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Neither British nor Independent, and No Deterrent

Norman Dombey

Britain’s ‘independent nuclear deterrent’ has been described by ministers as the basis of our defence strategy for nearly seventy years. Tony Blair proclaimed that ‘our independent nuclear deterrent has provided the ultimate assurance of our national security.’ We have used US missiles to carry our nuclear warheads but ministers of both main political parties have insisted that the nuclear weapon itself was British and designed at the Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) at Aldermaston. After all, we first exploded an A-bomb in 1952 and H-bombs in 1957-58 without help from the US or other state. Yet last year a defence minister hinted at the truth for the first time: Britain’s nuclear warheads are of American design.

Margaret Thatcher’s government decided that Britain should switch to a nuclear weapon system based on the US-made Trident missile. The arrangement would follow the lines of the Polaris agreement reached by Harold Macmillan and John Kennedy in Nassau in December 1962, according to which the US provided the submarine-launched missile system and AWE provided the nuclear warhead. During the 1980s I advised Paddy Ashdown on nuclear matters. In March 1985, under my prompting, he asked Adam Butler, the minister for defence procurement, ‘whether the purchase of Trident from the United States includes the transfer of warhead design or components’. Butler responded that ‘the nuclear warheads to be fitted in the British Trident D5 missile system will be of British design and manufacture.’ The Trident system became operational in 1994.

In March 2008, Jeremy Corbyn secured a debate on the Trident programme and AWE’s role in it. Bob Ainsworth, the minister for the armed forces in Gordon Brown’s government, said:

My honourable friend the member for Islington North raised a point that I need to respond to – he would want me to put this on the record. The UK produced a new design of nuclear weapon to coincide with the introduction into service of the Trident system.The warhead was designed and manufactured in the UK by AWE, although it was decided on cost-effectiveness grounds to procure certain non-nuclear warhead components from the United States. The design is likely to last into the 2020s.

Step forward to 2020. A year ago, Pentagon officials said that plans for a new US warhead, the W93, ‘will also support a parallel replacement warhead programme in the United Kingdom’. Last August, the Guardian revealed that Ben Wallace, the current defence secretary, had lobbied the US Congressional Armed Service Committees last April to ask for Congressional funding for the W93 programme to ‘ensure that we continue to deepen the unique nuclear relationship between our two countries, enabling the United Kingdom to provide safe and assured continuous-at-sea deterrence for decades to come … Your support to the W93 program in this budget cycle is critical to the success of our replacement warhead programme.’

President Biden is unlikely to take the UK intervention seriously. Unlike Trump, Biden will not want to test the warhead and withdraw from the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) banning all nuclear tests. It is generally thought that nuclear weapons are too complex to be simulated reliably by computers, so the CTBT effectively prevents upgrades of warhead designs. The nuclear weapon states do not need to develop new weapons: those they have are more than sufficient for any conceivable purpose. They should reduce the numbers of their weapons, not design more.

Butler and Ainsworth’s statements to Parliament perpetuated a sixty-year-old myth that the UK’s nuclear weapon programmes use warheads of British design. If that were true, why should Wallace have lobbied Congress to fund the W93? Clearly he does not think that any future Trident warhead can be designed at Aldermaston. But if AWE physicists had designed the current Trident warhead, as Ainsworth testified, they could be expected to design any replacement warhead, too.

The warhead of the current UK Trident system is called the Holbrook. It was not designed at Aldermaston. It is essentially a copy of the W76, designed at Los Alamos for the US Navy. Hans Kristiansen, the nuclear weapon specialist at the Federation of American Scientists, told me that the designs of the Holbrook and W76 are ‘so close that the Holbrook is part of the US W76 maintenance programme’, and any ‘British replacement warhead will likely rely on the W93 design and fully use the Mk7 RB [ reentry vehicle] designed for the W93.’

Britain gave up designing its own nuclear warheads a long time ago. Nearly thirty years ago Eric Grove and I published a piece in the LRB on ‘Britain’s Thermonuclear Bluff’: ‘from 1958 onwards the United States transferred to Britain detailed design drawings and material specifications of many of their most modern hydrogen bombs so that Britain could manufacture these US weapons as its own.’ When the US agreed to provide the Polaris missile system to the UK, they also provided the design of the W47 warhead for the missile. We know that from the minutes of the second meeting between US and UK nuclear scientists in Albuquerque in September 1958, following the signing of the US-UK nuclear co-operation agreement for defence purposes: ‘We provided the British with blueprints, material specifications and relevant theoretical and experimental information related to our XW47 warhead.’ (The X in front of W47 means the warhead was still in an experimental stage.)

Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent is neither British nor independent. Both its missiles and its warheads are dependent on the US and of US design. Nor is it a deterrent. Britain’s nuclear weapons did not deter Turkey from invading Cyprus in 1974, even though the UK was a guarantor by treaty of Cyprus’s independence; nor did they stop Argentina invading the Falklands in 1982. They didn’t deter the US from invading Grenada in 1983, even though Grenada was a member of the Commonwealth. More recently, they did not deter China from violating the Sino-British Joint Declaration on Hong Kong or the EU from refusing to allow British shellfish to be imported. I cannot think of one instance in the sixty years since Nassau when our nuclear deterrent has deterred anyone from doing anything.


