Trident: we've been conned again

The government says we need to update our "independent deterrent". Fresh evidence shows, however, th

The independent British nuclear deterrent is a myth - whatever else it may be, it is not independent. That reality, laid bare as never before in US presidential directives published on our website, renders meaningless the government's suggestion that it is time to renew "our" nuclear arsenal.

For decades, American presidents have been authorising US weapons-makers to ship vital bomb components to Britain. George Bush Sr was one of them: in July 1991, for example, he signed a five-year directive ordering the United States department of energy to "produce additional nuclear weapons parts as necessary for transfer to the United Kingdom".

These are the final pieces in a jigsaw which exposes simple facts that British leaders have long known but a generation of Thatcherite consensus has obscured: we cannot and do not make our own nuclear weapons; we are not a true nuclear power; we are mere clients of the US.

Our present Trident submarine-launched nuclear missile system reaches the end of its shelf-life in the 2020s and we are told that, if it is to be replaced, work has to start soon. As the debate begins, supporters of a new generation of British weapons of mass destruction say we must have a bomb of our own so that we will always be equipped to face a crisis such as that of 1940. "Something nasty may turn up," is their bottom line.

We now know, however, that British weapons are so dependent on the US that this 1940 argument is a nonsense. In that year, we stood alone and the United States remained neutral. We would not have had a bomb in our arsenal because the Americans would have refused to help us make it, and would certainly not have given us one there and then. The truth behind the pro-renewal argument is that our defence in any future 1940 scenario depends not on us having a nuclear deterrent with a Union Jack on it, but on us having the US on our side.

The declassified National Security directives uncovered in the archives of Presidents Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and George Bush Sr leave no doubt about this dependency. The most recent available instruction is Bush's, quoted above, but the names of Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski appear on earlier versions of this annual update to the US nuclear stockpile plan.

Governments here, however, have always stressed that the bombs on top of the Trident missiles were truly British - their answer to the criticism that Trident, as Denis Healey once put it, was a "rent-a-rocket, Moss Bros missile". Yet even when Healey spoke, more than 20 years ago, there was no shortage of evidence to contradict the official line. The Conservative government itself had to admit that there were never any "identifiably British" Trident missiles in the US navy store where British submarines loaded up. The words "Royal Navy" were only painted on the missiles for test-firing, to make good publicity pictures.

Documents obtained by the Natural Resources Defence Council, a non-governmental organisation in the US, show that for 45 years the UK has been given blueprints of many US weapons to help build bombs for Royal Navy missile submarines and RAF bombers. For decades, too, all Brit-ish nuclear testing was done in the US, and access to the Nevada test site is still essential to the UK programme.

Today the factory at Aldermaston in Berkshire that makes the bombs - and uses US equipment to do so - is actually co-managed by the Lockheed Martin Corporation of Bethesda, Maryland, while the submarine maintenance base in Plymouth is largely the property of Dick Cheney's old firm, Halliburton.

The transatlantic links date back at least to 1958, when a "mutual defence agreement" between Dwight Eisenhower and Harold Macmillan allowed the US to send Britain everything except complete nuclear weapons. Even in the years 1946 to 1958, when US nuclear support for Britain was supposedly cut off by Congress, the British were trading uranium ore for details of how to build factories to make nuclear weapons.

In 1962, as Macmillan set off to accept John F Kennedy's offer of Polaris missiles, the chief of Britain's nuclear bomber force wrote that the prime minister was travelling to "defend a myth". Macmillan's Sir Humphrey, Robert Scott, wrote that the deal would put Britain in America's pocket for a decade. His words were echoed four decades later when Admiral Raymond Lygo, the former head of nuclear programmes for the Royal Navy and chairman of British Aerospace, explained last year that any successor to Trident would "continue to tie the UK to US policy".

This past week, along with other experts, I gave evidence to the Commons defence committee on the issue of replacing Trident. I heard Sir Michael Quinlan, now retired from the civil service but widely regarded as the doyen of British nuclear strategists, say there were two issues at stake: independence of procurement and independence of operation. He argued that, although we had no independence of procurement, we could use the weapons independently.

