US, Britain must rethink nuclear strategy
Some fear that the debate in Britain over whether to renew its nuclear submarine fleet could further strain the special US-UK relationship. Instead, it provides an opportunity for Americans and Britons to take a fresh, pragmatic look at nuclear strategy in the 21st century.
London and Washington
The recent British parliamentary decision against military action in Syria sparked a cascade of media headlines about the demise of the US-UK “special relationship.” Similar claims are likely to resurface as Britain considers how and if to replace its Trident nuclear submarines.Skip to next paragraph
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But both concerns are overblown.
As former ambassadors for our respective countries, we know that this partnership is based on a broad set of long-term common interests and will weather greater storms than these. In fact, this special strategic relationship could play a decisive role in Britain’s nuclear debate. Both sides would do well to avoid knee-jerk reactions and instead actively engage before the final UK Trident decision. Together, they must consider what would add the most value to our joint security over the coming decades.
The British government’s junior coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats, are in the throes of their party conference this week. They voted to reduce, but not eliminate entirely, the pool of Trident nuclear submarines operating with the United States on continuous patrol.
The government already issued a controversial Trident Alternatives Review in July, which outlined the official analysis of nuclear alternatives to complete renewal of the fleet. The review is the result of Britain having its first coalition government for generations. When the coalition formed, the Liberal Democrats won an agreement to make the case for cheaper, more flexible alternatives to Britain’s existing Trident nuclear program.
The issue is expected to feature prominently in the policy debate running up to the Scottish independence referendum in September 2014 and the British general election in May 2015. A new Parliament is then expected to have a final vote on the issue in 2016, before construction begins on the submarines.
This debate opens up the possibility that Britain could choose to further delay or reduce its order of Trident submarines or, theoretically, even abandon its nuclear weapons altogether. The reaction from Washington could be highly influential. Whatever the state of the relationship, the British will be keen to stay close.
In fact, it is sometimes said that there is no deeper expression of the extraordinary relationship between the US and Britain than our cooperation over our nuclear weapons systems. From the very beginnings of highly secret military nuclear research during World War II, our nuclear labs worked closely together. The bonds of professional friendship go deep, as they do between the armed services and intelligence agencies. The leadership in both countries, political and bureaucratic, know how central our close strategic nuclear relationship is to our cooperation.
But this debate over how – and if – to fortify the British nuclear deterrent is about more than just personal relationships. It is about strategic, forward-thinking engagement.