During the recent UK election campaign Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg made his opposition to like-for-like Trident replacement plans clear, mainly on the basis of the high costs and record breaking budget deficit. Forming a key element of the newly elected Coalition Government with Conservative David Cameron, Clegg is now in an excellent position to highlight other problems associated with Trident modernization plans before they are irreversibly acted on.
One problem not highlighted in the leadership campaign is the ‘dependence’ of the Trident system on the support of the US. Indeed, having presented Trident modernization in the 2006 White Paper as meeting the requirement of a ‘UK nuclear force [that] remains fully operationally independent’, suggestions that it is anything short of this call into question the very rationale for renewing it on this basis.
The UK remains the only country in the world to procure its entire nuclear delivery system (Trident D5 missile) and a large proportion of its nuclear infrastructure from another country, the USA. This cooperation remains unique and originates from collaborative Anglo-American nuclear weapon design, development and operational planning that continues to this day. This shared approach is best highlighted by the 1958 US-UK Mutual Defence Agreement (MDA) and its subsequent renewals (most recently in 2004), that allow for the exchange of information on nuclear weapon designs and technologies if they assist the common security.
In the 2006 White Paper the Government suggested that the Trident missile would not last much beyond 2020 and that under the 1958 MDA, it received assurances from the US that it can participate in the US life extension programme that will extend the D5’s service life until the 2040s
In the same way that the future replacement of the D5 missiles relies on steady relations with the US, the current stock of missiles, build of the submarine and several component lines associated with the warhead design are also highly dependent on US assistance. Rather than owning the current stock of missiles employed on the Vanguard submarines, the UK instead leases missiles from a US based common pool, which also serves as a refurbishing and maintenance base for UK stocks. Amongst other items, the neutron generator, warhead design, re-entry body shell and missile guidance systems are all designed and manufactured in the USA. In the unlikely event that relations deteriorate, the servicing of these components could over time become problematic – impacting on the UK’s capacity to launch its missiles independently, if at all.
In terms of being able to launch a missile reliably, the exact position of the submarine (essential for targeting) can only be determined using two US systems, GPS & ESGN, of which the former the US can deny access to at any point. In addition to this is the fact that the Royal navy is a recipient of ‘US gravitational information and forecasts of weather over targets, both of which are vital to high missile accuracy’.
From these points alone it is clear that the UK nuclear deterrent has and will continue be thoroughly dependent on US technical assistance. So although some like Commodore Hare might state that the US has no ‘technical golden key’ to prevent the UK from using the system, it seems that at the very least, Washington could, using technical means, make a launch substantially less straightforward or reliable for a British Prime Minister. Dan Plesch makes a strong case in arguing that US sourced nuclear capabilities fails the ‘1940 requirement’ – when ‘the US [was] either actively neutral [to the UK] as in 1940 or actively opposed, as in 1956 at Suez, let alone where the US [could be] an adversary’
Although situations where the US would actively withdraw support for the UK’s deterrent are difficult to imagine, the fact that this could happen highlights some the problems associated with employing a US sourced system. It is thus likely that if the UK were to at some time go ahead and launch a Trident missile against US wishes, Washington could ‘see such an act as cutting across its self declared prerogative as the world’s policeman…’ and would certainly make the UK pay a high price, likely through withdrawal of political and technical support for Trident.
Failing this test of independence, Clegg should therefore highlight the problem to his peers and push for a prompt and thorough review on the future of the UK’s nuclear deterrent takes place. Given the especially high costs of investing in an indigenously produced, truly independent alternative, and the huge British budget deficit at the moment, one would hope that the Coalition government would see sense, lead by example and eliminate its nuclear weapons