His choice: Wasteful military spending or investing more in the British public?

While the government fails to devote adequate resources to the health and welfare of its citizens, it is squandering vast sums of money on unnecessary weapons systems. Will new defence secretary Grant Shapps continue to throw good money after bad?

1 September 2023

Grant Shapps arrives for a cabinet meeting. (Photo: Downing Street handout)

There has been much comment on the soaring cost of the government’s planned HS2 rail project, recently rated red (“unachievable”) by the Infrastructure and Projects Authority (IPA) which reports to the Cabinet Office. 

Yet scarcely a murmur is raised about the huge waste of public funds spent on weapons systems. This includes the relentless pursuit by successive governments of the Trident nuclear missile system, which is benefitting from an extra £6bn buried this summer in the government’s latest defence policy paper. 

Trident is widely estimated to cost more than £200bn over a 30 year lifespan, a figure the Ministry of Defence does not dispute. That is double the latest estimated cost of HS2.

Plans for a nuclear reactor core for the new Dreadnought class of Trident submarines have been rated red by the IPA after long delays and huge cost increases. 

The Mensa nuclear warhead project, delayed by six years, is estimated to cost well over £2bn, more than double its original estimate, the Nuclear Information Service, an independent research group, has discovered.

Tony Blair acknowledged in his memoir, A Journey, that the expense of Trident was “huge” and its use from the military point of view “non-existent”. But he concluded that giving it up was “too big a downgrading of our status as a nation”. 

His judgement was misguided. Britain’s status depends more on economic prosperity, responsible governance, and even soft power, than on nuclear arms. 


The MOD’s £300bn waste of public money



Yet John Healey, the current shadow defence secretary reflecting the Labour leadership’s fear of being accused of being weak on national security, has described his party’s support for Britain’s nuclear weapons as “non-negotiable”.

British governments have described nuclear weapons as the “ultimate insurance” in the event of an “existential” threat to Britain. This claim is in striking contrast to the persistent failure to devote adequate resources to insure adequate health, education, and welfare, for British citizens, including against possible future pandemics.

Who will British nuclear weapons of “last resort” realistically deter given the array of increasingly sophisticated equipment available to hostile countries, some difficult to identify? 

Trident is not the only weapons system that continues to waste massive amounts of taxpayers’ money. 

Lord Richards, a former chief of defence staff, described the aircraft carriers, the Queen Elizabeth and Prince of Wales, to me as “behemoths…unaffordable vulnerable metal cans”.

Asked about the cost of initial plans to buy American F35 fighters for the carriers, the top official at the MoD told MPs: “It would be imprudent to put a number in the public domain which would inevitably be wrong”.


The government is now planning to develop a Future Combat Air System (FCAS) which includes a new fighter plane called Tempest, described by Ben Wallace, the outgoing defence secretary, as a “world-leading fighter jet by 2035, protecting our skies for decades to come”. 

The IPA has also classified the plans for Tempest as red, or “unachievable”.

For decades, the military top brass and arms companies have combined to seduce ministers into costly white elephants. They continue to do so despite repeated warnings by the National Audit Office (NAO) and parliamentary committees that their projects are unaffordable. 

Two years ago, the Commons public accounts committee said it was “extremely disappointed and frustrated” by the continuing wastage of taxpayers’ money ,“running into the billions”, on weapons projects.

In an excoriating report early this year the committee said the challenges of modern warfare were “accelerating away” from an MoD “bogged down in critical projects that are years delayed and at risk of being obsolescent on delivery.” 

This summer the Commons defence committee described the way the MoD went about ordering weapons as “highly bureaucratic, overly stratified, far too ponderous, with an inconsistent approach to safety, very poor accountability and a culture which appears institutionally averse to individual responsibility.”


Perverse priorities: Cut public spending, keep nuclear arms and warplanes


Basic equipment

The MoD has been slow to recognise the significance of new threats including cyber and electronic warfare and the significance of pilotless drones. The one practical initiative it did take was to increase the size of Britain’s Special Forces. 

While their role, ironically in a high-tech age, is becoming more significant, they are protected by a cloak of secrecy even greater than that covering MI5, MI6, and GCHQ.

The record is as bad when it comes to the most basic equipment. Scandals already identified by the NAO and the Commons defence committee include plans to spend £5.5bn on an armoured vehicle called Ajax and the appalling state of living quarters. 

Tests on Ajax deafened the occupants and showed it could not reverse over obstacles more than 20 centimetres high. The vehicle, conceived in 2010 will not be fully operational until 2029, a decade late. 

Meanwhile, the MoD is £4.2bn worse off by selling married quarters it still needed to a private company, and it was later forced to apologise for the squalid and dangerous state of homes for armed forces families.

The MoD has been allowed to shrug off its critics for far too long. The defence budget is projected to double to total £100bn a year by 2030. 

Will those in government responsible for such basic needs as health, education, and welfare, allow Grant Shapps, the new defence secretary, to blindly pursue his predecessors’ policy of throwing good money after bad? We shall soon see.

The paperback edition of Richard Norton-Taylor’s latest book, The State of Secrecy, is out on 7 September.