturer, emphasized that during “an exhaustive period of sea trials,” such malfunctions are “not uncommon on a first-of-class submarine.” Still, reports have shown serious failures in quality control during construction and that neither the military’s quality assurance system nor private insurance standards were met. HMS Ambush, the second of the Astute class to be launched, also experienced design flaws, and there are worries that subsequent boats could experience the same.
The Vanguard submarines that currently hold the Trident nuclear system were built in England at Burrow-in-Furness by Vickers Shipbuilding and Engineering—a precursor to BAE Systems Submarine Solutions, which is building the new Astute class in the same dockyards. As the Vanguard class is reaching the end of its term on active duty, new solutions are being sot. Defense Secretary Philip Hammond visited the HMNB Clyde in late October to announce £350billion to be spent replacing the Trident system with a new Successor class of submarines. These are due, in a contract with BAE to be produced by 2028. The final decision on their production will be made in 2016.
While the ruling SNP and a majority of Scottish nationalist MPs are adamantly opposed to replacing Trident, and call for its removal entirely if Scotland were to become independent, Whitehall and BAE claim that the system’s upgrade will bring hundreds of new jobs and economic growth to the Clyde and surrounding areas. On his visit, Philip Hammond claimed Faslane “is the largest employment site in Scotland,”stating plans to move all of the Astute class submarines and the Trafalgar class, its predecessor, to the base.
The SNP has downplayed the economic impact of these moves. Though it has supported the idea of housing the entirety of Britain’s nuclear-powered submarines at Faslane, staunch antinuclear groups and vocal members of the Scottish parliament have been adamant that Scotland drop all nuclear weapons from the Clyde. Environmental concerns have also been raised about potential leakage from housing the nuclear-powered subs, and there are national security risks involving the overground transport of nuclear warheads. However, it has been found both in recent assessments and during the initial search for an adequate base, that Faslane and the supporting infrastructure at Coulport are a unique and irreplaceable venue in the UK. Switching to a land-based system, the only viable alternative, would be in violation of Britain’s NATO agreement. The SNP’s hard-pressed intention to remove nuclear weapons from Scotland would likely mean an end to the UK’s nuclear-strike capability.
First Minister Alexander Salmond hopes to have the nuclear fleet removed from Scotland in the fastest, safest manner possible. This could potentially threaten Scotland’s independent position in the European Union and NATO. The UK, or what is left of it, might hold the warheads as a barging chip in Scotland’s attempt to join the EU, and joining NATO while remaing proactively anti-proliferation might prove contradictory. A handful of Scottish MPs have resigned already over the SNP’s expressed intention to join NATO. Whether or not Scotland would be granted automatic membership to the European Union and remain in sterling currently is hotly debated. Plans for an independent Scotland’s military force involve continued use of the Faslane facility as the country’s sole naval base, though unionist advocates have stated that the base and its nuclear fleet are crucial to Britain’s national security interests. The commanding officer of the HMS Astute, Steven Walker, offered in a statement to The Guardian, that despite recent episodes during trial-period exercises, his ship “is a truly awesome submarine with a world-beating potential.”
This leaves Scotland with a tough choice: having to balance the long-term security interests of Britain regardless of the 2014 referendum. While problems with the Astute class may not be exceptional, there is an official consensus within the MoD that better oversight is needed for civilian contractors employed by the Navy, and that certain safeguarding measures did fail or were not adhered to. This raises larger concerns for the future of Faslane and Coulport, coupled with the announcement in July of MoD plans to outsource their daily operation to private contractors. The agreements—which create a consortium between AWE, Babcock, and Lockheed Martin, the behemoth US-based security firm—go into effect at the beginning of next year. There is a precedent for underperformance by the private sector in roles outsourced by the British government; as a report from the Royal United Services Institute pointed out, “after the G4S and Olympics episode, the privatisation of railways is the most obvious example of this…” HMS Astute and the rest of her class may be impressive machines, but their recent faults highlight deeper security concerns for Scotland.Tagged in: BAE, glasgow, HMNB Clyde, HMS astutes, nuclear weapons, royal navy, Scotland, snp, submarines, tident
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