George Osborne has announced a significant expenditure for the upgrade of the Royal Navy submarine base at Faslane. The SNP who oppose the Trident replacement programme have responded with outrage, but their opposition is as usual not clearly defined and is perceived as anti-English in sentiment. There are many good and practical reasons for opposing the Trident programme and the SNP will have the opportunity to make their case in the House of Commons, but they cannot demand a national veto just because the submarines are based on the Clyde in Scotland. The base may be close to heavily populated Glasgow and the potential target for a nuclear intercontinental ballistic missile but moving the base, to say Barrow-in-Furness in Cumbria, would not make them any more safer. Defence is not a devolved issue, it affects everyone in the UK. Even if Scotland did become independent, and based on the Irish example, it is more than likely that Faslane would become a treaty-port. If the SNP wants to gain any traction on this issue they need to be pragmatic and make the argument from an UK perspective.
The main reason why the UK should have the nuclear deterrent is because France has its own independent nuclear deterrent. It is not that France is a threat to the UK, even though the Entente Cordiale does get strained at times, it is about the historical rivalry between the two nations and national pride. The maritime rivalry goes back for hundreds of years and even existed during the Crimean War when the two nations were allies against Russia. Each country still perceived the other as a potential enemy and tried to outdo the other with advances in ship design as they leapfrogged each other in an arms race. The rise of Germany and their naval ambitions was the main catalyst for the Entente Cordiale, with an agreement that France would be the major naval force and power in the Mediterranean Sea while Great Britain would control the North Sea and Atlantic Ocean. This underlying rivalry still persists and to a large extent determines UK defence policy. You may think that this is silly, but it is an important factor in Whitehall especially with regard to foreign policy. The French will only cooperate in joint arms programmes if they can take the lead, otherwise they go their own way with the result that two very similar fighter aircraft (Dassault Rafale and Eurofighter Typhoon) end up being constructed and compete against each other for export orders. The new aircraft-carriers being constructed for the Royal Navy have been designed deliberately to be bigger than France’s carrier. The UK submarines are bigger than their French equivalent. Once you understand this reality it is much easier to fathom what is happening.
If France gave up its submarine launched Inter Continental Ballistic Missile deterrent there would be much less of an argument for a Trident replacement. It would be a brave move to declare Europe as a nuclear free-zone that threatens no other country. Robert McNamara, on his last visit to England, pointed out that the United States had enough nuclear weapons to destroy life on Earth many times over. He knew what he was talking about, having been Secretary of State for Defence in the JFK and LBJ administrations. He could not understand why the UK would go to the expense of having its own nuclear deterrent when the US provided a nuclear umbrella. The counter argument is that we should not rely on the UK-US special relationship. Neville Chamberlain made the same point in the 1930s. It is very much a one-sided relationship in favour of the US. The fact is that the UK could not launch its Trident missiles without the approval of the US President.
Our independent nuclear deterrent is not independent. In 1961 JFK faced a situation that NATO allies were relying on the US to respond to a conventional USSR invasion of Europe with a nuclear retaliation. This was supported by the Joint Chiefs in the Pentagon who argued that without that assurance they feared a Franco-German abandonment of NATO, a negotiated compromise with the USSR, and a neutralisation of Europe that would leave the US alone to face the whole Communist problem. He also faced down pressure from the Pentagon hawks to pursue a first-strike policy. He showed his irritation with the Joint Chiefs, whose attitudes left him furious, declaring “And we call ourselves the human race”. His inclination was to disavow a first-strike policy with his response to raise the threshold for the use of nuclear weapons. He preferred a strategy of flexible response instead of massive retaliation, with a proposal that NATO countries should increase their conventional forces to levels that would stop Soviet forces stationed in East Germany. JFK urged Bob McNamara publicly to ” ‘repeat to the point of boredom’ that we would use nuclear weapons only in response to a major attack against the US or the allies; that we were not contemplating preventative war; and the Europeans should not believe that by firing off their own nuclear weapons they would drag the US into a war, that we would withdraw our commitment to NATO first.”
