Global Security: UK-US Relations - Foreign Affairs Committee Contents

Written evidence from the British Pugwash Group


  1.  The Foreign Affairs Committee has announced that it is taking evidence on the relationship between the UK and the US and the implications this has on UK foreign policy, and has invited interested groups or individuals to submit their views on six specific issues:

    — the basis of the bilateral relationship between the UK and US; — UK and US views on the nature and value of the bilateral relationship and the contribution of the UK-US foreign policy relationship to global security;

    — the extent to which UK and US interests align in key foreign policy related areas including security, defence, and intelligence co-operation;

    — the extent to which the UK is able to influence US foreign policy and UK policy is influenced by the US under the Obama Administration;

    — the extent to which "the special relationship" still exists and the factors which determine this; and

    — the implications of any changes in the nature of the bilateral relationship for British foreign policy.

  2.  The British Pugwash Group (BPG) wishes to offer the following thoughts on these six issues, as set out below. The BPG is affiliated to the international Pugwash movement, which has for over 50 years provided independent expert advice to national governments on matters affecting international security, particularly in relation to nuclear weapons. For example, it played major roles in the development of arms control treaties, including the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the Partial Test Ban Treaty, and the Biological and Chemical Weapons Conventions. The British Pugwash Group has been an active participant in the work of International Pugwash since the movement started. It has strong international connections, and has technical expertise in many areas related to security, nuclear weapons (and other weapons of mass destruction), arms control and disarmament. It has recently produced a significant report on the Management of the UK Stockpile of Separated Plutonium. Copies of this report can be provided on request.


  3.1  The roots of the bilateral relationship between the UK and US reach back into the 17th century, and the relationship has had high and low points ever since. The so-called "special relationship" was forged during the Second World War: it owed a great deal to the personal relationship between Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt, but has survived to the present day in spite of periodic tensions. In recent years, some of the most significant structural foundations of that relationship have been the close collaboration between the two countries in the areas of nuclear weapons and intelligence. In both areas there have been a series of formal agreements and informal cooperative practices.

3.2  In the nuclear area, among the most important of these have been the 1958 Mutual Defence Agreement (MDA) and the 1963 Polaris Sales Agreement (PSA).

  The 1958 MDA, formally known as the Agreement for Co-operation on the use of Atomic Energy for Mutual Defence Purposes, has a number of appendices, amendments and memoranda of understanding, many of which are still classified. It is known, however, that the agreement provides for extensive co-operation on nuclear warhead and reactor technologies, in particular the exchange of classified information concerning nuclear weapons to improve "design, development and fabrication capability". The agreement also provides for the transfer of nuclear warhead-related materials. The agreement was renewed in 2004 for a further 10 years.

  3.3  The 1963 Polaris Sales Agreement allows the UK to acquire, support and operate the US Trident missile system. Originally signed to allow the UK to acquire the Polaris SLBM system in the 1960s, it was amended in 1980 to facilitate purchase of the Trident I (C4) missile and again in 1982 to authorise purchase of the more advanced Trident II (D5) in place of the C4. In return, the UK agreed to formally assign its nuclear forces to the defence of NATO except in an extreme national emergency under the terms of the 1962 Nassau Agreement reached between President John F Kennedy and Prime Minister Harold Macmillan to facilitate negotiation of the PSA.

  3.4  The second area is intelligence co-operation. Exchange of intelligence information between the US and UK agencies has been routine since the 1930s, but was greatly expanded during the second World War, and in relation to signals intelligence (SIGINT) it was formalised on 17 May 1943 with the conclusion of the still-secret, and possibly still-active, BRUSA COMINT agreement. More general exchanges of information continue to this day, though periodically threatened by espionage scandals (eg the Philby affair).


  4.1  A consequence of these agreements is that the UK has always been heavily dependent on the United States for its ongoing deployment of strategic nuclear weapons. Without ongoing US support the UK would very probably cease to be a nuclear weapon state. This inevitably constrains the UK's national security policies and actions insofar as they must not destabilise its relationship with the US for fear of dilution or even withdrawal of nuclear weapons co-operation. A more general consequence of the particularly close co-operation in these two areas has been that the UK has felt constrained to support the United States in other areas of military activity, including interventionist activities in the Middle East, and in sharing the "burden" of the conventional and nuclear defence of NATO.

4.2  These "distorting" effects of the "special relationship" in these two key areas has meant that the UK has periodically been subject to criticism from other international players, and particularly from the European Community, for paying insufficient attention to the international policy objectives of its other partners.

