Britain’s “dependent” 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 isn’t dependent on a
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.
Unlike other states that have
nuclear weapons, Britain is
dependent on another state to manufacture an essential element of its only nuclear
weapons system - the submarine-launched 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.
But the Government insists that Britain’s nuclear
weapons system is “operationally” independent of the US (see Annex
A). The Government tells us that, if a British
Prime Minister decides to press the nuclear button, it is impossible for the US to stop the
launch of missiles and prevent them delivering British nuclear weapons to
target. Maybe so, maybe not.
Is a British Prime Minister free to
strike any target he 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?
There is some doubt about the degree
of “operational” independence that Britain enjoys in
respect of its nuclear weapons system.
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, as the Government does all the time, is fraudulent.
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
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 an independent foreign policy in any meaningful sense.
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 deterrent. In reality, it functions
as a supplement to the US nuclear
deterrent paid for by the UK taxpayer,
which is most likely to be used as part of a US nuclear
attack to add political legitimacy to that attack.
(The Iraq example
springs to mind, where Britain’s participation
wasn’t of great military value to the US, but was of
immense political value, so much so that without Britain’s active support,
the invasion of Iraq might never
The above applies to the UK’s current
nuclear weapons system. But it applies
equally to the system post 2024, proposed by the Government in the White Paper,
The Future of the United Kingdom's nuclear deterrent ,
published on 4 December
2006. This is
primarily concerned with replacing the British-built submarine platforms from
which Trident missiles are launched.
To ask the British taxpayer to fork
out upwards of £20 billion to build these submarines (plus further billions to
operate them) in the pretence that the UK will continue
to possess an “independent” nuclear deterrent is fraudulent.
cannot predict ...
Ironically, the Government’s case
for maintaining the UK’s nuclear
deterrent centres on the need to guard against unforeseen future events. Listen to this from the Prime Minister’s
foreword to the White Paper:
world is different. Many of the old certainties and divisions of the Cold War
are gone. We cannot predict the way the world will look in 30 or 50 years time.
For now, some of the old realities remain. Major countries, which pose no
threat to the UK today,
retain large arsenals some of which are being modernised or increased. None of the
present recognised nuclear weapons States intends to renounce nuclear weapons,
in the absence of an agreement to disarm multilaterally, and we cannot be sure that
a major nuclear threat to our vital interests will not emerge over the longer
But, what if in 30 or 50 years time the
perceive threats “to our vital interests” to be threats to its vital
interests? Will our US-dependent nuclear
deterrent be any use at countering them?
And remember, as the Prime Minister says, “we cannot predict the way the
world will look in 30 or 50 years time”.
Surprisingly, the Government does
concede in the White Paper that our US-dependent nuclear deterrent will become
non-functional if relations with the US sour. 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 nearly 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.
The White Paper continues (Paragraph
“The US has never
sought to exploit our procurement relationship in this area as a means to
influence UK foreign
Under the reign of the present Prime
Minister, the US had no need
to. Didn’t he send Christopher Meyer as
his ambassador to Washington in October
1997 with the instruction to “get up the arse of the White House and stay
there”, as Meyer recounts on the first page of his book, DC Confidential?
weapon of self-defence
The Government’s case for Britain retaining
nuclear weapons is that they are the ultimate weapons of self-defence, that states
that possess nuclear weapons don’t get attacked. Thus, for example, the Prime Minister’s
foreword to the White Paper begins:
responsibility of any government is to ensure the safety and security of its
citizens. For 50 years our independent nuclear deterrent has provided the
ultimate assurance of our national security.”
And Paragraph 3-4 says:
“The UK’s nuclear
weapons are not designed for military use during conflict but instead to deter
and prevent nuclear blackmail and acts of aggression against our vital
interests that cannot be countered by other means.”
Of course, the Prime Minister’s case
applies with even greater force to weak states that may come under threat from
stronger ones. The smaller and weaker
the state, the greater the need for nuclear weapons to make potential
aggressors think twice before threatening or invading them. If Britain, one of the
strongest states in this world, needs to have nuclear weapons in order to deter
potential aggressors, then no state in the world should be without them, if at
Had Iraq succeeded
in developing nuclear weapons, the US/UK would not have invaded in March 2003
(and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who died as a consequence would still be
alive). Iran may or may
not intend to develop nuclear weapons, but the Prime Minister makes an
excellent case for it doing so, as soon as possible, in order to deter acts of
aggression against it. North
Korea’s reward for having tested a
nuclear weapon was an unconditional invitation to resume talks with the US.