However, faced with Nikita Khrushchev’s aggressive Cold War rhetoric JFK announced increases in the defence budget that would increase the number of invulnerable Polaris submarines from 6 to 29 and their nuclear-tipped missiles aimed at Soviet targets from 96 to 464. He also ordered a doubling of total Minutemen ICBMs from 300 to 600 and a 50% increase in B52 strategic bombers on 15 minute ground alert. Personally he did not think there was anything rational about this expansion and was not convinced that it would deter the Politburo hawks in the Kremlin. The aim was to satisfy Congress, the American public and press that the US was safe from a devastating attack. Despite irresistible pressure to add to American military power and overreact to Communist dangers, JFK ensured that a decision for nuclear war would be his alone, which meant that he could avert an unprecedented disaster for all humankind – which he later did. His management of one international crisis after another to avert what he described as “the ultimate failure” was the greatest overall achievement of his presidency. Thankfully during this troubled period the ‘Irish Americans’ were in the Whitehouse. Who knows what the current administrations policy is? Shortly after the Millennium there was a call to adopt a first-strike pre-emptive policy from current and ex NATO chiefs of staff. JFK’s response would have been the same as in 1961, “They don’t get it.”
In October 1963 JFK stated, “While maintaining our readiness for war, let us exhaust every avenue for peace.” Acknowledging that the US had more than enough nuclear weapons, he had already cancelled the B70 bomber and Skybolt air-to-surface missile projects. This affected relations with the UK who had been promised a supply of Skybolt missiles to equip its V bombers, by President Eisenhower. It is worth noting that at the time there were only three nuclear powers – the UK, US and USSR. All shared a common desire to prevent nuclear proliferation and JFK was eager to negotiate a nuclear test-ban to prevent France, Germany, Israel and China from building bombs that would increase the risk of a nuclear war. The USSR had particular concerns about China and was inferior to the US, so Nikita Khrushchev was equally enthusiastic. For the UK there was a concern about a Franco-German nuclear capability that would put NATO at risk thereby making Europe less rather than more secure. Prime Minister Harold Macmillan’s view to JFK about President Charles de Gaulle and his aspiration for a French independent nuclear deterrent was, “I think this man’s gone crazy. Absolutely crazy”.
In the 1950s the UK had developed and built a V bomber force comprising the Valiant, Victor and Vulcan all equipped with British free-fall nuclear bombs. This was a truly independent deterrent and fully operational by 1958, but committed to NATO. When Soviet air-defences improved to the point that the bombers would not get through to their targets alternative methods of delivering the bomb or warhead were developed. This started in 1954 when the US and UK agreed a joint development programme for ballistic missiles. The US would develop ICBMs with a 5,000 mile range while the UK with US support would develop Medium Range Ballistic Missiles of up to 2,000 miles range. In parallel the UK innovated an underground silo to protect its missiles from a pre-emptive strike and this was exported to and adopted in the US. In the UK the only silo site actually commenced was in Cumbria.
The 1957 Defence White Paper prepared by the Minister of Defence, Duncan Sandys, resulted in dramatic changes with a shift of emphasis from manned aircraft to missile based defence and offence, together with a forced reorganisation of the aero industry. Looked at retrospectively this was a disaster with long-term consequences that are still felt to date. Following the UK test of its first hydrogen bomb the UK and US entered into a Mutual Defence Agreement in 1958 for cooperation on nuclear weapons (atomic energy for mutual defence purposes). This is renewed every ten years and is current up to the end of 2024. Since 1958 we have been increasingly locked in to a partnership with the US whereby we are dependent on them and if they decide to pull the plug we have nothing. Bob McNamara had always been opposed to the UK having an independent nuclear deterrent.
The Blue Streak Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile was developed, but in a small country like the UK a land-based system was very vulnerable and escalating costs resulted in its cancellation in 1960. An alternative air-launched stand-off nuclear missile called Blue Steel was developed for use by the V bombers. The range was limited, but over time would be extended. A much improved design with a longer range called Blue Steel II was planned but cancelled in 1959 when the UK opted in 1960 to join the programme for a longer range US proposal that was in development – the Skybolt, which only required the V bombers to fly a few hundred miles before launch and kept them outside the range of Soviet defence fighters. As part of the deal the UK government paid the costs for the adaption of the V bombers and would provide a UK built nuclear warhead.
