Published on 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.

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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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7 reader comments

  1. John Meffen says:

    Not only is the UK dependant upon the US for supplying Trident, the UK is leaving itself open to having to scrap Trident in future were the US to phase out Trident, leaving the UK with no supply chain of their own.

    This is almost exactly what happened when the US unilaterally scrapped Polaris in the 1970s, forcing the UK to switch to Trident at a much inflated cost.

    Will they never learn?

  2. Philip Edwards says:

    Alex,

    Orwell didn’t name a future Britain “Airstrip One” because he thought the title romantic. He had a very good notion of what was about to happen…….Well, here it is in full bloom. Britain not just an airstrip, but also a cringing poodle of the USA, a certain target if anybody decides nukes are the answer to Western imperialism and invasion.

    The Scots are right to be unwilling victims of the crackpots in London and Washington. You can make a safe bet things would change post haste if the launch nukes were moved to South East England and the scoundrels in Westminster, Whitehall and Canary Wharf were brought into the direct line of fire.

    I can’t be the only one who laughs his socks down at the irony of nukes manufactured on Jon Snow’s doorstep in Berkshire.

    Just shows the reality of it……there’s nowhere to run to if someone lights up a nuke and kicks off the final madness. There was a recent debate in the Jock Assembly in which one New Labour Loon said nukes were a necessary deterrent because Russian submarines had been seen in the Clyde. To which, quite rightly, came the snap SNP answer that they weren’t much of a deterrent, then, were they? Answer came there none.

    There is no “independent deterrent” for anybody, not even those who THINK they have one. Once the nuke balloon goes up we’ll all go with it. There’ll be no going back. For which, check out Robert McNamara’s (almost too) late conversion in the 2003 Errol Morris DVD “The Fog of War.” But of course that was after McNamara had directed the mass murder of millions in the Far East.

    If we give those lunatics enough rope they’ll hang everybody, even including themselves.

    The best independence is one free of nuclear weapons.

  3. Andrew Dundas says:

    You probably don’t know this, but the issue of alleged ‘independence’ was fully discussed by mostly Tory MPs during the ‘Bermuda’ debate. [down and out in London, the gallery was a warm place to be in the 1960s. It was a memorable debate]. Neither polaris missiles nor their successors, including the various trident versions, can be guided to target other than with US satellite signals and the double key operation requiring US consent. Short range or unguided missiles are of little strategic use.
    “So”, Tory MPs asked in that debate, “what’s the point?” There was no answer given then. But it’s now very clear: those submarine missiles are specifically intended to deter a ‘first strike’ nuclear attack that would wipe-out most UK cities and military bases. Submarines hidden under the sea would be able to retaliate, using US guidance technologies. Or so the deterrent narrative goes.
    In return for loading, replacing and servicing each new version of the missiles in Connecticut, the USA retains the right to use our Faslane in emergency. Originally, that base was necessary to enable the US fleet to operate efficiently, but that’s no longer necessary.
    The Chernobyl disaster reminded us that retaliation following a ‘first strike knock-out’ is hardly necessary: radio-active fall-out from a blitz on the UK would have devastating effects on ALL the populations on our planet. Much the same would apply to any use of nuclear weapons in the middle-east or elsewhere: any use is suicidal. Always providing we could be certain that erratic eastern States understand those Chernobyl lessons! (Do you feel lucky?)
    Meantime, Trident is a potential and highly valuable bargaining chip. The US is currently phasing out its current Trident missiles in favour of a new version that’s even more capable of evading defence measures than the current trident. Which means we also need to re-equip out fleet with new and larger submarines, if we want to maintain that nuclear bargaining chip.
    In summary, polaris & trident were always weapons for diplomatic purposes. To mollify Tory interests, to re-assure our most valuable ally and to be ready to bargain away with, say, Russian and Chinese interests. Hence the vital importance of arresting any further nuclear proliferations.
    My net position is that those Tory MPs were right about the Bermuda agreement: what’s the point of a missile system and bomb that doesn’t add anything to the US force? True, it remains a small part of a potential disarmament deal, but the high cost limits our ability to maintain our long-distance conventional forces that really are more useful.
    Our Astute class submarines are a much better military tool. With more practical and usable armaments.

  4. Gordypops says:

    Also worthwhile noting that parts of the firing and targeting software are not accessible to British software engineers and can only be maintained through Washington. Draw your own conclusions.

  5. Alan says:

    “It is true that it is frankly inconceivable we would use our nuclear deterrent (sic) alone, without the US.”

    “So, after some genuine consideration and reconsideration, I opted to renew it (Trident). But the contrary decision would not have been stupid.”

    , Tony Blair in his memoirs (page 635/6):

  6. Alisdair Hamilton-Wilkes says:

    These rampantly leftie forums are often amusing to see because they are so driven by prejudice and no actual information.

    The rockets are leased from the USA but once authorised by the Prime Minister (US consent is not necessary) the launch sequence is entirely initiated from within the submarine and requires a complex two person procedure. The navigation system is entirely self-contained within the missile and is primarily inertial with in flight recalibration against a stored star map (astro-inertial navigation). Obviously relying on external factors such as orders from land or satellites for navigation would incentivise first strike and the primary benefit of a mobile and stealthy SSBN solution is to be fully independent (as all of the main nuclear powers’ SSBNs are).

    The debate about independence of the deterrent is akin to buying a gun. If I buy a gun from a manufacturer, whether in the USA or UK, the decision to fire it belongs to me for as long as I have a stock of spare parts and ammunition.

    With regard to John Meffen’s point about the road map, it is true that the Trident II D5 will need an update but because its payload / range performance is sufficient (6,000nm compared to Polaris’ 2,500nm) to reach across the hostile parts of our planet an updated vehicle will be of similar size and therefore suitable to retro-fit existing boats.

    1. John Meffen says:

      Alisdair, thanks for noting my point, I at this remove [I am a Leftie from Scotland] cannot say how the necessary update will work itself out, however it seems to me that it is never as simple as it first seems to be, like the two aircraft carriers the prices spiral, and it soon becomes more expensive to back out than go through with it.

      As the French have taught us, you only have an independent nuclear system if you make it yourself, but we have decided not to go this way.

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