Neither British nor Independent, and No Deterrent
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.