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 foreign state.


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?


Independence fraudulent

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 Trident missiles.


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 have happened.)


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 [1], 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.


We 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:


“Today’s 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 term.”


But, what if in 30 or 50 years time the US doesn’t 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:


“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.”


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 4-8):


“The US has never sought to exploit our procurement relationship in this area as a means to influence UK foreign policy ...”


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?


Ultimate 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:


“The primary 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 all possible.


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.


Consistent with NPT?

The White Paper (Paragraph 2-9) states unequivocally:


“The UK’s retention of a nuclear deterrent is fully consistent with our international legal obligations.”


These obligations are mostly contained in the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) [2].  Paragraph 2-9 continues:


“The NPT recognises the UK’s status (along with that of the US, France, Russia and China) as a nuclear weapon State.”


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:


“Article VI 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 capabilities.”


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 military sanctions.


Current system

The UK’s current nuclear weapons system consists of:


(1)  Nuclear warheads, which are manufactured and maintained by the Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) at Aldermaston.


(2)  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 kilometers.


(3)  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


“Each 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 [3] 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 force”.)


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 [4], 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.


New submarines

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 then”.


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 time. 


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 Paper says:


“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 skills.”


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” nuclear deterrent.


No 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 replacement cycle.


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 platforms


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.



Annex 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 [5] published in June 2006 (pages Ev 84-89).  Greenpeace writes:


“The high 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 submarines.”


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 target:


“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;


• the 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


• the 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.”



David Morrison

24 December 2006

Labour & Trade Union Review




[1]  See



[4]  See

[5]  See