  4.3  A particular issue where the UK has been seen to pay undue attention to US foreign policy has been the so-called "War on Terror". It is now widely believed that statements made by President Bush on this subject were counter-productive, but the UK at no stage expressed public reservations about these.

  More generally, the UK has been inhibited from developing its own foreign policy in relation to cases of actual or threatened nuclear weapon proliferation such as Israel, North Korea and Iran.


  5.1  The foreign policy interests of the UK and the US are naturally and properly aligned in a number of areas. Both have a strong interest in sustaining and strengthening the Non-Proliferation Treaty, in exerting pressure on those countries which have not already signed the NPT to do so, and to subscribe to the Additional Protocol. Both have a strong interest in deterring acts of terrorism, including particularly nuclear terrorism. Both have a strong interest in protecting the environment, particularly against the threat of global warming. Both have a consequential interest in promoting the "nuclear renaissance" and other low-carbon means of generating electric power. Both have a strong interest in the establishment of safe means of disposing of nuclear waste, and in the management of fissile materials.

5.2  However within this broad area of coincidence of interest, there are a number of actual or potential divergences.

  5.3  Independent nuclear deterrent. The UK has always prided itself on its possession of an independent nuclear deterrent, and the US has always been outwardly supportive, and has indeed taken active steps to assist the UK in this, to the extent that the UK deterrent cannot really be described as "independent" (see attachment 1). However recent developments in US policy (as formulated by President Obama) raise the question as to whether it is really in US interests for the UK to continue to pursue this policy. It is arguable that US policy objectives would be better served if the UK were to take a lead, among the nuclear powers, in abandoning its nuclear weapons altogether, either as a unilateral step, or as part of a bargaining process. The BPG takes the view that no-one (politician, journalist, academic or whomever) has devised a plausible scenario in which an independent British nuclear weapon might actually be used, either now or in the foreseeable future.

  5.4  Openness in strategic policy formation. The UK has over many years operated a policy of forming international policy within government and behind closed doors, and has used the Offical Secrets Act as a means of preventing the unauthorised disclosure of information to outsiders. The recent Freedom of Information Act has done little to change this. By contrast, in the US, policy formation is much more open. One disadvantage of UK practice in this area is that government is unable to make effective use of advice on such matters coming from NGOs, academia etc, because those sources are unable to tap into the existing state of thinking within government. In the US, there are various mechanisms which make this possible—e.g. the mechanism of the JASON Defense Advisory Group, which gives expert outsiders access to classified information. One of the drivers behind the UK policy has been the belief that disclosure of information by the UK might prejudice UK-US co-operation in such areas as nuclear weapon development or intelligence. To remove this concern, there is a need for the UK and US governments to reach a common understanding about how to open up this channel of expert advice, without damaging real security interests.

  5.5  Constraints upon the nuclear renaissance. During the past three decades, the US and UK have operated highly divergent policies on the subject of reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel. The US policy—to prohibit reprocessing internally and to exert strong pressure on other nations not to embark on it—was triggered by its concern over the Indian nuclear weapon test in 1974, in which the plutonium came from reprocessing technology supplied by the US. By contrast, the UK and France have actively engaged in reprocessing since the 1950s, and have in recent years offered a commercial reprocessing service to countries which have not developed their own capability. There are still authoritative voices in the US which argue that the US should maintain its policy, and take active steps to discourage reprocessing world-wide. On this view, only the once-through nuclear fuel cycle should be pursued, and those countries (like the UK and France) which have large stockpiles of separated plutonium should stop producing more, and take active steps to dispose of their stockpiles immediately in a manner which does not facilitate retrieval. On the other hand, there is a strong argument that if the nuclear renaissance is to be sustained for more than a few decades, it will become essential to engage in reprocessing, and to make the resulting plutonium available for a fast reactor programme. The existing stockpiles would therefore need to be either securely stored, or converted to MOX fuel for burning in suitable power reactors. The BPG has explored the arguments for and against each of these views in the report cited above, and has concluded that it is impossible to reach a decision without having access to information which is not in the public domain. It has recommended that HMG should make sufficient information available to permit a rational debate on the matter. When a firm UK policy in these matters emerges, it may be desirable to convince the US government that it is correct.

