International Affairs (vol.82, no.4 July 2006) has published a collection of papers entitled “The future of United Kingdom nuclear weapons: shaping the debate”. Michael Quinlan’s paper in the collection surveys the arguments over replacement, concluding that there is no clear cut argument either way, and that the decision should turn on a detailed cost-benefit analysis – an analysis, however, which it is not currently possible to perform due to the dearth of information from the UK Government about what options are being considered.
Amongst other things, Quinlan discusses the claim that that the UK does not possess an independent nuclear deterrent because its weapons are essentially dependent on the US. He considers three ways in which this claim might be made out:
(1) it could be argued that the UK does not have an independent deterrent because the nuclear weapons are bought from, and serviced by, the US. The latter is true, but, he argues, it does not show that they are “dependent” in the relevant sense: if I buy a car from a Ford garage, and sign a service agreement with Ford, this does not make my use of the car dependent on Ford.
(2) it has been claimed that the UK’s weapons are operationally dependent on the US because they could not be launched without targetting information which can only be provided by the US. He says that the best available evidence is that this is not true (citing oral evidence given to the House of Commons Defence Committee, 28th March 2006, questions 152-160).
(3) it has been claimed that the UK’s weapons are politically dependent on the US since no UK government could act against the US’ wishes in using them. He rejects this, saying that there is no sanction that the US could employ to influence the UK’s decision on something as grave as the use of a nuclear weapon.
This third argument could be elaborated: if the claim is that the UK’s weapons are dependent on the US because the US might be able to stop the UK using a weapon when the UK wanted to, then this is not something that anti-Trident campaigners should be against! I would be quite happy if the US had this power over the UK! So the relevant claim must be that the US might be able to make the UK use a nuclear weapon against the wishes of the British government of the day. Quinlan can’t see any way in which this could happen.
Arguing against Trident on the basis that it is dependent on the US makes me uncomfortable. It reminds me of a mistake that some alterglobalisationists make when arguing against privatisation of public utilities: I’ve heard it implied that privatisation is bad solely because the company might fall into the ownership of a foreign national. This seems dangerously parochial; similarly, to object to Trident on the grounds that someone else apart from the UK might fire it seems to miss the point. We don’t want anyone to fire it!