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  • 23 February 2021 at 10:01am
    bikethru says:
    The case often cited by proponents of an "independent UK deterrent" is North Korea. But does North Korea have reason to believe the UK would never dare use a Trident-type system against it? First, does the prevailing wind blow up the Korean peninsula for half the year and down for the other half, taking the fallout from a British strike either into a nuclear-armed potential enemy or into an ally? Second, China has mobile nuclear missile launchers based near the North Korean border. Can the UK risk China's reaction if it detected a Royal Navy Trident launch heading for that vicinity?

  • 23 February 2021 at 11:21am
    Charles Evans says:
    The somewhat facile comment about the EU importing British shellfish aside, the conclusion to this piece is right - when has the nuclear deterrent ever seemed to deter anyone from doing anything? Russia's illegal invasion and annexation of Ukraine could be added to the list.

  • 23 February 2021 at 12:22pm
    Howard Medwell says:
    most ordinary, non-political British people kind of know this, or at any rate wouldn’t be surprised by the content of this article. And yet the entire political class goes along with the fiction that it’s “British”. Another Brexit in the making?

  • 23 February 2021 at 4:31pm
    Patrick says:
    ‘Nor is it a deterrent… I cannot think of one instance in the sixty years since Nassau when our nuclear deterrent has deterred anyone from doing anything.’

    Perhaps this is too obvious to point out, but this seems only half the picture. How would we know if it had deterred anyone from doing anything? I can’t know if putting a great big padlock on my front door would deter any burglars or not, because I don't have a parallel universe to trial the counterfactual. It seems reasonable, though, to suppose it might do something.

    • 24 February 2021 at 6:43pm
      freshborn says: @ Patrick
      Not if you lived in a gated community, in which case it would merely signal that you were somewhat deranged.

      Regardless, he provided several examples where nuclear power was not a deterrent. We might well know if our nuclear power deterred somebody from something, if a member of the military of that country subsequently revealed that some military action was being contemplated but rejected due to the possibility of use of nuclear weapons. It's hard to even imagine a possible example of such a scenario, so despite your analogy, I think it would be far from reasonable to assume our nuclear weapons have ever acted as a deterrent.

  • 23 February 2021 at 5:35pm
    Graucho says:
    It's there to deter other nuclear powers from using their nuclear weapons and so far, touch wood, they haven't.

  • 23 February 2021 at 11:51pm
    Richard Nash says:
    I think what we are really buying is a continued seat on the UN security council. the warheads or missiles are just a visible part of that and so in the end doesnt really matter if they are british made. So one could add to the balance ledger whether continued permanent representation on the security council is worth what it costs to buy the nukes.

  • 24 February 2021 at 7:06am
    Joe Morison says:
    To those who want us to get rid of our nuclear arsenal, I ask: would you want to live in a world where Russia, China, India, Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea had nuclear weapons but no western country did? If the answer to that is no, then do you think, particularly after what we’ve seen over the last four years, that the US is a reliable ally to us for the foreseeable future?

    I’d answer no to both those questions. The sensible thing would have been for us to team up with the French, but that’s even less likely post-Brexit. All weapons of war are grotesque, and nuclear weapons are the most grotesque of all, but while so many of our foes have them, we have no choice.

    • 24 February 2021 at 9:08am
      bikethru says: @ Joe Morison
      First, while Prof Dombey says above that the UK depends for its missiles and warheads on the US, it would be interesting if he could comment here on whether he also believes the UK is dependent on US consent to use them. And if the same applies to France, whose nuclear kit is also, in effect, American. If all that is true, then there is no western nuclear firepower independent of the US, however little faith the Rest of the West has that the US would protect it.
      Second, have you any concerns that your point is an argument for proliferation: if the UK wants its own truly independent nukes because it can't rely on the US, would every other state want the same, for the same reason?
      Third, I'd be interested in what you make of my suggestion above of technical reasons that North Korea cannot be deterred by UK (or US) nuclear weapons.

    • 24 February 2021 at 1:00pm
      Joe Morison says: @ bikethru
      A few years ago I spent an evening drinking with a man who was second in command on a nuclear sub (I think he said he was the Weapons Officer - at any rate, he was the one who would have to turn the key with the captain, and they were the only two who had their own cabins), he was absolutely adamant that our missiles could be used independently - he said that even without satellite guidance he could program it to hit anywhere. I’m sure he believed what he was saying, but I can’t go further than that.

      Yes, I am horribly aware that mine is an argument for proliferation, from which I conclude that proliferation will not be stopped by argument but economic pressure. Does that me a hypocrite? I’m afraid so.

