Thursday, 1 October 2015

A Very Special Relationship: Britain and the United States

Britain's relationship with the United States has increasingly come under attack from certain sectors of society in the last decade and a half. The Anglo-American alliance has been criticised as a deal that only benefits the United States and has actively harmed the UK's international standing. Much of this has come as a result of the leading role played by both states in the conflicts initiated as part of the "War on Terror". Britain's experience of the second Iraq war, and to a lesser extent the conflict in Afghanistan, has been profoundly traumatic. The popular narrative goes that we blindly followed the Americans into an illegal and unjustifiable war, in part because of the political and military closeness commonly described in the UK as the Special Relationship. However, the 2003 Iraq war, like the 1956 Suez Crisis before it, has neither destroyed nor significantly damaged the unique bilateral links that form the basis of the Anglo-American alliance. This is largely because the connections between the two countries run far deeper than foreign policy. In areas such as intelligence sharing, military training, shared operational experience, arms manufacturing, cutting edge military technology, overseas bases and nuclear weapons the UK and US remain the only states with such a wide range of deep and lasting connections.

While its origins date back to the darkest days of the Second World War, the contemporary Anglo-American alliance remains the centerpiece in the network of bilateral treaties and alliances constructed by both states in order to maintain global stability at the highest levels. The Anglosphere nations: Britain, the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand are unique in their collective geo-strategic position. All are essentially strategic islands, bereft of direct military threats to their territory, and therefore they are able to take a more systematized and global view of their security interests. It is no surprise then, that these  states are the ones which currently underwrite the international order, giving institutions like the UN the political, moral, military and financial backing they require to remain relevant and muscular.

Despite this, it has become a running theme in British politics, especially since 2003, to criticise the Special Relationship as a one-sided deal that does not benefit the UK and which enables ill-considered American military action. In order to address this critique it's necessary to examine what, in practical terms, the UK gains from it's partnership with the United States. I have already outlined some of the areas where bilateral co-operation is exceptionally close, but the rational place to start is with the most high-profile link: the sharing of nuclear weapons technology. Contrary to popular belief the UK does not make use of US nuclear weapons. Britain has the independent capacity to build and maintain it's own warhead stockpile, centered on the two Atomic Weapons Establishments at Aldermaston and Burghfield in England. The weapons themselves are thought to be a modified "Anglicised" version of the American W76 warhead, with design details and certain components shared under the 1958 US-UK mutual defence agreement (recently renewed in 2005). For deployment aboard the Royal Navy's Vanguard class submarines, the British-built warheads are fitted to the 58 American-made Trident II D5 missiles leased by the UK and maintained at the Lockheed Martin Space Systems plant in King's Bay, Georgia.

While some have argued that this degree of nuclear co-operation creates an unhealthy dependence on the goodwill of the United States for the continued existence of the UK's deterrent, with some challenging it's status as an independent deterrent at all, the decision to employ Britain's nuclear weapons still ultimately rests with the Prime Minister. While it is certain that, if necessary, Britain could create wholly independent native weapons and delivery systems the costs of doing so would be high. With the current deal the UK balances independence with affordability and gains access to some of the most modern nuclear delivery vehicles in the world. Today, with the successor to the Vanguard class planned to enter service in 2028, Anglo-American co-operation looks set to increase. The agreement to design a common missile compartment for the next generation of British and American ballistic missile submarines is an especially important milestone for both countries. The cost to deliver continuous at sea deterrence for the UK is estimated to be £15-20bn over thirteen years for four successor submarines, improvements to infrastructure, refurbishment of Britain's warhead stockpile and the Trident II missile life extension programme. Including running costs the UK nuclear deterrent will continue to cost the taxpayer around £3bn per year (0.23% of GDP, as of 2015) and some 25% less than France's entirely independent force. In terms of US-UK co-operation around the nuclear deterrent, in the author's opinion, the UK continues to get a very good deal.
One of the four Vanguard class submarines which provide
the UK's continuous at sea deterrent
The next core area where the UK directly benefits from the Anglo-American alliance is in non-nuclear defence technology. The export and sale of US defence technology is controlled by their International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) and Export Administration Regulations (EAR), as of 2012 the UK has received a qualified exemption to these rules. The British government and a number of private third parties vetted by both governments can exchange and export unclassified information and defence equipment with little difficulty so long as the end user is one of the agreed parties. It is noteworthy that the US has only granted ITAR/EAR exemptions to two other countries: Canada in 1963 and Australia in 2013. Those who claim that the US' "real" special relationships are with Israel and Japan should note that neither country has anywhere near the same access to advanced American defence technologies as the UK and other anglosphere nations do. During the second half of the Cold War British warships had access to the latest signals intelligence equipment from the US. The urgent requirements of fighting the war in the South Atlantic in 1982 saw the Americans share the ultra-modern AIM9L sidewinder missile and the new automated Phalanx close in weapons system with the UK. More recently, when the Royal Navy's nuclear powered attack submarine programme ran into technical difficulties in 2003 Britain was able to tap into the expertise of the General Dynamics Electric Boat company and the US Navy in order to resolve some of the problems and control the cost overruns. The Astute class are now widely considered to be amongst the best attack boats in the world, gaining substantial praise from the US Navy (the most prolific operator of nuclear submarines in the world) when HMS Astute conducted her sea trials off the East coast of America. On the subject of co-operation on nuclear submarines, the UK has reportedly had a very high level of access to the US Navy's latest nuclear submarine reactor, the S9G, lessons from which will be used in the development of the next generation of British reactors, the PWR-3, which will power the successor deterrent boats and likely the next generation of attack boats after the Astutes as well. Once again the close relationship with the United States is saving the British taxpayer money, and helping the MoD to deliver the equipment that ensures that the UK armed forces remain highly capable in their own right.
HMS Illustrious, pictured in 1983, fitted with the American Phalanx CIWS:
an effective defence system against sea-skimming missiles like Exocet.
Another area where the Special Relationship remains deeply relevant is in military training and shared operational experience. In maritime operations the combined Anglosphere navies have been described as "an international city at sea", capable of conducting combined operations with an ease that few other allies can. This does not come easily, just because they all speak the same language doesn't meant that the different operating procedures and national idiosyncrasies don't get in the way of operating effectively together. What makes Anglosphere naval forces, and especially the partnership between the Royal and US Navies, different is that they have been exercising, training and operating together since 1945. A major change was the creation of the NATO Standing Naval Force Atlantic (now Standing NATO Maritime Group 1) in 1968 as a formal structure for co-operation between the European and North American navies. Over time the trust and operational experience built between the Anglosphere navies has come to be one of the great international success stories, to the extent that joint operations in areas of mutual interest like the Persian Gulf and Horn of Africa have become the norm rather than the exception. In recent years we have seen RN Type 45 destroyers escorting American Nimitz class super carriers, and the US Navy has expressed interest in occasionally providing American escorts for the UK's Queen Elizabeth class carriers when they become operationally active in 2018. This would help relieve pressure on the already stretched British escort fleet, potentially freeing up valuable high-end warships for other tasks and contingencies.

