Saturday, 23 July 2016

To Puff Us Up

Ian Jack writes:

Railway locomotives, cruise liners, oil tankers, cotton cloth, airliners, container ships, model trains, heavy-lift cranes: these are a few of the items that the United Kingdom used to make in profusion and now doesn’t.

Here are a few more: Bendicks Bittermints, machine tools, television sets, nuclear power stations, HP sauce, sewing thread.

Britain’s decline as a manufacturing economy has been remorseless – the future of its very foundation, steelmaking, is uncertain – and those industries that do survive tend to be owned elsewhere.

And yet, remarkably, a British company employing British workers is set to build some of the most complex, expensive and hazardous machines in the world – the four Successor class nuclear submarines, approved by parliamentary vote this week, which with their armament of Trident missiles will ensure that the United Kingdom remains a nuclear power into the second half of the century.

At least, that’s the plan.

It used to be said of the Soviet Union that though it could make superb nuclear missiles it never managed to make a decent fridge.

Fighting the cold war absorbed so much Soviet money and technology that eventually it became unsustainable in the face of an unhappy population of citizens-consumers who yearned as much for a good fridge as for greater civil rights.

The British situation is different.

Imports and reckless trade deficits have – for most people, for now – taken care of the fridge side of things.

But in the maelstrom of de-industrialisation has Britain actually retained the ability to build a new generation of that cold war creature, the ballistic missile submarine?

The portents aren’t encouraging.

British warship construction is now entirely in the hands of BAE Systems, which builds surface ships on the Clyde and submarines at Barrow-in-Furness.

The careers of vessels from both yards have recently been blighted by mechanical failures and accidents that go beyond the description “teething troubles”, to leave the navy, already shrunk by the 2010 defence cuts, with a tiny operational fleet: 17 usable frigates and destroyers by the latest count, compared to 60 similar ships at the time of the Falklands war.

Six of them – the Type 45 destroyers, each costing £1bn and among the most sophisticated warships ever built – will need to be expensively re-engineered to cure them of the engine breakdowns and electrical blackouts that after only a few years in service have left them suddenly powerless and vulnerable at sea.

The Astute-class attack submarines have also had a difficult history.

The first in a fleet of seven was ordered in 1997, but nearly 20 years later only three are in service with the Royal Navy.

This week the second to be launched, HMS Ambush, collided with an oil tanker off Gibraltar.

In their recently published history of the submarine service, The Silent Deep, the writers Peter Hennessy and James Jinks award part of the blame to a well-known feature of modern Britain, the hollowing-out of public institutions. 

Traditionally, the Ministry of Defence supervised warship design via its own naval architects in the office of the Royal Corps of Naval Constructors.

But by the time the Astute class came along a lot of this responsibility had been transferred to the builder.

The MoD, in the words of a US industry report, had lost its “ability to be an informed and intelligent customer”.

But the builder was also in trouble.

Throughout the late 80s and early 90s, the Barrow yard was building the four Vanguard-class submarines that comprise the present Trident fleet; at its peak, the project employed 13,000 workers.

A few years later, that number had fallen to 3,000.

A gap in the order book forced many skilled engineers and technicians to look for work elsewhere, taking their expertise with them.

The Astute programme was running three years late and several hundred million pounds over budget by 2002, when the MoD requested the intervention of the US submarine builder General Dynamics Electric Boat.

It saved the day by lending the services of 200 technicians and sending over a senior member of its staff to manage the project.

The same is happening with the Successor submarines.

Engineers from Electric Boat in Connecticut have been involved from the beginning – about 40 of them are now believed to be working at Barrow on the challenging project of marrying still-untested pieces of British and US machinery.

From its inception as a submarine system in the 1960s, Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent has depended on US technology, and that dependence is increasing.

The missiles have always been US-built, but now the submarines themselves will have a greater US input.

Rough estimates suggest that a third of the costs of the present Trident system can be ascribed to US companies; if the Tory MP Crispin Blunt is right and the total build and running costs of its successor reach £179bn over a 32-year life, then by this reckoning around £60bn of that will end up in the US.


Why not, then, go for broke and simply buy everything – submarines as well as missiles – from the US?

As it happens, the US navy is replacing its Ohio-class Trident submarines at roughly the same time as Britain is disposing of its Vanguards, with the first of the new US class (the Ohio Replacement) due to enter service in 2031.

A total of 12 are planned at an estimated cost (in 2010 dollars) of $6.2bn each.

Add another four and you reduce the unit cost.

There are many variables and unknowns here, and I am no economist, but the official estimate for Britain’s Successor submarines puts them somewhere between £7.5bn and £10bn each, which even at dollar-pound parity makes the US vessels a bargain.

Surprisingly, for a government so committed to the principle of free trade, this has never been an option.

“There is a lot of steel in Successor submarines, so will the prime minister commit to using UK steel for these developments?” the member for Scunthorpe asked the prime minister on Monday.

“Obviously, where British steel is good value, we would want it to be used,” Theresa May replied carefully.

Chocolate, sewing thread, railway engines, merchant ships, machine tools: these things can go the way of all flesh.

But Trident submarines live on a higher plane, protected from vulgar competition.

To build them in the US would take another big bite out of the notion of Britain’s nuclear independence, which isn’t quite a fiction – a British prime minister has command and control – but given our absolute reliance on US goodwill and technology certainly amounts to an impracticality.

Then there are the jobs.

Apart from the unknowable future, jobs were the most popular reason at Monday’s debate for building more submarines.

Defence was one of the few industries “reliably and consistently creating sustainable, highly skilled and well-paid jobs outside London,” said the pro-Trident Labour MP Stephen Kinnock, and sadly this is true.

He had figures: 26,000 jobs, including 13,000 in advanced manufacturing.

The apparently insurmountable problem of what would happen should Scotland become independent was never properly addressed.

“We would love to have all the jobs that would come with [a relocation]. We would be more than happy to have it,” said the Tory member for Plymouth Moor View, and it may yet to come to that.

In the past, Wales has been mentioned as a possible site, but now the Plaid Cymru MP Liz Saville Roberts said that if Trident left Faslane, “the Westminster government will need to find a base in England, because we are not so poor in spirit as to accept the toxic status symbol of Britain’s imagined standing on the world stage.”

Brexit made many on the Tory benches keener.

It seemed as though they saw a reduced country and reached to the top shelf of the medicine cabinet to find a steroid.

Trident can always be relied on to puff us up.

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