  5.6  Negotiating positions at the 2010 NPT review meeting. It is widely recognised that the 2005 NPT review meeting was a nearly-disastrous failure, and that if the NPT regime is to be sustained, the 2010 review meeting must have a more successful outcome. The UK government has published a document entitled The road to 2010 which sets out the steps which it believes need to be taken to this end. Various policy statements are made in that document which are not self-evidently consistent with the approach which is currently being taken by the US. These include:

    (a) advocating the introduction of a "fourth pillar" into the NPT framework—securing fissile material against the risks from clandestine diversion or nuclear terrorism;

    (b) development of multilateral approaches to the fuel cycle, so that countries developing new nuclear programmes can reliably access the fuel they need to generate power without having to establish individual national facilities; and

    (c) strengthening the powers and organisation of the IAEA so that it can play a stronger role in securing fissile material and preventing proliferation.

  Important though such issues are, they may well be overshadowed at the review meeting by complaints from non-nuclear signatories that the five nuclear powers recognised by the Treaty are not doing enough to honour the spirit, if not the letter, of Article VI of the Treaty. In this respect, the UK position is currently looking less credible than the US position.


  6.1  It is clear that because of the long history of collaboration in many areas of foreign policy, the US and UK have always had a strong mutual influence. Specifically in the nuclear area, the pattern of collaborative agreements and informal cooperative practices has again led to mutual influence, though with the US as the predominant partner for obvious economic reasons. In recent years, the collaboration on the development of next-generation nuclear warheads, nuclear missiles and submarine delivery systems has been particularly complex (for details and supporting evidence see attachment 1).

6.2  The UK's policy on warhead development has largely been driven by two parallel US programmes which started in the 1990s—to extend the life of the W76 warhead, and to develop new warhead designs to replace it. These programmes evolved into the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) programme, which Congress funded in 2004 but subsequently stripped of further funding in 2007 and 2008, and which was formally terminated by the Obama Administration in March 2009. The UK faces (but has not yet taken) a decision on whether to extend the life of its Trident warheads or develop its own version of an RRW. It is currently undertaking a number of exploratory activities jointly with the United States under the MDA, including work which is being undertaken by a Warhead Pre-Concept Working Group at the Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE). Some of this research is being undertaken with the US, and it is reported that AWE is "keenly, keenly interested" in the US RRW programme. The two countries have also conducted joint "sub-critical" nuclear tests using fissile material, in tests that do not produce a nuclear explosion. The UK conducted a number of sub-critical nuclear experiments at the US Nevada Test Site in 2002 and 2006 "that provided data of direct benefit to both the U.S. and UK warhead certification efforts". US nuclear weapon laboratories have used AWE experimental facilities to conduct tests using non-fissile plutonium isotopes that are prohibited by US law. US nuclear weapons labs will also have access to the Orion Laser at Aldermaston under the MDA. In fact, an important rationale for additional UK government investment in AWE expertise and advanced experimental facilities is to ensure that AWE can continue to make a valuable contribution to US nuclear weapon programmes, including a credible peer-review capability, and thereby ensure that benefits from the relationship are two-way.

  6.3  As regards missile development, the UK government has already committed itself to the US Navy's programme to refurbish and extend the service life of its Trident missiles.

  6.4  As regards next-generation ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) development, the US Navy is four to five years behind the UK. The UK plans to introduce its first successor submarine in 2024 but the US only provisionally plans to introduce a new submarine in 2028-29. In consequence the UK has already begun working with the United States on possible new submarine designs, and the Joint Steering Task Group that oversees the Polaris Sales Agreement has already met three times during which concept studies for a new successor submarine were discussed. In December 2008 the US General Dynamics Electric Boat Corporation was awarded a contract to perform studies and design of a Common Missile Compartment (CMC) for the successor submarines to both the existing US and UK submarines, paid for by the UK but run through the US Naval Sea Systems Command in Washington.

  6.5  The above represents what might be termed "business as usual". However during the past two years, a new theme has emerged, commonly referred to as "getting to zero" or "a nuclear-weapon-free world". This idea has been put onto the international political agenda, as a result of the ground-breaking open letter of Schultz, Perry, Kissinger and Nunn (4 January 2007), the speech made by Margaret Beckett to the Carnegie Foundation (25 June 2007), and recent speeches and publications by eminent UK politicians and generals, including some recent statements by Foreign Secretary Miliband, and Barak Obama's recent address to the UN General Assembly.

