Letters from America

09 January 2007
The debate on Britain's new nuclear weapons needs to take into account the correspondence between George Bush and Tony Blair, argues John Gittings.

A significant exchange of letters between Tony Blair and George Bush, dealing with the future of British nuclear weapons for the next 50 years, has attracted little attention so far. Perhaps this is because the letters, dated December 7, were only released on December 19, when media attention had drifted away from the Trident decision and towards Christmas. But as the great debate on Trident, promised (though not visibly encouraged) by the government gets under way, the contents of this exchange should be an important part of it.

The apparent point of the letters is to deal with a mismatch in timing: the US Trident missiles on which Britain depends are likely to be phased out by 2042, but the new submarines which Blair wants Britain to build will be operational till 2055. Even to keep Trident going till 2042 will require a "life-extension programme" in which, Bush agrees, Britain will participate.

Britain is then invited (in response to an explicit request by Blair) to take part "at an early stage, in a programme to replace the D5 missiles or to discuss a further life extension - for your [Britain's] purpose - of the D5 missile to match the potential out-of-service date of your new submarines."

Of course everyone knows that Britain must continue to depend on the US in this way. What is particularly interesting is the strength and openness of Bush's guarantee of a blank cheque to continue Britain's "nuclear deterrent".

We may wonder whether Blair would have obtained such clear and public backing from Bush if he had not been so enthusiastic about the Iraq war. And indeed whether Blair's insistence that Britain must be 100% on side with the US does not reflect his awareness of this strategic context. No one would need to spell out the implicit bargain, "support our war and you get your nuclear goodies".

There are other interesting aspects to the Blair-Bush exchange. First, for connoisseurs of the "Yo, Blair" relationship, a small but intriguing point:

"Dear George", writes Blair in his own handwriting, and signs off with "Yours ever, Tony". To which the US president replies, "Dear Prime Minister" (typed), and signs his own name in full.

Much more significantly, Bush agrees (again in response to Blair's proposal) that the two countries should explore the scope for cooperation on "other aspects of future submarine platforms".

Areas where the US is researching new technology for future submarine platforms includes, according to the technical press, the development and improvement of tactical nuclear weapons systems.

Professor Paul Rogers has pointed out the importance to the British government of maintaining a "tactical version" of Trident or its successor (though it avoids using the T-word). And a tactical capability makes it easier to retain the option of first-use which the British white paper refuses to rule out. This is hardly, says Rogers, "the greatest encouragement for those seeking to control nuclear proliferation."

Is this one of the "other aspects" of research and development that Blair is so anxious to obtain? If we are going to have the full debate he has promised us, we certainly should be told.

A footnote on that "full debate": You won't find any hint of it if you look on the No 10 website; Trident and/or defence is not one of the "big issues" which it lists as "currently being covered by Tony Blair". No better luck on the Labour party website either: again, its "Let's Talk" feature doesn't mention the Trident debate.

Published by The Guardian