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

  1. Michael Turner

    Memo to Westminster: UK "independent nuclear deterrent" not actually independen: by @CNDuk's Kate Hudson

  2. CND

    RT @leftfootfwd: Memo to Westminster: UK "independent nuclear deterrent" not actually independent: by Kate Hudson

  3. Pam Field

    RT @leftfootfwd:Westminster: UK "independent nuclear deterrent" not actually independent @TheGreenBenches

  4. Ma

    RT @leftfootfwd: Memo to Westminster: UK "independent nuclear deterrent" not actually independent: by Kate Hudson

  5. Timothy Godfrey

    Memo to Westminster: UK "independent nuclear deterrent" not actually independen: by @CNDuk's Kate Hudson

  6. Calm Confusion

    RT @leftfootfwd: Memo to Westminster: UK independent nuclear deterrent not actually independen: by @CNDuk's Kate Hudson

  7. Tom Burke

    RT @leftfootfwd: Memo to Westminster: UK "independent nuclear deterrent" not actually independent

  8. Dave Citizen

    This stuff really is a historical throw-back. The idea of another country seriously contemplating the invasion of Britain unless we can threaten a nuclear attack is surely pure fantasy (presumiably we aren’t thinking we can nuke another country in circumstances other than attempted invasion!). If the world’s undisputed superpower struggles to pasify poverty stricken countries like Afghanistan and Iraq with populations of around 30 million who on earth is going to take on Britain?

    So what of deterring others from obtaining similar weapons? Well on the basis that people are essentially similar everywhere: how would we act if we were the one’s without nukes and living in a world where our influence was less than those with big weapons?!

    Finally there are the vested interests: who stands to gain from expenditure on and possession of more mega weapons. Seemingly not the average British resident who has a lower standard of living and far from rosey prosepcts compared to many non-nuclear counterparts like Germans, Swedes etc.

    Getting back to the article – instead of thinking about the extent to which our nukes are independent, perhaps we’d be better thinking about our own independence. If the global economy went belly up (as likely as being invaded), would we have to start a war with someone to ensure we could eat?

  9. chris steel

    RT @leftfootfwd: Memo to Westminster: UK "independent nuclear deterrent" not actually independent: by Kate Hudson

  10. optimismsaturation

    Nice to see an old Stalinist stirring up Enoch Powell-style anti-American British nationalism.

    Would you be happy with Britain having nukes if they were truly independent from the US? Presumably not. So please find a proper argument.

    How about criticisng the directionlessness and paranoia of our moribund ruling class, which sees risks and threats everywhere in what is really nowadays a shockingly safe world? As everyone asks: Who in the real world are we going to be firing these nukes at?

    PS. Loved you in Almost Famous.

  11. Mike Wiltshire

    Memo to Westminster: UK "independent nuclear deterrent" not actually independen: by @CNDuk's Kate Hudson

  12. 13eastie

    This is perhaps the most obtuse post I have seen on LFF.

    It is quite impossible to discern whatever point it is that you think you’re making, but the claims you make are nonsensical.

    “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”

    Really? You don’t know much about engineering or manufacturing, do you? Which do you think would be the most cost-effective solution?

    a) Specify, engineer and build an 8-tube boat on our own
    b) Pay for a 16-tube boat built to US spec
    c) Pay for a smaller, cheaper 12-tube boat built to joint US/UK spec

    (You do know that our Vanguard boats differ from the US’s Ohio-class subs in exactly this regard already?)

    We would actually get better value for money with a shared design, and it would give us a greater capability than we could afford on our own. The more similar the boats are, the more economies of scale there are likely to be operationally too, since it will increase the mutual compatibility of naval bases in the Clyde and on both US coasts.

    “…no single element of the system – neither submarine, nor missile, nor warhead…is independent”

    We have never really had an “independent” nuclear deterrent, ever since the Americans recruited our truly independent scientific progress to the Manhattan project. Hence, the Americans are also bereft of an “independent” deterrent.

