Britains’s nukes – Independence of operation, not of acquisition.

Once more the public are assaulted with ignorant disinformation courtesy of a careless media, this time with George Monboit arguing the following:

Let’s begin with the sovereignty issue.

As Dan Plesch shows in his report on British weapons systems, we have no independent deterrent. Since 1943, when the UK joined the Manhattan Project, our nuclear weapons programme has relied on crumbs from the US table. The US has granted us a franchise on parts of its programme, which it has graciously allowed us to rebrand with the Union flag.

Now for the reality – Independance of operation:

2. Does the government of the United States of America have any involvement in the use of nuclear weapons by the British government?

No. But in the event of the contemplated use of UK nuclear weapons for NATO purposes,
procedures exist to allow all NATO Allies, including the US, to express views on what was
being proposed. The final decision on whether or not to use nuclear weapons in such
circumstances, and if so how, would, however, be made by the nuclear power concerned.

3. Can the government of the USA prevent, veto or forbid the UK to use its own nuclear weapons?


4. Does the British government have to tell the US government if it intends to use nuclear weapons?

No. But the US would be involved in any consultation process at NATO as described in the answer to your second question.

Now for the reality – Not of acquisition:

80. It is important to distinguish between two different types of independence: independence of acquisition and independence of operation. We heard that independence of acquisition is what the French have opted for at a significantly higher cost to the defence budget. Independence of operation is an alternative concept of independence and it is this which the UK has opted for at a lower price.

81. Sir Michael Quinlan told us that the UK’s decision to choose independence of operation meant that “in the last resort, when the chips are down and we are scared, worried to the extreme, we can press the button and launch the missiles whether the Americans say so or not”.[67] He argued that the decision to fire is an independent, sovereign decision. The United States “can neither dictate that the [UK’s] force be used if HMG does not so wish, nor [can it] apply any veto-legal or physical-if HMG were to decide upon [its] use”.[68]

82. Commodore Hare told us that “operationally the system is completely independent of the United States. Any decision to launch missiles is a sovereign decision taken by the UK and does not involve anybody else”. He told us that the United States does not have a “technical golden key” which can prevent the UK from using the system.[69]

83. The potential disadvantage of the UK decision to forego independence of acquisition is that “if, over a very long period, we became deeply estranged from the Americans and they decide to rat on their agreements, we would be in… great difficulty”.[70] Commodore Hare told us that such a risk was, in reality, “very low” and that, ultimately, “one must balance that risk against the enormous cost benefits that we have in procuring an American system to house in our submarines. That should not be underestimated”.[71]

To summarise;  Britain can unleash buckets of sunshine whenever it chooses. If we did so ‘inappropriately’ then the US would refuse to service our leased missiles which would render them inoperative within a year or two. If the US  knew beforehand then they could switch of the GPS forcing the missiles to rely on inertial navigation which would reduce accuracy from less than 30 feet to around 100 feet. None of which prevents the UK’s strategic nuclear deterrent from fulfilling its purpose.

There is a useful debate to be had about the cost-benefit of a strategic nuclear deterrent, but in a democracy this also involves the electorate, so what good is achieved when you start out from such a misleading position?

Update – 28/03/2010

Just in case anyone thought that situation might have changed during the intermission, we have this parliamentary report today:

137. In its written submission the FCO reasserted the Government’s position that the UK nuclear deterrent was fully operationally independent and that the decision making, use and command and control of the system remained entirely sovereign to the UK. It explained that only the Prime Minister could authorise use of the system and that the UK’s nuclear warheads were designed and manufactured in the UK. Other elements of the system, such as the D5 Trident missile bodies, were procured from the US under the terms of the 1963 Polaris Sales Agreement, which was amended to cover Trident in 1982. The FCO claimed that this “procurement relationship does not undermine the independence of the deterrent, nor has the US ever sought to exploit it as a means to influence UK foreign policy”.[225]

2 responses to “Britains’s nukes – Independence of operation, not of acquisition.

  1. “It explained that only the Prime Minister could authorise use of the system”

    Sort of True
    In the UK, there is no presidential launch code, the captain of whatever boat is out at the moment could nuke London if he felt like it.
    Legaly speaking, the PM has “the say” and he writes a letter held on board on the event of the UK being destroyed

    • “the captain of whatever boat is out at the moment could nuke London if he felt like it.”
      Also sort of true,
      The system requires two people to authorise the system at every stage, and on board the sub three. So whilst in theory the captain could nuke London, he would first have to persuade two other officers to do it! Not likely I would imagine.

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