Americans celebrate their Independence Day on Wednesday. It has been 236 years since they broke away from Great Britain, but the pair remain two of the closest allies in the world. But just how special is the so-called ‘special relationship’, and how much does this depend upon the cooperation between their nuclear weapons communities?
The 1958 Mutual Defense Agreement regulates the unique sharing of technology associated with nuclear weapons between the United States and the United Kingdom, and limits the scope of cooperation allowed between the UK and other countries. The UK Atomic Weapons Establishment has used elements of US design information in all British nuclear weapons since 1958; the current UK warhead is thought to be similar to the U.S. W76. Anglo-American nuclear cooperation is reviewed every 18 months, and there are ongoing Joint Working Groups between British and American nuclear weapons scientists.
The UK also benefits from a generous arrangement that involves leasing its US Trident II D5 missiles from a common pool, benefitting from US design, testing and maintenance (the US has performed about 140 tests since 1989). Both countries are currently working on the design of a common missile compartment for their next generation submarines. They are both also now reviewing their SSBN requirements as their current submarines age, and the timeline for this process within both countries is strikingly similar. The US government’s official review of the requirements for their SSBN-X is due very soon and the UK government, though a couple of years further ahead, is also currently undertaking an options study for its next nuclear weapons platform due to be completed at the end of the year.
But how much is the UK truly independent when it comes to the most symbolic of its national power symbols, its nuclear deterrent? The special nuclear relationship locks both sides into maintaining or replacing similar systems for political and technical reasons, limiting choices. If the UK were to develop their new system alone, or buy it from somewhere else, it would have to endure fallout of the special relationship, and the Americans would have less influence over British foreign policy.
A decision on the extension of the MDA will need to be taken in 2014. This will frame the options that Britain will have in 2016 when it makes a final decision on the follow-on system. With or without an explicit follow-on, as a NATO ally the UK will remain under the US ‘nuclear umbrella’ (though fears have on occasion been expressed about its long-term commitment). In public, the debate in the UK usually focuses upon issues of long term security, but underneath, is it at least as much about Britain’s buying into a uniquely deep relationship with the world’s most powerful super-power? Does the UK need to retain nuclear weapons, and indeed buy American, in order to ensure that the relationship flourishes and they retain the respect of the Americans? Or are there alternatives in which the two countries work together to bolster multilateral progress toward non-proliferation and disarmament amongst the P5, in areas such as transparency and verification?
These are the views of the author.