The last word: Maintain vanguard

Submarine down the Clyde river. Photography by easylocum.

This month’s Last Word is delivered by guest writer Hugh Scullion, general secretary of the Confederation of Shipbuilding and Engineering Unions. He states the case for renewal of the UK’s Vanguard fleet of submarines as government prepares to publish its Trident Alternatives Review this summer.

Debate on possible alternatives to the Trident nuclear deterrent will be heated over the coming year as political parties flesh out their stance in the run up to a General Election.

Questions regarding capability, legal and diplomatic issues, not to mention moral, ethical and strategic concerns will rightly be explored. It is my belief, however, that economic factors are too often overlooked in defence policy decisions. It is essential that those seeking alternatives to Trident explain how their proposals make a solid economic case for jobs, skills and investment in this country.

Tied up with the Trident debate is the decision as to whether there will be a renewal of the Vanguard fleet of nuclear submarines which carry the missiles.

The cost for a successor class of submarines has been estimated at between £20 billion and £25 billion, and the annual running costs will amount to around £1.5 billion. This is five per cent of the Ministry of Defence’s budget, around 0.135% of Britain’s gross domestic product.

But to focus on these numbers in isolation overlooks the wider economic benefits that a renewal of the Vanguard class of submarines would bring. The money would not be wasted as opponents suggest, but instead would be invested in both large businesses and small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) throughout the country.

Barrow-in-Furness, home to BAE Systems’ submarine programme, would be the biggest beneficiary of renewal. But benefits would spread throughout the UK: from nuclear reactors in the East Midlands, to the maintenance base in the south-west of England, to warhead production in the south east, to shore infrastructure in Scotland. We are talking about thousands of parts, creating thousands of jobs.

“A negative decision on Vanguard would cost 2,000 jobs in Barrow alone”

Further, the conception, design and construction of nuclear-powered submarines necessitate state-of-the-art technology which civil sectors too can harness and which require us to nurture a highlyskilled domestic labour force.

BAE Systems, a model employer by any standards, encourages the training and development of young men and women through its apprenticeship programme, arming its graduates with first-class skills and qualifications. If the next government decides not to proceed with renewal of the Vanguard class in 2016, all of this could be lost forever – such skills availblility cannot be turned on and off like a tap.

The Nuclear Education Trust believes that a negative decision on Vanguard would cost 2,000 jobs in Barrow alone. These jobs must be retained if we want to keep these design and manufacturing capabilities, with the multitude of benefits they bring for our defence and civil industries alike.

The Liberal Democrat previously in charge of the coalition’s Alternatives Review showed disdain towards these issues when he joked that renewal could be cancelled and the people of Barrow relocated to the Bahamas as a solution.

Unless robust answers to serious questions can be supplied, however, leading advocates of Trident and Vanguard alternatives are at risk of unduly elevating their personal opinion above evidence and the security of livelihoods.

It would be ridiculous to portray renewal of the Vanguard fleet as the panacea on which we can pin all our economic hopes. Nevertheless, important jobs and skills depend on this decision, and must therefore form an important part of the debate.

Advocates of the alternatives must show how their ideas will improve prospects for jobs, skills and investment for the thousands of companies in the supply chain throughout the country. It would be a disservice to UK plc if they do not.

A more extensive article by Hugh Scullion putting the case for renewal of the Vanguard fleet was published in the Tribune paper in April.