Jeffrey LewisMore on Britain's Independent Deterrent

Last winter, after a visit to the Atomic Weapons Establishment at Aldermaston — the Los Alamos or Livermore of the United Kingdom — I came away with a new understanding of how intertwined the US and UK nuclear weapons programs really are:

I think it comes as a shock to most people on either side of the Atlantic when they learn how much the UK depends on the United States for its nuclear deterrent. Even I was a little taken aback during my visit to Aldermaston when Don Cook, the Managing Director of the Atomic Weapons Establishment, began to address us in his flat American accent.

I thought “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot? Couldn’t they have found someone British?”

After a couple of days at the AWE, and a tour of the lovely historical collection, I accepted the reality that, no, the United Kingdom does not in any way, shape, or form have an independent nuclear deterrent.

Today comes the news that the White House has nominated the same Don Cook as Deputy Administrator for Defense Programs at the National Nuclear Security Administration. He’s at least the second American to come into the Defense Programs gig after a stint at Aldermaston.

Seriously, it’s one nuclear weapons program, from the designs to the neutron generators.

Update | 11:07

In case you are interested, here is Don Cook’s biography, from the National Nuclear Security Administration:

Donald L. Cook, Nominee for Deputy Administrator for Defense Programs, National Nuclear Security Administration, Department of Energy

Dr. Donald L. Cook was the Managing Director of the Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) in the United Kingdom from 2006 to 2009. In this capacity, he was accountable for AWE’s performance on the contract with the U.K. Ministry of Defence, which includes support of the U.K. Trident warheads and development and sustainment of capability in nuclear weapon design, development, manufacturing, qualification, assembly, transport, support in service, and finally, decommissioning, dismantlement, and disposal. Prior to heading AWE, Dr. Cook worked at Sandia National Laboratories, Albuquerque, New Mexico for 28 years in Pulsed Power Sciences, Microtechnologies, Infrastructure, and Security. From 1999-2006, he was Director of the MESA Program Center, accountable for design and construction of the Microsystems and Engineering Sciences Applications (MESA) complex. In 2003, he assumed Program Director responsibilities for Sandia’s Infrastructure Program and for Sandia’s Safeguards and Security Technologies Program, which responded to a new Design Basis Threat. From 1977-1999, Dr. Cook led efforts in pulsed power accelerator design and experimentation, fusion research, hydrodynamics, radiography, diagnostic development, and computational code development. He managed the Sandia Inertial Confinement Fusion program from 1984-1993 and was Director of Pulsed Power Sciences from 1993-1999. Dr. Cook is a graduate of the University of Michigan and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the Institute of Physics (IOP).


  1. anon

    “…I accepted the reality that, no, the United Kingdom does not in any way, shape, or form have an independent nuclear deterrent.”

    If they do, they sure spend a lot of time visiting our NWC. Perhaps they just like visiting the Colonies.

  2. bruno

    It depends what you call independence. Michael Quinlan once said that there were two different conceptions of nuclear independence: type 1 was the French one (doing almost everything on your own – very expensive), type 2 was the British one (having the ability to independently use NW – much less expensive).

    A colleague of mine once described the US/UK program in historical terms as being akin to a metallic alloy – very difficult to separate them.

  3. Andrew Tubbiolo (History)

    …. A BBC piece on the UK Cold War deterrent comes to mind. I believe the link was given on ACW before. But the ease with which UK submarine commanders would transfer ownership of the ships store from UK->US->Australian command really stood out. One has to ask does the US have similar options for a submarine commander who has to face the option of an NCA that no longer exists?

  4. bobbymike (History)

    Let’s hope they are allowed to perform Advanced Concept Development work at AWE to keep the west on the cutting edge of all things nuclear.

  5. John Schilling (History)

    I would have thought any question of the independence of the British nuclear deterrent would have been resolved with the retirement of the WE-177. Regardless of how much of the physics package is designed and built in the UK, the only remaining British nuclear delivery system is rather clearly American. And not just American-built; the missiles on British submarines are drawn from a common pool maintained by the U.S. Navy. The Brits are now essentially renting their nuclear deterrent.

    As Bruno and Quinlan point out, this should still leave them with independent operational control of a nuclear arsenal, and at less cost than maintaining independent production capability. In the short term, there’s no practical difference between the two.

    In the long term, I’m fairly confident the British could go back to building their own neutron generators if they wanted to, and do so before their stockpile of American-built ones run out. British-built SLBMs would be a tall order, but they could certainly adapt their W-76 clones to British-built gravity bombs or air-to-surface missiles if the US decides to back out of the Trident deal.

    So, not sure what all the fuss is about. Is someone worried that the US is selling the British duds, and planting US scientists at Aldermaston to make sure the models all say “yep, that’s a genuine working nuclear weapon”? Well, OK, I’m sure there’s a conspiracy theorist somewhere who is saying that, but it doesn’t seem terribly likely.

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