The sovereign can no longer say, "You shall think as I do on pain of death;" but he says, "You are free to think differently from me, and to retain your life, your property, and all that you possess; but if such be your determination, you are henceforth an alien among your people."

(Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 1835)

Saturday, 20 November 2010

UK-France cooperation on nuclear warheads

Given the theme of this blog, it is worth highlighting the recent defence cooperation agreement between the UK and France. On 2 November, an overarching agreement was signed outlining a package of initiatives that will result in greater interoperability between the two countries' conventional forces. In a subordinate treaty, the two governments also agreed to cooperate in the stewardship of their nuclear warheads. It is this latter accord - including motive and effects - that I will focus on here.

Under the agreement, a joint simulation facility will be constructed in Valduc, France, where scientists from both countries will conduct work on the safety and security of their respective country’s nuclear warheads. In addition, a joint Technology Development Center will be established at the UK Atomic Weapons Establishment, which will develop simulation technology for the center at Valduc. Construction costs will be split equally between the two governments.

Just to unpack this a second: the moratorium on testing under the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) means that nuclear weapon states have to find other ways to ensure the viability of their nuclear warheads. This is done through advanced facilities that use computer simulations to test various components and implosion capabilities. Needless to say, such facilities are expensive. In a bid to save money and pool resources, the two countries will share a single facility without exchanging sensitive information regarding warhead design. In other words, they will work independently instead of actually assisting one another.

Although the timing of this agreement is certainly down to money, it is worth looking at it from a slightly different angle as well. Engaging in defence cooperation with France at this time is (perhaps) a way for David Cameron to outflank some of the more Eurosceptic members of his own party. He can display his European credentials while arguing the decision's merits solely from an economic standpoint. While this is unlikely to have been the motive, it can certainly be used as an example of his government engaging constructively with France in an area where the Labour Party ultimately failed to deliver.

There is, however, one interesting consideration regarding this agreement: the potential effect it will have on the special nuclear relationship between the UK and US. Of course the term "special" is overused when it comes to US-UK relations, but in the context of nuclear weapons the relationship certainly is special. Weapon designers from both countries exchange a range of information, ideas and materials. Best practices in terms of warhead design are frequently discussed in a series of joint working groups that date back to the 1958 Mutual Defence Agreement.

Given that the 1958 agreement strictly limits the sharing of information with third parties without the other's consent, what effect will the UK-French agreement have on UK-US cooperation? Under the current agreement the answer is not much. However, David Cameron did state that "this is the start of something new, not an end in itself." So the question is, how far can the UK and France go in this area before officials in Washington start shifting awkwardly in their chairs? The answer probably lies somewhere between nowhere and not very far at all.

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