The White Paper (Paragraph 2-9)
“The UK’s retention
of a nuclear deterrent is fully consistent with our international legal
These obligations are mostly contained
in the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) . Paragraph 2-9 continues:
recognises the UK’s status
(along with that of the US, France, Russia and China) as a nuclear
That is true - the NPT recognised
these states as “nuclear-weapon” states, because they had nuclear weapons prior
to 1 January 1967. Under the NPT, they were permitted to keep
their nuclear weapons. All other
signatories to the NPT were required to sign up as “non-nuclear-weapon” states
and, by signing, committed themselves not to acquire nuclear weapons.
It is true that under Article VI of
the NPT, all parties to the Treaty have disarmament obligations. Article VI states:
“Each of the Parties to
the Treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective
measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to
nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under
strict and effective international control.”
That is an obligation “to pursue
negotiations in good faith” about disarmament, including nuclear disarmament. It is not an obligation to disarm, let alone
a commitment to disarm by a specific date.
As Paragraph 2-10 of the White Paper says:
of the NPT does not establish any timetable for nuclear disarmament, nor for
the general and complete disarmament which provides the context for total
nuclear disarmament. Nor does it prohibit maintenance or updating of existing
So, it is hard to disagree with the
Government’s contention that its proposal to replace the submarines in Britain’s
existing nuclear weapons system is not in breach of its Article VI disarmament
obligations, particularly when, at the same time, the Government intends to
reduce the number of operational nuclear warheads from 200 to 160.
But, just suppose that the Government’s
proposals were in obvious breach of its NPT obligations. What can be done about it? If Iran is deemed
to be in breach of NPT obligations, it can be taken to the Security Council and
convicted (with or without evidence) and in principle sanctioned for its
alleged breach. But Britain can never
be sanctioned by the Security Council, because, as a permanent member in the Council,
it has a veto on Council decisions, including decisions about its own
actions. Britain, and other
permanent members of the Council, can breach international obligations at will,
without fear of a slap on the wrist from the Council, let alone economic or
The UK’s current
nuclear weapons system consists of:
Nuclear warheads, which are manufactured and maintained by the Atomic
Weapons Establishment (AWE) at Aldermaston.
Trident D5 missiles, which were procured from the US under the
1962 Polaris Agreement (as amended for Trident) and are maintained by the US
Navy. They have a range of over 6,000
4 British-built Vanguard-class nuclear-powered submarines, from which
the Trident missiles are launched. These
were built in the 1990s at Barrow-in-Furness by what was
then Vickers Shipbuilding and Engineering Limited (now part of BAE Systems) and
are based at Faslane on the West coast of Scotland. Four submarines are necessary to ensure that
one is on patrol at any given time and capable of firing missiles.
Britain had to
purchase American ballistic missiles - first Polaris in 1963, and Trident 20
years later - to deliver British nuclear weapons, because they were no
functional British-built ballistic missiles.
At this point, a great deal of taxpayers’ money would have been saved by
purchasing a complete US-built and maintained system - warheads, missiles and
submarine launch platforms - instead of replicating in Britain the work to (a)
manufacture warheads to fit into the missiles and (b) construct submarines to
launch the Trident missiles, plus establishing facilities in Britain to
maintain the warheads and submarines. The
British submarines could have been based at Kings Bay, Georgia, along with
the 10-strong Atlantic arm of the US Trident fleet, which would have saved on
the costs of the Faslane base. (The US has a
further 8 Trident submarines based on its Pacific coast.)
Two factors prohibited this. First, by Article I of the NPT
nuclear-weapon State Party to the Treaty undertakes not to transfer to any
recipient whatsoever nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices or
control over such weapons or explosive devices directly, or indirectly ...”
So, the transfer of US-built
warheads to the UK would
certainly have breached Article I of the NPT.
