On 20th June 2016 the British submarine, HMS Vengeance launched a nuclear missile off the coast of Florida.It was aimed at Ascension Island in the southern Atlantic, but instead veered in the opposite direction toward the US. It was a test; it failed.
The Tories now face criticism from Labour as well as from the SNP and senior members of their own party for not making details of the test malfunction public before a vote on Trident’s renewal last year. Indeed, it took the Sunday Times to bring the incident to light just two weeks ago.
But there is a wider—more important but less remarked upon—issue at stake here. The UK leases all 65 Trident II D-5 missiles from the US, which is responsible for building and maintaining them.
A question naturally arises: how independent is the UK’s nuclear deterrent? It is a pressing one. The turn of the century has seen an increasing return to power politics. Dialogue is out; nationalism and “Might is Right” are in. Donald Trump has described NATO as “obsolete.” Vladimir Putin is turning his gaze west, making belligerent noises toward the Baltic States. Europe is entering a period of great instability.
Which makes the issue of Britain’s nuclear deterrent more relevant than ever. Trump has expressed repeated admiration for Putin, along with the hope that he can do what he claims to do best—make a deal with him. But any deal acceptable to Putin will almost certainly involve leaving him to act as he pleases within Russia’s “sphere of influence.” And any move against the NATO-member Baltic States would almost certainly lead to an invocation of the treaty’s Article 5: “Collective Defense,” which holds that “an attack against one Ally is considered as an attack against all Allies.”
With an isolationist President uninterested in European affairs, who, moreover, seems eager to placate Russia, the burden of defending Europe is likely to fall on its two most military capable powers: France and the UK. And for this a truly independent deterrent is critical.
The problem is: we don’t really have one. The UK builds the Vanguard submarines that carry Trident and its own nuclear warheads, but it uses American Submarine Launched Ballistic Missiles (SLBMs), which are built and sent from the US. According to Simon Schofield, Acting Director of Human Security Centre, a think tank based in London “They are the most accurate and reliable of their kind, but they do leave us reliant on American support for them. We don’t exactly have the capacity to design, build and test a similar SLBM in a short timescale.”
He continues: “Having said that, we don’t use Permissive Action Links (PALs) as the Americans do for their nuclear weapons. PALs require an algorithm to send launch codes to the nukes for them to fire, which is why the president requires the nuclear football to initiate a launch.”
Instead, the UK relies on military discipline rather than launch codes. Technologically speaking, Theresa May could have Trident in the air in minutes with a word. Britain has the capacity to launch a nuclear strike against any country without fear of veto from Washington. In the short term this may suffice. But given the chaos that has erupted after just two weeks of Trump’s presidency it is hard to predict what will follow. Decades of US National Security doctrine could be torn up overnight; American support may not be so forthcoming in future.
As Schofield concludes: “Are we likely able to maintain a reliable nuclear deterrent with a global reach in the very long term without extensive cooperation with the US? Not without developing our own Submarine Launched Ballistic Missiles.”
And therein lies the problem. In an increasingly unstable world the UK must now look to an increasingly unstable US administration to guarantee the most formidable weapons it has—at a time when stability is what Britain needs above all else.