  6.6  It is rather clear that to reach the eventual goal of a nuclear-weapon-free world, the international community will have to proceed in steps. There is an immediate and pressing need to prevent the current situation from deteriorating further. This requires the strengthening of the Non-Proliferation Treaty regime, encouraging those countries that have not already signed the Treaty and the Additional Protocol to do so, and ensuring that those countries which have signed abide by its provisions. In parallel with this, there is a need for those countries which have already acquired nuclear weapons to start or continue arms reduction, arms limitation and other confidence-building measures, both to fulfil their obligations under the NPT and to move in the direction of a nuclear-weapon-free world. In the longer term, there is a need to create the international security framework within which nations could abandon nuclear weapons altogether as an element of their defence policy.

  6.7  In the context of this long-term goal, there is an urgent need for leadership, and a particularly useful suggestion was made by Margaret Beckett in her speech of 25 June 2007, that the UK should become the "disarmament laboratory" of the world. The BPG has been seeking to develop this idea, and has proposed the creation of a British institution (which it has named BRINPARDI) which would bring together all the expertise which exists in this country in these matters, and which would contribute an element of British leadership to the international efforts which are required. It should be both British and International, in the same way that SIPRI is both Swedish and International—i.e. located in the UK, and predominantly funded from British sources—but open to both individual experts from around the world, and to funding from outside the UK. It should be a predominantly non-classified institution, but should be able to draw on the advice of experts with security clearance as necessary, as is possible in the US JASON system. It should operate in such a way that it earns the respect of the international community as an objective, fair-minded organisation, not subject to undue influence from any national, political or military faction, but should be regarded by the British government as a reliable source of information and advice on policy in this area. This idea is developed further in attachment 2.


  The importance of the "special relationship" can easily be exaggerated. However it still exists, and is likely to survive spats such as that over the repatriation of Abdelbaset Ali Mohmet al-Megrahi. It was strengthened by the US-UK partnership as allies during the Second World War, and by the UK support for US policy in Iraq, and draws on strong linguistic and cultural links. It could be strengthened further if the UK and US adopt a common approach to the NPT review and take parallel steps towards a nuclear-weapon-free world.


  8.1  The most significant change during the next decade or two will be driven by the shift from the US as the sole super-power to a multi-polar world in which China and other countries move towards economic, and perhaps also military, parity with it. The UK, as a country which has been through the experience of losing an empire, can perhaps help the US to develop a useful role in this new world. The US certainly still needs encouragement to show sufficient respect to international institutions.

8.2  The US has recently experienced some major set-backs in the exercise of power, with Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Israel, North Korea (to name but five) proving that they are able to thwart its foreign policy. The UK may be able to help find diplomatic solutions to problems which the US has been unable to solve by the exercise or threat of military power.

  8.3  In the nuclear sphere, the US has taken a number of policy decisions (e.g. on reprocessing) which, with hindsight, were perhaps ill-advised. The UK may be able to help it to move forward.

  8.4  During the past decade, the UK has adopted a number of foreign relations policies which, with hindsight, showed undue subservience to US policy. It would benefit the bilateral relationship if the UK were able to find ways to dissociate itself from US policy in certain areas, without undermining a long history of fruitful collaboration.


  9.1  The UK should explore with the US government whether its policy objectives would be better served if the UK were to take a lead, among the nuclear powers, in abandoning its nuclear weapons altogether, either as a unilateral step, or as part of a bargaining process.

9.2  The UK and US governments should seek to reach a common understanding about how to open up the channel of expert advice from UK NGOs, academics and other experts on nuclear policy matters, without damaging the real security interests of either country. One specific possibility that should be followed up is to explore the applicability of the JASON model in the UK.

  9.3  The UK government should develop, in consultation with NGOs, academics and other experts, a policy on reprocessing and plutonium stockpile management, and should then seek to convince the US government that it is correct.

  9.4  The UK and US should seek to develop common negotiating positions for the 2010 NPT review meeting, having regard to any concerns that the US may have about the policies outlined in The Road to 2010, and Article VI of the NPT Treaty.

  9.5  The UK government should take forward the suggestion which was made by Margaret Beckett in her speech of 25 June 2007, that the UK should become the "disarmament laboratory" of the world, for example by establishing an institution such as BRINPARDI (see attachment 2). The precise form that this institution should take could usefully be explored with interested NGOs, academics and other experts.

  9.6  The UK should try to find ways to dissociate itself from US policy in selected areas, without undermining a long history of fruitful collaboration.

23 September 2009

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