Westminster ‘lied’ on Trident independence 3

Westminster ‘lied’ on Trident independence

Successive Westminster governments have deceived the public by pretending that Trident is a British bomb when it’s actually American, according to a new expert report.

Trident missiles are rented and collected from the US navy, their targeting and communications systems depend on US software and satellites, and their arming and firing systems are made in the US, the report says.

The code words needed to detonate UK warheads are produced in the US, it claims. In extreme cases, it warns that the US could locate Trident submarines and shoot down their missiles in flight.

The lead author of the study is Dr Dan Plesch, the director of the Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy at the University of London. “The British public have been lied to for decades by an establishment that dare not tell them the truth,” he said.

“This report demonstrates that there is no British bomb, and that Trident is an American system that the Americans can prevent Britain from using independently. So the Parliament in London is discussing spending tens of billions of pounds on something that does not exist.”

Westminster is due to debate and decide upon the UK government’s £167 billion plan to renew Trident today. Renewal will be opposed by the Scottish National Party and some Labour MPs, but looks likely to be given the go-ahead.

But Plesch, who has researched nuclear weapons for decades, pointed out that the UK did not have national control over Trident. “Our report shows that fifty years ago the Conservatives handed strategic sovereignty in defence to Washington in a far more concrete way than it ever was to Brussels,” he said.

His report, ‘Trident: Strategic Dependence & Sovereignty’, has been published by the University of London. It examines the history of the nuclear weapons relationship between the UK and the US to reveal a pattern of dependence on the US.

The report says: “The US can interfere with British communications with Royal Navy submarines, with the satellites and computer software upon which they rely, use its formidable anti-submarine warfare capability and knowledge of British operations to hunt for the British submarines and use its dozens of anti-ballistic missile systems on its Navy’s vessels to shoot down British Trident missiles.”

It points out that submarines have to collect Trident missiles from a US naval port in Georgia on the Atlantic coast under a “lease-purchase” arrangement. “The UK makes use of US satellites to target Trident and US communications facilities to contact the submarines,” it says.

“Former UK Trident launch control officers have said that it would be very difficult to fire the missiles without the use of the satellites.”

The strategic weapon targeting system contains “vital components” of US origin, and there is a “formal interface” with the US targeting system,” the report says. “The arming, fuzing and firing system in the UK Trident warhead is manufactured in the US.”

The latest firing system requires a unique authorisation code, known as “intent word”, before the warhead can detonate, the report says. “The hardware and software for the UK intent word system is produced in the US.”

The report concludes: “The UK has not for decades been an independent nuclear weapons power and that in extremis the US has every ability to prevent the UK from using Trident even to the level of sinking submarines or shooting down missiles.

“There may be other reasons for investing in Trident, but preserving an independent nuclear weapons capability to meet unforeseen worst case threats is not one of them. Such threats by definition would involve a neutral or hostile US which has the clear ability to prevent their use in the immediate, short and long term.”

John Ainslie, coordinator of the Scottish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and a co-author of the report, argued that the US knew all the secrets of the UK’s Trident system. “If political pressure failed, the Pentagon would launch a cyber attack,” he said.

“If this was unsuccessful, they would find and sink the submarine. It is naive to assume that Britain can really start World War III without Washington’s approval.”

The report was, however, dismissed as “wrong” by the Ministry of Defence. “Our continuous at sea deterrent is completely operationally independent,” said a ministry spokeswoman.

“The deterrent remains secure, capable and credible, and only the Prime Minister can authorise the firing of these weapons.”

According to the MoD the command and control system was “fully independent” and decision-making and the use of the system were “entirely sovereign to the UK”. No nation had the ability to interfere with the UK nuclear deterrent, it insisted.

The MoD audits the integrity of Trident communications and control systems regularly. But it maintained it would not be “appropriate to go into specific detail” on steps taken to mitigate against threats.

The MoD was backed up by John Gower, its former assistant staff chief responsible for nuclear weapons. He accused Plesch and Ainslie of “supposition and guesswork fuelled from their clear prejudiced position on this issue.”

“The UK nuclear deterrent is operationally independent,” he said. “While the UK may routinely use US space assets to communicate, it does not have to and has robust national systems which are used in parallel.”

Gower insisted that the US could not interfere with UK political control of Trident. “It cannot prevent a launch, it cannot prevent any target within range from being selected and it cannot interdict the missile once launched,” he said.

It was “simply preposterous” to suggest that a Trident missile could be shot down after it was launched, he said. “I do not lie about such serious issues of the security of the UK, or her Allies.”

The report in full

Photo thanks to Ministry of Defence.

A version of this story was published in the Sunday Herald on 17 July 2016.

  1. Notable that Gower’s plausible deniability style defence omits saying UK can detonate Trident, even if what he did say was true and I don’t believe it is.

  2. The UK could if it wanted independently decide to nuke someone without the consent of the United States, the problem is what theoretically comes afterwards… Anyone can see the afterwards is not much of a concern as the UK is unlikely to either unilaterally make that decision or exist given that the decision would only be made after the UK essentially has ceased to exist.

    The current problem is that the United States could unilaterally decide to ‘disarm’ the United Kingdom.

  3. I think it remains an open question whether the UK has the technical ability to launch a Trident missile without US approval but at the very least we know the accuracy would be significantly degraded. GPS data is used to find an accurate firing point. Gravitational and high-altitude weather data is supplied by the US. If this were withheld, I’m not even sure if Trident could reliably hit cities. Certainly the threat to hardened targets would be greatly reduced and this would significantly degrade Trident’s deterrent capability.

    Quite apart from anything else, Trident missiles have to be returned regularly to the US for maintenance. If the UK entered into some kind of conflict without their approval and the US decided to take its toys back, there would only be a relatively brief window of opportunity – perhaps only months? – in which the UK would be in possession of an operational weapons system.

    Our “independent deterrent” ironically ties the UK in to broad support for US foreign policy — if the US ever decides we are unreliable ally they would take their nuclear weapons system back in a heartbeat. That is the true nature of the special relationship. US support allows us to pretend we are still a major force in the world. None of our potential enemies will be fooled though. In the end, Trident is simply a massive con on the British public.

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