John Tricket MP today stated on BBC2s the Politics show that there was no need to replace Trident submarines because both the submarines and the missiles will still be around in up to seventy years time.
Whilst I can broadly support the Labour rebels and most of the content of motion passed at last weekends Liberal Democrat spring conference in Harrogate, I am concerned that those opposed to renewal of the submarines are overlooking the safety and wellbeing of the submariners of the Royal Navy.
Politicians of all sides can, perhaps, be forgiven for being unaware of the enormous physical pressures under which the boats operate, but perhaps less so for not taking into account the pressures on their crew.
The Submariners of the Royal Navy are probably the best sailors in the world. Make no bones about it, I have spoken to some of Britain’s top commandos who have told me flatly that they would not put themselves through the rigours of a submariner. They train even more intensively than their colleagues in the surface fleet and they spend months at a time under the surface without fresh air or daylight.
I am quite sure that most politicians are quite ignorant of the fact that on any patrol, only the skipper and navigation officer are aware of their craft’s whereabouts. Officers and ratings alike are totally cut off from sending any message to family back home for fear of revealing the vessel’s position, not just for a few days or a few weeks, but for over three months at a time.
We can not send these crews to sea in anything other than the best equipment that we can possibly afford. Pressures at the depths in which of SSBNs operate are so intense that the hull is constantly crushed and flexed. As the Russian’s found out to their painfully tragic cost in August 2000. The Kursk was sunk with the loss of 118 men. Boats of this nature have a limited lifespan.
When a submarine goes wrong, there is no escape and as good as no hope of rescue from the current generation of submarines. Whilst submariners are still trained in how to attempt an escape from a submarine in 100ft of water, the Vanguard class can not operate in these shallow waters and it is far more likely that if something should go wrong, it will be at a far, far greater depth.
Whilst at this stage, the oldest of the SSBNs is only fourteen years old, by the time we have designed and built replacements, they will at the outside be at least ten years older. Naval procurement was ever thus and therefore I regret that the claim of a lack of urgency is desperately naïve.
The arguments for and against a strategic nuclear deterrent are many and various, warranting further discussion elsewhere, but whilst ever we accept that we should have this weapon, we owe it to the men who operate the submarines to put their safety and wellbeing at the top of our priorities. Most of us would not be prepared or able to do their job as it is, we have no right to make economies with their lives.