Trident: The US connection
The UK government’s claim that its Trident nuclear weapon system is independent is false – it is both technically and politically dependent on the United States.
Both countries signed a bilateral treaty on nuclear weapon cooperation in 1958, the US-UK Mutual Defence Agreement. The treaty established an agreement between both countries to exchange classified information to develop their respective nuclear weapon systems and is reviewed and renewed every ten years, most recently in 2004.
At the time of the latest agreement, an Early Day Motion was laid down in the House of Commons stating that the extension of the treaty ‘undermines’ UK and US commitments to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, as its signatories are expected not to transfer any nuclear weapons or explosive devices. It is due next to be renewed in 2014.
The government recently confirmed UK and US officials routinely share information on their respective nuclear weapons systems as part of the treaty renewal process.
As a consequence of this treaty, the UK relies on the US for many aspects of Trident. The UK does not own the Trident II D5 missiles it uses; rather they are leased from the US.
The British submarines must regularly visit the US base in Kings Bay, Georgia, for the maintenance and replacement of these missiles.
The UK pays the US Department of Defense an annual contribution of £12 million towards the overall cost of this base.
The UK government has also recently paid the US £250 million to participate in a missile life extension programme. The missiles are now planned to be in service until the 2040s.
The UK warhead is a copy of the US one, with some components directly bought from the US. The UK works closely on the design and maintenance of its nuclear warheads with the three main US nuclear weapons laboratories, Lawrence Livermore in California and Los Alamos and Sandia in New Mexico.
Components for British nuclear weapons are transported by air and road between AWE Aldermaston and the US weapons laboratories for ongoing tests.
The UK participates in numerous exchange visits with staff from the US nuclear weapons laboratories. It also participates with the US in “sub-critical” nuclear tests (tests which fall just short of releasing a nuclear explosion).
While the Vanguard-class submarines are made in the UK, at the Barrow-in-Furness shipyard in Cumbria, the design is based on the United States Navy’s Ohio Class Trident submarines.
Trident is dependent on the larger US system for practical information such as weather and navigational data. The US has the ability to deny British submarines access to its GPS navigation system at any time, meaning the UK would not be able to target a nuclear weapon if this happened.
Additionally, Trident is not politically independent. It has been assigned to the US-dominated NATO since the 1960s, meaning Trident could be used against a country attacking another NATO member state. Since NATO has not adopted a no-first-use policy, it could also be used pre-emptively against another country that was perceived to be a threat. It is inconceivable that the UK would use Trident without prior discussion and approval by the US President.
By having such a direct involvement in Britain’s nuclear weapons system, the US exercises significant leverage over the UK’s foreign and defence policy. Trident therefore compromises, rather than asserts, British independence.