This is moving the goalposts. For generations governments have tried to prevent the public knowing how much nuclear weapons kit the UK gets from the US, so that they could sustain the myth that our deterrent was home-made. Now, suddenly, it doesn't matter if the missiles aren't British. Take a step back. Imagine for a moment that France imported its nuclear missiles from China. Who would then believe in French independence?

So, what about independence of operation? Could Britain fire Trident if the US objected? In 1962 the then US defence secretary, Robert McNamara, said that the British nuclear bomber force did not operate independently. Writing in 1980, Air Vice-Marshal Stewart Menaul said it definitely could not be used without US authorisation. Today former naval officers say it would be extremely difficult. The many computer software programs, the fuse, the trigger, the guidance system as well as the missiles are all made in America.

Let us say that Britain wanted to fire Trident and the United States opposed this. What would happen? For one, the entire US navy would be deployed to hunt down Red-White-and-Blue October; it would know roughly where to look, starting from the last position notified to the US and Nato while on normal patrol. Meanwhile, the prime minister would be trying to find a radio that was not jammed, hoping that none of the software had a worm and that the US navy wouldn't shoot the missiles down with either its Aegis anti-missile system or the self-destruct radio signal that is used when missiles are test-fired.

From the moment of a breach with Washington, moreover, every Trident submarine sailing down the Clyde would find a waiting US escort. In months the software would be out of date, Lockheed Martin and Halliburton would fly home, taking much equipment with them, and no spare parts would be available. As Quinlan put it: "We would be in shtook."

The British people believe that an independent bomb exists. They don't know that this insurance policy is valid only when Washington feels like it. And the premiums are high: in return for this dodgy insurance, Britain must follow the US line.

Did Britain have to invade Iraq? No, but if we had not, when the Mutual Defence Agreement came up for renewal in 2004 would John Bolton have recommended to his president that Britain was worthy of another ten years of nuclear supplies "in light of our previous close co-operation"?

Forty years ago Peter Cook lampooned Macmillan's pretence at an independent bomb. Harold Wilson argued before, during and after he left office that Britain's nuclear weapons were not independent. Recently Robin Cook, previewing my own work in what was his last article, affirmed that all aspects of Trident are dependent upon the US. Yet academics, journalists and politicians still use the words "independent nuclear deterrent" with gravitas rather than derision.

Confidence tricks work best on people who want to believe in them, and the British elite and much of the public are desperate to believe that Britain's bomb gives them great-power status. Instead Britain gets the worst of all worlds: weapons that can't be used when the chips are down and a US-led policy that rejects disarmament in favour of pre-emptive war. And now, with Trident becoming obsolete, the government wants to renew the deal - behind the old, dishonest mask of independent deterrence.

At the Commons defence hearing, MPs voiced the opinion that voters wanted a British bomb for the simple reason that the French had one. Informed that ever since Charles de Gaulle the French have regarded Britain as a US vassal because of our nuclear dependence, they were unmoved. The voters would not see it that way, protested one MP. Well, perhaps it is time the voters were told the truth.

Dan Plesch is a research associate at the Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy of the School of Oriental and African Studies. You can read his report The Future of Britain's WMD at www.danplesch.net

For a set of the original documents go to www.newstatesman.com/trident

Our outsourced arsenal

Labour's 2005 election manifesto stated: "We are also committed to retaining the independent nuclear deterrent." But can this system be called independent when so much of it is, as modern business-speak would have it, sourced in America? The deterrent is carried in four Vanguard-class submarines that were designed and built in Britain, incorporating US components and reactor technology. The delivery system is the Trident D-5 missile, which is designed, made and stored in the United States. The firing system is also designed and made in the US. So is the guidance system. The computer software is American. The warhead design is based on the US W-76 bomb. The warheads are produced by Aldermaston, which is co-managed by the US firm Lockheed Martin and uses a great deal of US technology. Some vital nuclear explosive parts are imported, we now know, from the US, as are some non-nuclear parts. The warhead factory is a copy of a facility at Los Alamos, New Mexico. The submarine maintenance base is also 51 per cent owned by Halliburton of the US.