Second, if the whole system had been
bought in from the US, it would
have been much more difficult to maintain the fiction that Britain had an “independent”
nuclear deterrent. Trident submarines
could have been bought from the US and
maintained by the US, without
breaching the NPT.
While it is true that the warheads
and submarines were made in Britain, their
construction was heavily dependent on US-supplied technical knowledge so that
the warheads fit on the Trident missiles and the submarines can fire them.
Understandably, therefore, the British-made
warhead is a near copy of the US M76 warhead, which is fitted to US Trident
missiles, and lots of components for its manufacture are imported from the US. There was not much point in reinventing the
wheel. The White Paper (Paragraph 7-3)
is economical with the truth when it says that “certain non-nuclear components
of the warhead” are procured from the US, because it
was “more cost effective” to do so.
(The UK has had
access to US warhead designs at least since 1958, when the UK and the US entered
into a Mutual Agreement for Co-operation on the Uses of Atomic Energy for
Mutual Defence Purposes. In 2004, this
was extended to the end of 2014. In a
message to Congress requesting the extension, President Bush noted 
that “the United Kingdom intends to
continue to maintain viable nuclear forces. ... I have concluded that it is in
our interest to continue to assist them in maintaining a credible nuclear
Each Trident submarine has 16
independently-controlled missile tubes.
They pick up missiles from Kings Bay, Georgia, and
exchange them there for servicing. The UK purchased
58 missiles in all (8 of which have been used for test firing).
Each missile is technically capable
of carrying up to 12 nuclear warheads and delivering them on to different
targets. So, each submarine can carry up
to 192 warheads. However, following the
1998 Strategic Defence Review ,
the number of warheads was limited to 48 per submarine (reduced from 96) and
the UK committed itself to holding “a stockpile of fewer than 200 operationally
available warheads” (reduced from 300). The White Paper (Paragraph 2-3) proposes that
the number be further reduced to 160.
The warheads are stored and fitted
to the Trident missiles onboard the submarines at the Royal Naval Armaments
Depot at Coulport, near Faslane.
The first Vanguard-class submarine
was launched in 1992 and the second in 1994.
Their original design life was 25 years, but it is intended to extend
their life by 5 years, so these two submarines are capable of operating up to
2022 and 2024 respectively. The White
Paper (Paragraph 1-3) says that “continuous deterrent patrols could no longer
be assured from around this latter point if no replacement were in place by
The Government proposes to replace
the 4 Vanguard-class submarines, the first one to be in service by 2024. It may be possible to make do with 3 (rather
than 4) replacement submarines and still maintain one on patrol at any given
The White Paper (Paragraph1-7) says
that it will take around 17 years to design, manufacture and commission a
replacement submarine, so a decision to go ahead needs to be taken in early
2007, to ensure that the first replacement submarine is available for service
in 2024. This is an extraordinarily long
time, given that the replacement is functionally equivalent to the original.
BAE Systems will get the contract to
build the replacement submarines at Barrow-in-Furness, because no
other company in Britain is capable
of doing the job. The White Paper (Paragraph
1-6) hints that a reason for taking a decision soon is that BAE will be in need
of submarine design work soon, otherwise its design team may disperse. Design work is coming to an end on the
Astute-class nuclear-powered conventionally-armed submarines, the first of
which is nearing completion. The White
“There are ...
risks that, in the event of a significant gap between the end of design work on
the Astute-class conventional role nuclear submarines and the start of detailed
design work on new SSBNs [submarines], some of the difficulties experienced on
the Astute programme would be repeated because of the loss of key design
In estimating the development period
at 17 years, perhaps the Government has been influenced by BAE’s recent record of
late delivery (and over-running budgets) on Ministry of Defence projects - the
Astute submarine is over 3 years late, the Type 45 destroyer 2 years late, the
Nimrod maritime reconnaissance aircraft over 7 years late and the Eurofighter is 5 years late.
Despite this dismal record, BAE will
be able to write its own contract for the new Trident submarines, since they
have to be British-built and nobody else can build them in Britain. If they were built in the US or France or China, the
British public might get the impression that we haven’t got an “independent”
missiles to fire?
In 2002, the US Navy awarded
Lockheed Martin a contract to extend the life of the Trident D5 missile to
around 2042 to match the life of its Ohio-class submarines (which are expected
to have a 45-year life, 50% longer than their British counterparts). The Government is now proposing that the UK participate
in this programme.
