Exclusive: Chief secretary to the Treasury tells Guardian there are ‘credible and compelling alternatives’
The UK does not need to replace the Trident fleet with “like-for-like” nuclear submarines that will cost the country billions of pounds at a time of national austerity, the chief secretary of the Treasury, Danny Alexander, insists.
In an interview with the Guardian, Alexander said MPs from all parties and senior officers in the military should accept there are “credible and compelling alternatives” to continuous at-sea deterrence, and he warned that the Treasury did not have “a magic pot of money” to pay for a new generation of “Successor” submarines.
The world had changed, he said, and so had the defence assumptions that underpinned the position since the cold war.
Alexander, who is now in charge of the Cabinet Office-led Trident Alternatives Review, said: “Given all the financial pressures across the whole of the public sector, all the things the government has to do and wants to pay for, and all the pressures in different areas, I just think the idea that somehow, out of thin air, we can carve a multibillion pocket to pay for this, that is not financially realistic.”
He described as a “non-starter” the idea that the Treasury could find new cash to help the Ministry of Defence (MoD) pay for new submarines, which is the privately held assumption of some Conservative MPs and officials at the MoD.
“We are in a position where the costs of the Successor have to be paid for from within the MoD budget. There is no magic pot of money that is going to be created out of thin air to go on top of that. As a government, we have been very clear about that. Certainly myself and the chancellor.
“That very financial imperative is one of the reasons why I think this review is so important. We have already set out that it is going to take another three years to deal with the deficit. That means budgets across the board naturally have to be squeezed, including defence.”
The Liberal Democrats demanded a review into alternatives to replacing Trident as part of the coalition agreement, and it was initially led by the armed forces minister, Nick Harvey.
When Harvey was moved from the MoD last September, Alexander took charge of the detailed study, which is due to be completed and published by June this year.
In his first interview since taking charge of the review, Alexander said nothing he had seen or heard in the last four months had challenged his view that replacing the Trident fleet was unnecessary – and unnecessarily expensive.
He said he doubted it would meet the UK’s 21st-century defence requirements either, with experts estimating the through-life costs of replacing Trident could exceed well over £100bn.
As one of the so-called “quad” of the coalition’s most senior ministers – the others are David Cameron, Nick Clegg and George Osborne – Alexander said he was better placed than most to understand the need to challenge assumptions about nuclear deterrence.
“If anything, the fact that I have taken on the leadership of this review as a member of the ‘quad’ just demonstrates the level of importance and seriousness with which we are continuing to treat this review. The circumstances the country are facing reinforces that policy. It does not diminish it. The economic and financial circumstances reinforce the wisdom of [the Liberal Democrats’] policy.”
Alexander said he could not spell out the alternatives before the review was published – they remain top secret. But he said he had already seen enough to know that the review would provoke serious debate – and that its findings would surprise people.
One potential option is for the current fleet of Astute submarines to be equipped with nuclear warheads, or to restrict the number of Successor submarines to two or three, rather than four.
“I would expect we will be able to set out serious, credible arguments and potential alternatives,” he said. “I hope [the review] will open up a wide debate, in the public, among experts and the community, around the approach we take to nuclear deterrence.
“I am not a unilateralist, I don’t think that we should not have a deterrent. But I think when budgets are under pressure, and when the assumptions that our current approach are based on are very much cold war assumptions, and we are in the 21st century and the world is changing, that this is absolutely the right time to have a serious, considered, objective look at the way in which this policy is constructed.
“We need to see if there are different ways of doing this that are more cost effective. This is the first time for a very long time these questions have been asked. We do need to ask fundamental questions about our posture.
“Is it right in the 21st century that we still need to have submarines at sea, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 12 months of the year? All those things are ripe for being reviewed and considered, and alternatives presented.
“We have just lived with these assumptions for quite a number of decades, and the notion that there is a different but credible way to think about these things may well be surprising to a lot of people. If you are prepared to take a slightly different approach, then it opens up a wider range of alternatives for consideration.
“I certainly don’t expect the review to come back and say Trident is the only alternative or there is no alternative, which is what some in other parties would say.”
The government has already spent £1.4bn on early design work for Trident replacement submarines, but the final decision about whether to go ahead – which is known as “Main Gate” – will not be made until 2016.
The cost of replacing Trident is estimated at an initial £25bn-£30bn, with £3bn-a-year running costs during the submarines 30 to 40-year life.
Decommissioning costs of the fleet are estimated at £25bn. That does not include the cost of replacing the warheads themselves. A decision about that will be taken in 2019.
Britain’s top military officers have privately expressed deep concern that the squeezed defence budget may have to shoulder this burden, especially when the MoD has to pay for two new aircraft carriers and other expensive equipment projects such as the Joint Strike Fighter. But Alexander said the MoD had no choice.
The parlous state of the MoD’s finances was underlined on Tuesday when the army announced it needed to make another 5,300 job cuts. Letters were sent to 26,000 personnel setting out areas to be targeted and the terms of the voluntary redundancy scheme. It is the biggest tranche of army redundancies for 20 years.
An MoD source said: “The prime minister and the defence secretary are both committed to maintaining a continuous at-sea deterrent. A part-time deterrent to be wheeled out at a time of heightened tension would be less credible, vulnerable to a pre-emptive strike and its very deployment would risk escalating a dangerous situation. It would be a dangerous and naive road to go down.”