Former US National Security Advisor, John Bolton, has claimed that President Trump did not know that Britain was a nuclear power. Trump is alleged to have made these comments during a meeting with former British Prime Minister, Theresa May, where he asked her, ‘Oh, are you a nuclear power?’ a comment which, according to John Bolton, was not intended as a joke.
Unfortunately, at CND we are all too aware of Britain’s nuclear status and of the US’s completely dominant role within that, so we were particularly shocked to hear of these alleged comments by the US President.
During the early 1950s, Britain had begun to test and develop its own nuclear bomb in response to the US’s refusal to share nuclear intelligence with its ally. But subsequently, the history of Britain’s nuclear weapons has been intimately tied to its so-called ‘Special Relationship’ with the US.
Since 1958, the US and the UK have been party to the Mutual Defence Agreement (MDA) ensuring nuclear weapons co-operation – indeed it’s the most extensive nuclear sharing agreement in the world. This allows the two countries to exchange nuclear materials, technology, and information. This agreement was a cornerstone of NATO’s cold war defence and was so highly valued when signed that, then UK Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan called it ‘the great prize’.
This enabled Britain to purchase the submarine-based Polaris missile system, with the US supplying the missiles, launch tubes, and the fire control system. This has since been replaced by Trident. These missiles are leased from the US, and the submarines have to return regularly to the US base, for the maintenance and replacement of the missiles. The UK pays an annual contribution towards the cost of this base. The site at which the UK’s nuclear warheads are made, the Atomic Weapons Establishment at Aldermaston, is part-managed by Lockheed Martin, a US corporation.
As well as being technically dependent on the US, Trident is also far from being politically independent. As a member of US-dominated NATO, Trident could be used against a country that has attacked another NATO state. Worse still, since NATO has not adopted a no-first-use policy, it could also be used pre-emptively against another country that was perceived to be a threat. Moreover, earlier this year it was announced by Pentagon officials that a deal had been struck to replace the UK’s nuclear warheads with new US-made technology. This decision was revealed by Pentagon officials before any announcement from the UK government, further demonstrating that Trident compromises, rather than asserts, British independence.
The MDA between the US and UK is renewed by Parliament once a decade – a process that is pretty much a rubber stamp. But when it next comes up for renewal in 2024 we need to ensure that government and parliament actually rethink this relationship. If our nuclear weapons are of so little interest to the president of the country on which they are totally dependent, then our government would do well to move on from the MDA and consign it – and our nuclear weapons – to the dustbin of history.