Mission & Name
US Foreign Policy (Dr. El-Najjar's Articles)
Britain's Nuclear Deterrent Isn't Independent
By David Morrison
April 13, 2015
The Conservative Party is in favour of Britain
retaining a nuclear weapons system, and so is the Labour Party. To that
end, both are committed to the replacement of the four submarines built in
Britain from which US-supplied Trident II missiles carrying nuclear warheads
can be launched.
Labour in government initiated the process of
replacement by publishing a White Paper,
The Future of the United Kingdom's Nuclear Deterrent, in December 2006.
This recommended that the new system should provide ‘continuous at-sea
deterrence’ (CASD) as the current one does – in other words, that at least
one submarine be on patrol armed with Trident missiles at any time.
The White Paper left open the possibility that this capability could be
provided by three submarines instead of the existing four. The White
Paper proposals were approved by the House of Commons in March 2007.
The final decision on the issue is due next year. Irrespective of the
outcome of the general election, there will be an overwhelming majority in
the House of Commons in favour of building the submarines necessary to
maintain ‘continuous at-sea deterrence’, though the SNP, Plaid Cymru, and a
number of Labour backbenchers will vote against. The replacement of
the present Trident submarines is certain to proceed.
On 9 April
2015, Minister of Defence, Michael Fallon, was tried to suggest that it
won’t proceed if Labour has to rely on the SNP for a majority after the
general election. This piece of fantasy was invented by the
Conservative election machine for the purpose of mounting a personal attack
on Labour leader Ed Miliband, attacking him personally being the main thrust
of the Conservative electoral campaign at the moment.
There is no
doubt that the UK will have a submarine-based nuclear weapons system that
could remain operational into the 2060s. It will cost the British
taxpayer about £25 billion to build the replacement submarines and the
related infrastructure, plus about £2 billion a year to operate them, that
is, upwards of £100 billion during the lifetime of the system.
Conservative and Labour advocates for the
system describe it as an “independent” nuclear deterrent. On 9 April,
said that, if a Labour government scrapped it, this “would shatter the
60 year consensus that has existed among governments of all colours in
favour of an operationally independent nuclear deterrent”. Labour
responded by insisting that “Labour is committed to maintaining a
minimum, credible, independent nuclear deterrent, delivered through a
‘continuous at-sea deterrent’”. But is Britain’s nuclear deterrent
At least eight (and perhaps nine) states in
the world now possess functional nuclear weapons and the means of delivering
them. All of them, bar one, manufacture and maintain their own nuclear
weapons and the means of delivering them. All of them, bar one, have
complete control over the use of their systems. In other words, all of
them, bar one, possess what can reasonably be described as an “independent”
nuclear deterrent that doesn’t rely on another state to provide vital parts
The exception is Britain. China has an “independent”
nuclear deterrent. So has France, India, Israel, Pakistan, Russia and
the US – and perhaps North Korea. Britain hasn’t.
states that have nuclear weapons systems, Britain is dependent on another
state to manufacture an essential element of its only nuclear weapons system
– the Trident missiles that are supposed to carry Britain’s weapons to
target. These are manufactured by Lockheed Martin in the US.
And Britain’s dependence on the US doesn’t end with the purchase of the
missiles – Britain depends on the US Navy to service the missiles as well.
A common pool of missiles is maintained at the US Strategic Weapons facility
at King’s Bay, Georgia, USA, from which the US itself and Britain draw
serviced missiles as required.
There is some doubt about the degree
of “operational” independence that Britain enjoys in respect of its nuclear
weapons system (of which more later). But there is no doubt that
Britain is dependent on the US for the manufacture and maintenance of a key
element of the system. So, to call it an “independent” nuclear
deterrent is fraudulent.
Independent foreign policy?
The plain truth is that, if Britain doesn’t maintain friendly relations
with the US, then it won’t have a functional nuclear weapons system, despite
having spent billions of pounds of British taxpayers’ money on it – because
the US would simply cease providing Britain with serviceable Trident
So, there is a strong incentive for Britain to follow the
US in foreign policy, since independence from the US in foreign policy could
lead to its nuclear weapons system becoming non-functional. Sustained
opposition to the US in foreign policy certainly would. As long as
Britain is tied to the US by a requirement for US-supplied and maintained
missiles for its nuclear weapons system, it cannot have a wholly independent
In these circumstances, it is highly unlikely that
Britain would use its nuclear weapons system to strike a target without the
approval of the US, whether or not it is theoretically possible for Britain
to do so. So, it is absurd to describe it as “independent” nuclear
The above applies to the UK’s current nuclear weapons
system. But it applies equally to the proposed replacement. To
ask the British taxpayer to fork out upwards of £100 billion in the pretence
that the UK will continue to possess an “independent” nuclear deterrent is
Surprisingly, December 2006 White Paper conceded that
our US-dependent nuclear deterrent will become non-functional if relations
sour with the US. Paragraph 4-7 puts it this way:
to believe that the costs of developing a nuclear deterrent relying solely
on UK sources outweigh the benefits. We do not see a good case for making
what would be a substantial additional investment in our nuclear deterrent
purely to insure against a, highly unlikely, deep and enduring breakdown in
relations with the US. We therefore believe that it makes sense to continue
to procure elements of the system from the US.”
It would be more
honest to say that Britain is incapable of building a credible deterrent
relying solely on UK sources. It lost that capacity over 50 years ago
with the termination of the Blue Streak ballistic missile project, which is
why we ended up buying first Polaris, and then Trident, submarine-launched
missiles from the US.
British Governments have always insisted that Britain’s nuclear weapons
system is “operationally” independent of the US. The December 2006
White Paper (4-6) states that “the UK’s current nuclear deterrent is fully
operationally independent of the US”. Apparently, if a British Prime
Minister decides to press the nuclear button, it is impossible for the US to
stop the launch of missiles or prevent them from delivering British nuclear
warheads to the selected target. Maybe so.
Is a British Prime
Minister really free to strike any target he/she chooses in this world with
nuclear weapons, at a time of his choosing, using US-supplied missiles?
I doubt that the US would sell any foreign power – even a close ally – a
weapons system with which the foreign power is free to do catastrophic
damage to US allies, not to mention the US itself. Surely, the US must
have a mechanism, under its explicit control, to prevent the targeting of
states that it doesn’t want targeted?
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