      You may well be right about North Korea, but they are hardly the only threat. If Western Europe had no nukes, and the US were to withdrew its cover (and after Trump who can doubt that is possible?), do you really think Putin wouldn’t invade? It would start with restoring the old borders of the USSR, and our inevitable resistance to that would provide the excuse to do the rest of us.

      My heart is entirely with you, bikethru, because their use would be too horrific; but my head tells me that in this brutal world we dare not be without them.

  • 24 February 2021 at 3:34pm
    Graucho says:
    In theory one could give up the nuclear deterent and rely on on our American cousins to retaliate should nuclear weapons be used against us. Maybe four years of Putin's poodle in the White House illustrates the gap between theory and practice.

  • 25 February 2021 at 8:14am
    Peterson_the man with no name says:
    During the debate over Trident replacement, no one even tried to come up with a credible military scenario where it could actually be of any use. The closest they came was to drivel about the need to deter a "nuclear-armed madman" - even though deterrence theory relies on both sides being able to think rationally, at least when faced with total destruction. You can't deter a madman; he might attack you even if you have a gun pointed at his head, because he's mad, so who knows why he does anything?

    As was effectively admitted, the only purpose of the nuclear deterrent nowadays is to keep Britain's seat at the top table. In other words, to enable the cheap little mediocrities who rule over us - whichever party label they happen to bear - to carry on playing at being world statesmen. That's why it doesn't matter whether it's independent or not. They'll buy the bomb from North Korea before they give it up.

    • 25 February 2021 at 6:56pm
      Joe Morison says: @ Peterson_the man with no name
      Why would Putin be mad to invade Western Europe if the US was offering no protection and we had no nuclear weapons?

  • 26 February 2021 at 3:31pm
    Dan says:
    The independence, or otherwise, of a nuclear weapon is far from a moot point. I had thought it was more widely known outside of defence, that our nukes were... well, America's. This is why the Royal Marines are used to guard them in Dumbartonshire, the US gets to specify an equivalent level of protection that they offer to theirs. It's the small but meaningful relinquishing of our independence in matters of defence that puts paid to the lie about them being 'our' nukes or even being essential to underline our importance in the world. Our importance becomes contingent on us being a good customer of the US defence industry. What's good enough for Kuwait I suppose.
    As for the invasion of Cyprus by Turkey, I recall it was discussed in the LRB, possibly by Adam Shatz, that the invasion of Cyprus was, as a minimum, tolerated by the British government of the time as a satisfactory way of distracting the burgeoning Cypriot independence movement. As long as Turkey didn't interfere with the two Sovereign Base Areas conveniently far in the South.

  • 27 February 2021 at 3:48pm
    jeremy bernstein says:
    In August of 1957 I went to the test site in Nevada to see some bomb tests. I was surprised to encounter a graduate student friend of mine named Al Peaslee. Peaslee had gotten his degree and then vanished.Here he was. He pointed to a small group well dressed men he was looking after.'They.re British, "he explained. "we do not tell them anything."

    • 28 February 2021 at 5:17am
      Joe Morison says: @ jeremy bernstein
      I wonder if that was a matter of general principle or whether it was because it was only a few years after Burgess and Maclean had defected and the US had every reason to suppose that the British SIS were wide open to the Soviets?

  • 28 February 2021 at 2:28pm
    XopherO says:
    Many years ago in the age of flexible response I argued that the UK should have 'deterrent' missiles aimed at the USA's major cities in case some less-than-sane president thought he could win by fighting on someone else's territory - the whole point of flexible response. Of course, we were much too dependent on the USA's technology to do that. Anyway, it was a bit tongue-in-cheek but then came Trump, and Putin! All the arguments above point to the necessity of proliferation for many if not most non-nuclear powers, and for Iran it is perhaps most pressing, and everyone knows that! Anyway, Trident is useless for flexible response because it is all-or-nothing, a degenerate relic of MAD. Pointless, and all other nuclear powers and significant non-nuclear powers know that very well, only too well. It is not independent and not a deterrent, as world crises have shown - counter-factuals not withstanding. A seat at the Security Council these days is worth sweet FA, as the UK's weak presence and subservience to the USA has shown for many years - Israel/Palestine is further from resolution than ever thanks to the UK's complete lack of independent thought and action on it. Nuclear weapons -megatons, UK diplomacy - less than a kilo! A total waste of billions. There are well defined ways to deal with the employment consequences of nuclear disarmament, which would in fact aid the recovery of the economy.

  • 7 March 2021 at 5:10pm
    Áine Gearailt says:
    So what if the British independent nuclear deterrent is actually British or not? Is the question of the nuclear deterrent so delicately balanced that only if Britain claims it as its independent own, will it pass the public's approval test? In reality the US has missiles on British soil (or a submarine or a jet or a ship) as some sort of forward early-warning station like say Turkey, Eastern Europe, South Korea etc. So if you like your nuclear deterrent why go DIY when you can get a perfectly good one already assembled from Walmart, with guarantee and repair service to boot. Delivered. Are we saying we don't trust the US or maybe its we don't like the thought we are lumped in with Turks, Eastern Europeans or South Koreans etc.

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