A very high degree of combined training and operational experience has also been built between the land forces of the UK and the US in the course of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Access to US training facilities, like the simulated Afghan villages built in the Mojave desert, helped the British army work up it's units preparing to deploy to Afghanistan. By training together and sharing operational experience, a process which has continued since the end of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the land forces of both countries have had the opportunity to learn from one another and develop new ways of approaching the operational and tactical challenges of counterinsurgency warfare. Joint US-UK medical facilities, like the hospital at Camp Bastion, undoubtedly saved the lives of many ISAF soldiers and marines over the course of the war. As did access to the US Army's large fleet of casualty evacuation helicopters. It is fair to say that the close co-operation of Anglo-American forces in Afghanistan undoubtedly saved the lives of many injured soldiers and improved the British Army's ability to fight the Taliban insurgency.
Royal Marines from 42 Commando exercise with the
US Marines in the Mojave desert
Lastly, and possibly more important than any other aspect of co-operation between the two countries, it is necessary to examine the enormous significance of the connection between the anglosphere intelligence services. Founded, like many aspects of the Special Relationship, during the Second World War Britain and America famously worked closely together in the field of signals intelligence (SIGINT) after the US entry into the war in 1941 in order to break the Nazi Enigma codes. Since the end of the war the Anglosphere intelligence agencies have worked more closely than any others. Bound together by the UKUSA Agreement into the "Five Eyes" network each country takes the lead in SIGINT for a particular area of the globe and shares it's information with the others. While broader Western intelligence networks exist, the "Nine Eyes" (including the five plus France, Denmark, the Netherlands and Norway) and the "Fourteen Eyes" (the nine plus Germany, Belgium, Italy, Spain and Sweden) none are nearly as close as the core network of five. Intelligence co-operation on this scale means the UK is an integral partner in what is likely the finest SIGINT gathering network in the world. The Special Relationship forms the cornerstone of this network, with British and American intelligence agencies working closely to counter a vast array of threats, ranging from terrorism to the proliferation of WMD and tackling organised and cyber crime. 
GCHQ, the UK centre for Signals Intelligence
By examining the breadth and depth of defence and intelligence co-operation between the UK and the US it is quite clear that Britain gains enormously from the Special Relationship. The fact that these ties are so often overlooked in the public debate on the continuing relevance of the Anglo-American partnership is lamentable. The decisions to take the UK to war in 2001 and 2003 were ultimately political choices made by the Blair government, influenced by a perception of an alignment in foreign policy interests for both countries during the "War on Terror". But, as I have outlined, the Special Relationship between Britain and the United States runs far deeper than foreign policy, permeating and enhancing almost all aspects of Britain's hard power on the world stage. The chief popular criticism of the partnership is that it creates a sort of blind servility to the US on the part of the UK, I would contend that this is not the case. British leaders have defied the United States in the past: Harold Wilson's refusal to enter the war in Vietnam, Thatcher's reaction to the invasion of Grenada, Major's caution on the US approach to Bosnia. Despite these instances of disagreement on foreign policy, just like the instance of unpopular agreement in 2003, the enormously close ties between the two countries endure. In 2011 efforts were made to re-brand the Special Relationship as the "Essential Relationship", suggesting a more pragmatic and less emotional connection. However, in the author's opinion either term could be used to describe it, because ultimately the US-UK relationship remains both special and essential.

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