13 Apr 2015

Trident: is our nuclear deterrent really independent?

It seems to be typical of the triumph of spin over substance in this election campaign so far. The debate over whether or not E Miliband planted the meat cleaver into D Miliband’s back seemed to receive much more coverage than whether or not we should pay billions of pounds for Trident.



Partly of course this is because, when it comes to Trident,  Labour and Tory leaders seem keen to argue only about who wants to pay for it more badly. So you won’t find much debate there then.  Which is why it was so timely to receive this alternative view from the blogger and activist David Morrison.

Thus, the great Trident debate is lost (outside Scotland) – and so too what could be the great Trident lie.  Both main English parties pretend incessantly that our Trident missile system is an “independent” nuclear deterrent when it never was, is, or could be and both Cameron and Miliband know this perfectly well.

As Morrison says, France has an independent nuclear deterrent. So does the USA – and so does Russia. Israel has an independent nuclear deterrent. As does India, Pakistan and China.

Morrison points out that North Korea may well have an independent nuclear deterrent and I bet the farm it isn’t an election issue there either. Britain, though, does not have a wholly independent nuclear deterrent. It has a lie instead.

Here’s why: we have independently-made Vanguard subs. They are made by BAE Systems, Britain’s biggest defence manufacturer because of its design skill-set. However it’s got a historical record for “fulfilling” major defence contracts years late and millions over budget – yet still we persist with taxpayers’ loot – in this case billions of it.

We also independently make the warheads at the typically British miss-named Atomic Weapons Research Establishment at Aldermaston in Berkshire – it is a bomb factory.  Ah – but sadly the Trident missiles (quite important, that bit) are manufactured – dependently – in the USA.

Not independent. Not an independent deterrent. Operationally independent – maybe – it’s never been put to the test, but wholly independent, no. Never has been, is, or could be. Not only that, the maintenance programme for the missiles is also done by the US.  Still less independent.

All our “independent” Trident missiles in reality come from Lockheed Martin in the US and are maintained by the US Navy at Kings Bay, Georgia, USA, along with the Trident missiles for US submarines.

So we are being asked to spend around  £100bn – or 12 times the Tories’ NHS EXTRA funding centrepiece – to maintain and replace our “independent” nuclear strike capability – which does not exist.

See why it’s a pity this got lost in fratricidal Miliband backstabbery?  £25bn to build the Vanguards – three or four to be decided. £2bn a year to run the US-dependent system until the 2060s. Or at least those are the official figures but when it comes to actual costs the MoD procurement sector has been locked in la-la land with your cash for generations. Who knows what the real costs will add up to?

The white paper proposals for replacing the Trident system were approved by the House of Commons in March 2007 and the final decision on the issue is due next year.

The lack of “independence” doesn’t end with the UK buying all its missiles from the US and being dependent upon the US to service and maintain them.

We also use missiles drawn from a joint missile-pool at the US Strategic Weapons facility at King’s Bay, Georgia. Not even any attempt to pretend there might be a teensy bit of independence in this place – you know – can’t you park the Union Jack humanity-terminators a few miles up the road just for form’s sake? No Sir.

Dependence like this creates other obvious issues. Should the UK actuallygo down a foreign policy route divergent from the US State Dept – our nuclear capability is immediately in question. What say we decided not to invade Iraq? Or Afghanistan? Implausible – but what might happen if we ever did?

Don’t take my word for it – Whitehall admits as much in the December 2006 white paper on Trident replacement which has a hand-wringing section containing the admission that, yes, the Pentagon has the UK hogtied over a barrel but that’s cheaper than a fully independent nuclear deterrent:

“We continue 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.”

But UK governments one after another invariably fall over themselves to say our dependent nuclear capability is “operationally independent”. Their need to keep saying this speaks volumes – how they must smile in Moscow, Delhi, Jerusalem, Islamabad,  Beijing and oh in DC too I suppose.

We are told if a UK prime minister presses the codes for launch from a Vanguard then Washington cannot do anything.  It’s as hypothetical as hypotheses can get. Even supposing it to be true it is politically, diplomatically and many other long words ending in ly impossible. The UK would not stand up to the US over Custard Cream tariffs let alone beginning Armageddon.

It’s that nuclear dependence, all over again. Like I say, in an election where Trident is a central issue to the key party likely to hold the balance of UK post-election power (clue-they’re not English) it would have been good to get into stuff like this.

But no – all we got was Miliband backstabbery and allegations that Michael Fallon had launched one below the belt and it had misfired (potentially with Pentagon approval in advance).

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