The UK had put its eggs in one basket, which was snatched from them in November 1962 when McNamara gave notice that the US was not to proceed with the Skybolt project. It left the UKs plans in tatters and would lead to a major crisis in UK/US relations. JFK and SuperMac met in Bermuda in December to reach what became known as the Nassau Agreement. The UK would join the Polaris programme with a contribution of 5% and the US was also granted a naval base in Holy Loch for its Polaris equipped submarines, later to be equipped with Poseidon missiles, which was relinquished in 1992. The UK missiles were to be part of a multilateral force within NATO and could only be used independently when supreme national interests intervened. The US wanted a dual-key lock but this was rejected by the UK government who has ever since maintained that they are entirely independent. The UK was to build the submarines and warheads with the US supplying nuclear-capable missiles, which were to be maintained by the UK. Submarine construction commenced in 1964 with the first patrol in 1968 and the last in 1996. Four R-class nuclear powered submarines were constructed with 16 missile launchers and 6 torpedo tubes each. A planned fifth boat was cancelled.
The inside story is more interesting and revealing. The Cuba missile crisis had come to a head in October 1962 and war had been averted. The Soviet MRBM and IRBM were to be removed from Cuba and as part of the deal the US was to remove Jupiter missiles from Turkey. JFK who wanted to reduce the number of nuclear weapons and stop proliferation, took the opportunity presented to initiate a comprehensive reduction and test-ban. In his effort to start the process he relied heavily on Harold Macmillan for whom he had a high regard. Macmillan had supported and counselled him during the Cuba crisis and the decision to cancel Skybolt had been badly handled, leaving Macmillan’s government under threat at home. JFK felt compelled to bail Macmillan out and did not want to betray his closest European ally. When they met in Bermuda in December 1962 he offered to continue Skybolt’s development if the UK agreed to share the building costs. Macmillan had suffered politically and was threatening to go it alone and build a new missile independently of the US. JFK’s solution was for the UK and US to jointly build nuclear submarines armed with Polaris, which although technically part of a multilateral NATO force allowed for the UK to use them unilaterally in time of “supreme peril”, thus preserving the fiction of an independent nuclear deterrent.
After announcing the Polaris agreement with Macmillan, JFK promptly assured Khrushchev that this was not a step on the road to proliferation but was instead a way to inhibit it. His objective was to prevent or at least delay the development of national nuclear capabilities, explaining that otherwise the UK would try to create their own missile, not tied into NATO controls, and they might then cooperate with the French and Germans in helping them build nuclear arsenals. JFK further conjectured that as the UK missiles would not become operational until 1969/70 it opened the possibility of agreement on non-proliferation and gained time for further efforts in the field of disarmament. Khrushchev saw the situation differently and it proved to be one of the stumbling blocks to agreeing a comprehensive treaty that eventually saw a watered-down test-ban treaty.
In January 1963, following the Nassau Agreement, JFK visited de Gaulle and offered France the same deal as the UK. Unlike the UK the French still lacked the ability to make nuclear warheads, but it was only a matter of time and de Gaulle would have none of it as he feared that the US would rather let Western Europe fall under communist control rather than risk a Soviet nuclear attack on American cities. He considered the UK to be an American lackey and at the same time announced a veto of UK membership of the European Economic Community. The roots for this animosity lay way back to WW2. He now saw West Germany and Adenauer as a more reliable ally. In February Bonn and Paris signed a defence pact. Charles de Gaulle favoured West Germany following him in to the family of nuclear nations. While this did not happen France went on to develop a totally independent nuclear deterrent comprised of submarine, land and airborne forces that were outside of NATO control and has never disavowed a first-strike policy.
Adenauer resented the public declaration by JFK in November 1961 made to the USSR; “if Germany developed an atomic capability of its own, if it developed many missiles, or a strong national army that threatened war, then I would understand your concern and I would share it.” The West Germans were also agitated when Khrushchev proposed as part of the test-ban treaty to make a non-aggression pact between the Eastern and Western European bloc countries, as they viewed it as consolidating existing boundaries and conditions that was a barrier to German reunification. These French and West German self-concerns thwarted the golden opportunity of a comprehensive treaty. Although JFK, Macmillan and Khrushchev were proud of what had been achieved and there was world-wide perception and relief in the relaxing of Cold War tensions, the test-ban treaty did not inhibit proliferation or slow the arms race. It did not deter France, China, India, Pakistan or Israel from developing nuclear weapons or the aspirations of Iran and North Korea. Nor did it prevent the building of additional and more devastating nuclear bombs and delivery systems.
To be continued.
Acknowledgement to Robert Dallek and his warts and all biography of JFK – John F. Kennedy an unfinished life 1917 – 1963 published by Allen Lane an imprint of Penguin Books