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U.K. Submarine Development Reignites Nuclear Tensions

The U.K. government’s investment of 353 million pounds ($568 million) in the development of submarines reignited a dispute over nuclear-weapons policy in Prime Minister David Cameron’s coalition.

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg accused Conservative Defense Secretary Philip Hammond of “jumping the gun” today after U.K. media reported that the investment amounted to a government commitment to retaining the submarine-based Trident nuclear deterrent, which Clegg’s Liberal Democrats oppose.

“Having seen the papers this morning, I think some people are jumping the gun on this Trident decision,” Clegg said in London today. “The coalition agreement is crystal clear -- it will not be changed, it will not be undermined, it will not be contradicted. The final decision on Trident replacement will not be taken until 2016, however much other people may not like it that way.”

The issue of whether to replace Trident has dogged relations in the coalition, with Cameron’s Conservatives favoring its replacement. Cameron’s spokeswoman Vickie Sheriff, asked by reporters in London today about Clegg’s statement, said that “we are committed to an at-sea nuclear deterrent.”

Hammond used a visit to the Faslane naval base in western Scotland today to announce 315 million pounds of funding for BAE Systems Plc and 38 million pounds for Babcock International Group Plc. The work will sustain 1,200 jobs, he said in an e-mailed statement. It follows the announcement of 350 million pounds for design work on a new generation of submarines earlier this year.

‘Ultimate Safeguard’

“Our continuous submarine-based nuclear deterrent is the ultimate safeguard of our national security and the government is committed to maintaining it, both now and in the future,” Hammond said. “This latest expenditure for the next generation of nuclear-armed submarines is an investment in U.K. security and the British economy, sustaining high-quality jobs and vital skills.”

The funding announced today is part of 3 billion pounds earmarked for the design phase of the Successor nuclear-armed submarine program in May 2011, the defense ministry said. The Successors are intended to replace the current Vanguard class of ships starting in 2028.

The funding will allow BAE to transition its design teams to the strategic nuclear submarine effort now that activities on the Astute-class attack submarines are winding down, John Hudson, the managing director for submarines, said in an interview. Another 100 engineers will be hired in the next year and 300 more thereafter for detailed design of the vessel.

Faslane Jobs

The project is in the functional design phase where large mechanical systems are specified and many supplier decisions are taken, Hudson said. That phase runs until about 2015. The latest block of money pays for design activities lasting into 2014, Hudson said.

Hammond also used the visit to Scotland to highlight the contribution Trident makes to the Scottish economy ahead of the referendum on Scottish independence due in late 2014.

“We are confident that the Scottish people will choose to remain part of the United Kingdom,” Hammond said. “The Faslane complex is the largest employment site in Scotland with over 6,500 jobs underpinning the local economy.”

The government has “no plans to move the nuclear deterrent from the Clyde,” Hammond said. “On the contrary, we intend to move the Astute and Trafalgar-class attack submarines to Faslane, creating a further 1,500 jobs. The Scottish government needs to explain how their policy would benefit Scotland’s economy and safeguard Scottish jobs.”

Squandered Cash

The Scottish National Party, which is campaigning for independence from the rest of the U.K., criticized Hammond’s argument.

“The vast amount of taxpayers’ cash squandered by the U.K. government on designing the new Trident system -- during a period of austerity, and cuts to services and benefits by the Tory-led coalition -- is a staggering waste of money,” Scottish Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said in an e-mailed statement. “Trident supports only a fraction of the number of jobs claimed.”

Although the go-ahead for the Vanguard-replacement purchase is not planned until 2016, BAE will be allowed to order some long-lead items in advance to make sure the overall schedule can be met, Hudson said.

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