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Warming up for a new arms race

Nicola Butler launches Red Pepper's focus on the "special military relationship" by spelling out the significance of the highly sexed-down and soon to be renewed Mutual Defence Agreement

February 1, 2004
3 min read

One piece of legislation that wasn’t mentioned in the Queen’s Speech in November, although it will feature in the 2004 parliamentary timetable at some stage, is the renewal of the 1958 Agreement for Cooperation on the Uses of Atomic Energy for Mutual Defence Purposes. Often referred to as the 1958 Mutual Defence Agreement (MDA), it provides the basis for secret collaboration between the US and Britain on all aspects of nuclear weapons development. Had there been no MDA, there would be no “British” Trident submarines and ballistic missiles. When the agreement was last renewed, in December 1994, the then Tory government tried to get it through by stealth in the dead of night and at the tail end of a parliamentary session.

The MDA enables the US and Britain to “exchange” information and “transfer materials and equipment” with the objective of improving each other’s nuclear weapons “design, development and fabrication capability”. It covers development of nuclear doctrines and “delivery systems” (e.g. submarines and missiles), intelligence sharing, information on nuclear research reactors, transfers of nuclear submarine technologies and fuels, and nuclear materials such as plutonium and highly enriched uranium. Information is exchanged via joint working groups and through a range of visits and exchanges between nuclear weapons laboratory personnel.

The government’s enthusiasm for renewing the MDA is connected to the announcement in the recent defence white paper that a decision on whether to replace the UK’s Trident nuclear weapons system will be required during the next parliament. Although we are officially informed that there are no plans to replace the UK’s nuclear “deterrent”, the Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) at Aldermaston in Berkshire has continued to enhance its technical capabilities in readiness for an affirmative decision. It is also understood that the Ministry of Defence and the armaments industry are lobbying hard for a follow-up to Trident. British weapons laboratories and shipyards have worked closely with their US counterparts in the research, development and production of Trident and its predecessor Polaris since the 1970s, and it is unlikely that a new nuclear weapon system could be produced in the UK without extensive help from the US.

Britain currently deploys four nuclear-armed Trident submarines, using missiles built, maintained and tested in the US. The UK gave up its attempts to produce its own ballistic missile capability in 1960. The British Trident warhead is based on US designs and was tested in Nevada. Britain also relies on US guidance satellites and intelligence to target Trident. Nuclear policy and doctrine are coordinated with the US through Nato.

The Bush administration and the US nuclear weapons laboratories have extensive plans for a new generation of nuclear weapons, including “bunker busters” and “mini-nukes”. The proposal is that these weapons could be used in a strategy of pre-emptive war. Although the British government has stated that it has no intention of developing mini-nukes, the collaboration between the transatlantic weapons laboratories provided for in the MDA leaves that option open for the future.

The prime minister says that eliminating the threat of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) is his top priority. The UK has a legal obligation under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to divest itself of its own WMD: currently, 400 thermonuclear warheads. The key question is: will the Labour government try to slip the MDA renewal through Parliament in 2004 with as little debate as possible, just as the Conservatives did in 1994?

Nicola Butler is a consultant to the independent global security research organisation the British American Security Information Council, and co-wrote Secrecy and Dependence: the UK Trident system in the 21st century.

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