    What is the problem?

    There is no-one outside the UK chain of command involved in the launch procedure. If sole ownership of intellectual property is your concern (I’ve no idea to whom the CND propose we might sell this, there being no other benefit from having it), then if this were a genuine issue, we might expect the Pentagon to be a little more worried about it than the CND. (They’ve had 53 years to get uptight about using the UK as a source of plutonium after all).

    What is your point?

  13. mr. Sensible

    Dave I think we only need look at the likes of Iran to see why we need a nuclear deterrent.

    I think the government have effectively ducked a decision on this for political purposes.

  14. Trevor A Smith

    If the missiles are leased from the US do we not have to ask the owner or permission to fire them?
    Do we have independent launch codes?

  15. Andy

    “It is true that it is frankly inconceivable we would use our nuclear deterrent(sic) alone, without the US…”

    “So, after some genuine consideration and reconsideration, I opted to renew it. But the contrary decision would not have been stupid”

    Tony Blair, “A Journey, p635/6.

  16. Charles

    @Trevor A Smith

    The public gets confused over this. We don’t need US authorization to launch them, but they have withheld “launch code”, meaning their targeting software. Sharing it is deemed too high a security risk, since it could be used to make their missiles inoperable, however we write our own.

  17. Dave Citizen

    Mr S – I disagree with you on Iran. I can honestly say that I do not fear an Iranian attack unless we or the Americans do something really stupid (possible?). I know they brutalise their own people and of course I’d rather they didn’t get their own weapons, but us getting new ones doesn’t sound like a clever way to get them to drop that plan. I’d say Isreal is more worrying in terms of kicking something stupid off.

  18. Richard

    “There is no-one outside the UK chain of command involved in the launch procedure.”

    That’s the biggest load of boollox 13eastie has come out with for a long time, and boy does he write some ignorant shit.

  19. Michael Short

    I agree with a deterrent because Mutually Assured Destruction works, that’s why the Cold War was stopped from becoming the Third World War, because both sides realised fighting against a nuclear capable opponent is unwinnable. Whenever victory looks assured you have a dangerous enemy in a corner with nothing to lose.

    Without any nuclear capabilities, this isn’t a obstacle for war. And it’s very easy to say you can’t see a scenario where someone would want to declare war on us but that’s just silly, it’s only with hindsight we can make judgements what should have been done, right now we have no idea what events could happen in the future.

    The intentions to disarm are noble but naive at best and horribly dangerous ignorance at worse, after the First World War we tried to disarm somewhat and all that happened was that we were woefully unprepared to face an urgent threat in Nazi Germany.

    Giving us the lesson, that just because we don’t want to fight doesn’t mean no one else does.

    And it’s better to have the deterrent than not if any threat comes down to it and hope that deterrent avoids the devastation of war.

  20. 13eastie


    The accusation of ignorance would carry more weight if, rather than littering the page with profanity, you were to venture into the bargain some evidence that you are possessed of greater knowledge than those whom you accuse!

  21. Sophie Robson

    RT @leftfootfwd: Memo to Westminster: UK "independent nuclear deterrent" not actually independent: by Kate Hudson

  22. Dave Citizen

    Micheal – do you think that British people are somehow fundamentally different to people living in other countries. You seem to be saying that a country that doesn’t have nuclear weapons is just silly and leaving themselves open to whatever might be around the corner. On that basis do you seriously think the world would be safer if every country had nukes? Or is it a case that we’re somehow special? Other countries should realise that the world is safer when we have nukes and more dangerous when they have them? Can’t see that one being the basis for world peace!

  23. bigboi

    multilateral disarmament would be lovely but will never happen. till then the uk should keep a nuclear stockpile to keep relevant on a world stage, otherwise, as nye bevan said, the foreign secretary would walk “naked into the conference chamber”

  24. Link Loving 01.06.11 « Casper ter Kuile

    […] Memo to Westminster: UK “independent nuclear deterrent” not actually independent. Kate Hudson. […]

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