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. 

Russell Cheyne/Reuters
Nick Clegg, Britain's deputy prime minister and Liberal Democrats leader, speaks at the party's conference in Glasgow, Scotland, Sept. 16, where it voted to reduce Britain's pool of nuclear submarines. Op-ed contributors Sir Jeremy Greenstock and Amb. Thomas R. Pickering write: 'The US has as gain from increased British investment in conventional military capacity' than from nuclear submarines.

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.

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.

The fact is, the US has as much, if not more, to gain from increased British investment in conventional military capacity than from continued investment in the Trident nuclear submarine program in its current form. The strategic environment has changed, and it makes sense for the two countries to examine the relevance of nuclear weapons as part of their continued cooperation across the defense and security spectrum.

Contrary to what critics may say, if Britain were to drop its policy of continuous at-sea nuclear deterrence, but instead continue to dedicate highly capable nuclear submarines to NATO’s nuclear mission, it is unlikely to shake Washington’s faith in its partner. Whatever Britain’s decision, NATO will retain a more than capable continuous at-sea nuclear deterrent.

Indeed, it was reported in The New York Times in April that Obama administration officials have suggested US security interests could be served by greater specialization among allies, with Britain investing its limited resources in capabilities (such as special forces) that are of greater utility. Both countries must maintain relevant capabilities and clear policies in light of a clear sense of overall strategic needs.

This forthcoming debate provides an opportunity for Americans and Britons together to take a pragmatic, fresh look at nuclear strategy in ways that bring it into the 21st century and rise above conventional mantra. Unnecessary nuclear capabilities come at a high cost, both financially and strategically, and knee-jerk reactions based upon past strategic environments, unsubstantiated threats, and bluster are only likely to backfire.

Both sides have much to gain by adjusting their security strategies to the diminished role of nuclear weapons in the post-cold war world, recognizing that the value of the US-UK relationship is far greater than the sum of our nuclear forces.

Sir Jeremy Greenstock served as political director for the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office, UK ambassador to the United Nations, and UK special envoy for Iraq. He is a member of the UK BASIC Trident Commission.

Ambassador Thomas R. Pickering served as US under secretary of State for political affairs and US ambassador to the United Nations, Russia, Israel, India, Nigeria, El Salvador, and Jordan. Both he and Amb. Greenstock are advisers to the British American Security Information Council (BASIC).

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