Memo to Westminster: UK “independent nuclear deterrent” not actually independent

No single element of the nuclear deterrent - neither submarine, nor missile, nor warhead - is independent despite politicians saying that is what we must have.

Kate Hudson is the general secretary of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND)

‘How many missile tubes does it take to arm a submarine?’ sounds a bit like a bad joke on a Christmas cracker. Nevertheless it has become a matter of at least modest interest over the past few days. As government plans for detailed design work on a new generation of nuclear weapons submarines were announced in the Commons last week, such esoteric questions momentarily achieved national exposure.

In fact, we should all be interested in the numbers of missile tubes planned for new nuclear subs. Obviously because of the costs involved, but also because it isn’t just a technical question about military kit – it is a political question which will have a political impact.

When the Strategic Defence and Security Review was launched last October, a number of reductions were announced to Britain’s nuclear weapons system. Most significantly, the stockpile of warheads was to be reduced, but David Cameron also announced that the number of warheads actually on the subs was to be reduced too.

This then means, of course, that you need fewer missiles to launch them with, and fewer tubes to house the missiles. So far so good. But what happens when – supposedly in a bid to save money – you are working on a common missile compartment with another user, in this case the United States, whose requirements turn out to be rather different? This seems to be what has happened with the missile tubes question.

Basically, it seems the Brits want eight and the US prefer 16, so they are compromising on 12. As other commentators have pointed out, presumably that means we are paying more for something that is larger than we need. But it also raises another question about our special nuclear relationship with the US and our so-called ‘independent’ nuclear weapons system.

We already lease the missiles from the US – now the tubes will be a co-production; we use US technology for many aspects of the design, production and targeting of the weapons – including spending money in the US on reactor design (nuclear reactors propel the subs) in recent months. Indeed we are also working with the French now on aspects of warhead production.

So the result of all this is that no single element of the system – neither submarine, nor missile, nor warhead – is independent despite politicians repeated proclaiming the need for an “independent nuclear deterrent”.

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