The £100 billion price tag of a "like-for-like" replacement for Britain's Trident nuclear weapon would mean more cuts to the Royal Navy, a former armed forces minister has warned.
Sir Nick Harvey, Liberal Democrat MP for North Devon, said he believed Britain could not afford, and did not need, a further generation of nuclear weapons on such a scale, and that an "open mind" should be kept on doing something at a lesser cost.
But speaking during a Commons debate on the issue, fellow Westcountry MPs raised fears over the impact on jobs at Devonport dockyard – the biggest private sector employer in Devon and Cornwall – of a scaled-back nuclear deterrent. The Plymouth yard boasts the only UK licence to refit, repair and refuel submarines that carry the Trident missile.
Sir Nick, sacked as a Ministry of Defence minister in last year's reshuffle, said the UK had to decide by the middle of 2016 whether or not to proceed with a replacement of the existing Trident nuclear deterrent. He said: "I do not believe that we need to have a further generation of nuclear weapons based on the scale we thought we needed in 1980 at the height of the Cold War, and I don't think that we can afford to do so either."
Sir Nick said he did not believe that Britain's national security assessment and strategy suggested the country needed it.
When Britain had a known nuclear adversary in the shape of the former Soviet Union, there had been a "logic" to having continuous at-sea deterrents, he said, but the circumstances of today were "very different".
Sir Nick outlined the capital investment of a further generation of submarines, the running costs and decommissioning.
He said: "When you begin to total this out and factor in decommissioning at the end, what we are talking about is an expenditure of over £100 billion and we need to look closely at whether that is justified."
The impact of committing to such sums, he argued, would be felt "above all else by the Royal Navy".
Of the three Armed Forces, the Navy has the strongest presence in the Westcountry, from commandos in Plymouth, Taunton and North Devon to warships based at Devonport Naval Base. There are sharp differences between the Tories and Lib Dems over the future of a replacement for Trident, with most Conservative ministers and backbenchers reluctant to reduce its capability.
Oliver Colvile, Tory MP for Plymouth Sutton and Devonport, said in the Commons: "The nuclear licence is vital to my constituency. It is our stake in the ground and we must ensure that lots of work comes out of it."
Sheryll Murray, Conservative MP for South East Cornwall, added: "I was concerned at our going into coalition with partners who stated in their last election manifesto that they would be saying no to like-for-like replacement of the Trident nuclear weapons system.
"I am still concerned that they might scale down our vital nuclear deterrent in increasingly uncertain times."