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DEFENCE Secretary Ben Wallace issued a written statement late on Tuesday afternoon, asserting: “To ensure the government maintains an effective deterrent throughout the commission of the Dreadnought class ballistic missile submarine we are replacing our existing nuclear warhead to respond to future threats and the security environment.”
This followed an exclusive in Sunday’s Observer that broke probably the most important news story of the week, although for reasons hard to fathom, the editor placed it on page 20.
Broken by investigative reporter Jamie Doward — who has a track record of breaking nuclear stories governments don’t want the media to report — it concerned the long-expected development, now confirmed by the MoD, of Britain collaborating with the US to replace the ageing Trident nuclear warheads — jointly designed by Aldermaston and Los Alamos weapons labs scientists — in its stockpile.
Wallace added: “We will continue to work closely with the US to ensure our warhead remains compatible with the Trident Strategic Weapon System.
“Delivery of the replacement warhead will be subject to the government’s major programme approvals and oversight.”
Doward had revealed that “earlier this month, Pentagon officials confirmed that its proposed W93 sea-launched warhead, the nuclear tip of the next generation of submarine-launched ballistic missiles, would share technology with the UK’s next nuclear weapon, implying that a decision had been taken between the two countries to work on the programme.
The Observer explained that last week Admiral Charles Richard, commander of the US strategic command, told the Senate defence committee that there was a requirement for a new warhead, which would be called the W93 or Mk7.
Richard said: “This effort will also support a parallel replacement warhead programme in the United Kingdom, whose nuclear deterrent plays an absolutely vital role in Nato’s overall defence posture.”
Hans Kristensen, director of the nuclear information project at the Federation of American Scientists, said the development of the new warhead posed significant geopolitical problems.
“Britain and the US have come a long away from being leaders in reducing the role of nuclear weapons and contemplating the possible road toward potential disarmament to re-embracing nuclear weapons for the long haul.
“They are obviously not alone in this, with Russia, China and France doing their own work.
“So, overall, this is a serious challenge for the international non-proliferation regime,” he pointed out.
SNP defence spokesperson Stewart McDonald rightly raised the question about how the decision could affect Britain’s commitment to the 1968 nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), saying: “This is a quite astonishing story. The [NPT] makes it clear that nuclear armed states are required to ‘pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament.’
“This programme clearly rips up that commitment and that is of utmost concern.
David Cullen, director of technical research group the Nuclear Information Service, told the Observer: “The UK’s reliance on US knowledge and assistance for their nuclear weapons programme means they will find it almost impossible to diverge from any development path the US decides to take.
“We are legally bound to take steps towards disarmament under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, but this would take us in the opposite direction.”
The concern over nuclear warhead development for Britain’s nuclear WMD — including contemporaneously the rented rockets from the US Trident missile stocks at King’s Bay, in Georgia — has a long legacy.
This has been raised in Parliament over the past 60 or so years by a very small number of MPs who have scrutinised this least transparent of defence procurement exercises.
One such MP with a consistently strong record of serious scrutiny is outgoing Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn.
For example, he asked the MoD in June 1990 what information in support of British nuclear weapons and warhead design and development had been made available by the United States under the 1958-59 as amended mutual-defence agreement on atomic-energy matters.
Defence minister Alan Clark said helpfully in response: “It has been the policy of successive British governments not to disclose information exchanged under the terms of the 1958 United Kingdom/United States defence agreement.”
Corbyn also asked: What would be the financial savings made if the planned number of warheads for the Trident D5 programme were reduced by (i) 50 per cent and (ii) 75 per cent?
Clark added again, helpfully: “It has been the policy of successive governments not to reveal details of this nature, for security reasons.
A decade later, Corbyn brought up the issue on Trident nuclear warheads, this time with Labour defence secretary Geoff Hoon, whom he asked what information senior officers on Trident submarines were given on the specific yields and likely targets of the missiles they were responsible for.
Hoon replied: “The Trident missiles on which our nuclear deterrent is based have been detargeted since 1994. In the circumstances of our having to use our nuclear weapons, members of the patrolling submarine crew would be provided with the information they need to discharge their duties,” adding, ever helpfully: “I am withholding the details of this information under Exemption 1 of the Code of Practice on Access to Government Information relating to defence, security and international relations.”
Hoon also stressed: “The United Kingdom’s minimum nuclear deterrent is consistent with international law. It follows that UK military personnel engaged in the operation or support of Trident are acting legally under the Nuremberg principles.
“This has been made clear down the chain of command and members of the armed services who seek further guidance on these issues can in the first instance do so through their chain of command.
A further decade later, in late March 2009, and Corbyn was still probing the MoD on Trident warheads, asking the MoD what was its most recent estimate is of the cost of the replacement of the Trident nuclear warhead system.
Labour’s defence secretary John Hutton — then the MP for Barrow-in Furness, where Trident submarines are built — responded, stating: “We published our initial estimate of the costs for the possible refurbishment or replacement of the warhead for our future nuclear deterrent capability in the December 2006 nuclear white paper.
“This is in the range of £2 billion to £3 billion at 2006-07 prices. We have not yet made a decision to develop a new UK nuclear warhead. However, work is being undertaken to inform decisions, likely to be taken in the next parliament, on whether and how we might need to refurbish or replace our current warhead.”
Corbyn followed up with a perspicacious question — in the light of the Observer revelations that the WMD warhead replacement was being undertaken behind the back of parliamentary scrutiny – requesting the defence secretary to assure the House of Commons that there would be “no expenditure on developing a new warhead without the specific approval of the House of Commons,” and added the supplementary seeking assurance that the MoD was “satisfied that the development of a whole new warhead system is legal within the terms of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.”
Unsurprisingly, but disingenuously, Hutton retorted: “Yes, I believe that it certainly would be within the framework of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. The NPT did not require unilateral disarmament on the part of the United Kingdom, and we are able to maintain very properly within the terms of the NPT our minimum nuclear deterrent; and, yes, I believe that there should be a vote in this House before such a decision was taken.”
It may be noted that Corbyn asked nothing about unilateral nuclear disarmament, but this was gratuitously included in the answer.
Dr David Lowry is a senior international research fellow at the Institute for Resource and Security Studies, Cambridge, Massachusetts, US.
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