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
|HMS Illustrious, pictured in 1983, fitted with the American Phalanx CIWS: |
an effective defence system against sea-skimming missiles like Exocet.
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
|GCHQ, the UK centre for Signals Intelligence|