Pounds 1.7bn Trident base opened: Rifkind denies that support facility for missile-firing submarine fleet is a 'white elephant'

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EUROPE'S second-largest engineering construction project - second only to the Channel tunnel - was unveiled yesterday when Malcolm Rifkind, the Secretary of State for Defence, opened the support facility at Faslane, Strathclyde, for the Trident submarines that will form Britain's strategic nuclear deterrent.

Mr Rifkind dismissed suggestions that at pounds 1.7bn, including pounds 500m over budget, the facility was a white elephant. He said that even the dramatic superpower arms reductions did not mean that Britain could do without its nuclear deterrent. If the Government decides not to proceed with an air-launched 'sub-strategic' nuclear weapon, Trident will be even more crucial.

Yesterday was the first time reporters have been admitted to the Faslane facility, where the first of the new Trident ballistic missile- firing nuclear submarines, HMS Vanguard, is due to become operational in the autumn.

Security was tight, but one protester managed to slip through, leading to an alert of 'bandits, bandits' over the address system.

Mr Rifkind described yesterday's opening as 'very historic'. He dismissed suggestions that the Trident force was no longer required. 'If some future Russian government was to be far less friendly . . . that would represent a very serious threat,' he said. 'The threat to the United Kingdom isn't less because in 10' years time there may only be 3,000 warheads . . . You could destroy the UK with a few dozen.'

The Trident force can carry a maximum of 512 warheads - eight warheads on 64 missiles in four boats. In practice, far fewer will be available. However, it is claimed that a considerable number are needed to threaten unacceptable damage.

The new facilities include the covered shiplift, designed to lift all classes of submarine, including the 16,000-ton Vanguard, clear of the water for repairs and maintenance; the Northern Utilities building, a diesel power station which will provide the electricity for the lift's 92 winches; the Strategic Weapons Support building for storage; and the Finger Jetty, providing two secure berths for submarines.

Fitting and removing the British- made warheads to the American missiles - 'mating and de-mating' - will take place at the nearby armaments depot at Coulport.

Andrew Gay, chairman of Trafalgar House Construction, which supervised the project, said the huge shiplift building was 'awe-inspiring'. At 185m (607ft) long, 46m (151ft) high, and 51 (167ft) wide, it is supported on more than 1,200 steel piles, which, at the seaward end, are as tall as the building.

Yesterday, only one submarine was at Finger Jetty: HMS Spartan was being demagnetised, wrapped in wires for the purpose, to ensure that its magnetic signature is as low as possible.

Mr Rifkind said that safety had been the main reason for the pounds 500m overspend. The lift is one of only two in the world to be fully certified as safe to carry nuclear vessels and the only one of 196 to be guaranteed against a 'seismic event'.

Nearby stands the Strategic Weapons Support building where dummies of missile tubes are stored for test purposes. Nearly two metres in diameter, they are marked 'Lockheed Missiles and Space Company, Sunnyvale, California'.

(Photograph omitted)