The expected life of the UK’s
replacement submarines is 25-30 years, so they should be serviceable to 2050
and beyond. However, after around 2042,
there may be no serviceable Trident missiles for them to fire - and the UK will no
longer have a functional nuclear weapons system.
This potentially very serious
problem has arisen because Britain built its
own submarines rather buying US submarines with a longer life. As a consequence, the UK submarine
replacement cycle is out of sync with the US submarine
Will the US develop a
successor to the Trident D5? The answer is
maybe, but there is no guarantee. The White
Paper (Paragraph 7-6) says that the Government has “sought, and received,
assurances from the US Government that, in the event they decide to develop a
successor to the D5 missile, the UK will have
the option of participating in such a programme”. But the US may decide not to develop a D5
successor, not least because its D5 launch platforms will come to the end of
their life around the same time as the D5s themselves. So, it is quite possible that, after around
2042, the UK will have
serviceable submarines but no serviceable missiles to fire from them.
If the US does
develop a successor to the Trident D5, will UK’s new
submarines be able to launch the successor missile? The answer is a qualified Yes. The White Paper (Paragraph 7-6) says that the
Government has received an assurance from the US that “any
successor to the D5 should be compatible, or can be made compatible, with the
launch system” of the new UK submarines. There will likely be a cost to the UK if
modifications have to be made to the successor missile to make it compatible
with the UK’s D5 launch
The White Paper (Paragraph 7-6) says
that all these assurances are to be set out in an exchange of letters between
the UK Prime Minister and the US President,
the texts of which will be published.
The letters will bear close scrutiny.
A Operational independence?
Because the UK depends on
the US for the
manufacture and maintenance of the Trident missiles that are an essential
element in its nuclear weapons system, it is highly unlikely that the UK would use
its nuclear weapons system to strike a target without the approval of the US. That is an ongoing political constraint that
the US has on UK actions by
virtue of the fact that it can render the UK’s nuclear
weapons system non-functional by withholding serviceable missiles.
But is the US in a
position to physically prevent a missile launch from a UK submarine
at any time? It is widely believed that,
to target Trident missiles accurately, the launching submarine needs access to US
systems at the time of launch, access that the US can deny.
See, for example, Greenpeace
evidence to the Defence Select Committee, in the Committee’s report The Future of the UK’s Strategic Nuclear
Deterrent: the Strategic Context 
published in June 2006 (pages Ev 84-89).
accuracy of the Trident D5 missile depends on the submarine’s position being
precisely determined. This is achieved using two systems: GPS, which relies on
satellites, and the Electrostatically Supported Giro Navigation System (ESGN),
which uses gyroscopes. In both cases, UK Trident submarines uses the same US system as
the US Navy submarines. The USA has the
ability to deny access to GPS at any time, rendering that form of navigation
and targeting useless if the UK were to
launch without US approval. ...
“The US Navy
supplies local gravitational information and forecasts of weather over targets,
both of which are vital to high missile accuracy, to US and UK
However, the White Paper (4-6) seems
to contradict this. It seems to say that
if a British Prime Minister decides to press the nuclear button, it is
impossible for the US to stop the
launch of the missile or to prevent it delivering British nuclear weapons to
“The UK’s nuclear
forces must remain fully operationally independent if they are to be a credible
deterrent. It is essential that we have the necessary degree of assurance that we
can employ our deterrent to defend our vital interests. The UK’s current
nuclear deterrent is fully operationally independent of the US:
decision-making and use of the system remains entirely sovereign to the UK;
• only the
Prime Minister can authorize the use of the UK’s nuclear deterrent, even if the
missiles are to be fired as part of a NATO response;
instruction to fire would be transmitted to the submarine using only UK codes and UK equipment;
• all the
command and control procedures are fully independent; and
Vanguard-class submarines can operate readily without the Global Positioning by
Satellite (GPS) system and the Trident D5 missile does not use GPS at all: it
has an inertial guidance system. There is nothing in the planned Trident D5
life extension programme that will change this position.”
24 December 2006
Labour & Trade Union Review
 See www.mod.uk
 See www.publications.parliament.uk