Mr President: You asked us to brief you on the current plans to sell to the United Kingdom the next generation nuclear deterrent. In particular, you asked about the possible downsides that have emerged since the original presidential approval was given to the programme.
In broad terms, Mr President, they fall into three categories. The British Royal Navy has done a superb job in managing previous and current capabilities, but we have growing concerns about the UK government that is in control of the deterrent.
The first is that our intelligence community is increasingly worried about the integrity of UK politics. There is reason to believe that Russian penetration has reached a critical point in its ability to influence UK decision making. London has attracted a significant expatriate Russian community; some are effectively asylum seekers, like Skripal, but some retain contacts with Moscow. The ruling Conservative Party has been receptive to funding from these sources and, most recently, has rewarded one individual with a seat in the House of Lords – the upper house of the UK legislature. As far as we can see, there is nothing to stop the government from creating as many similar lawmakers in the upper house as it wishes. We believe that significant donations have also been made to a number of members of the House of Commons. Our intelligence community is therefore concerned about the level of influence that we see in the current government.
We have also seen the increasing volume of Russian money that is being moved through the London banking system. The UK has been described as a “higher risk jurisdiction” by the Intelligence Division of the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN), and there are suggestions that one of the key drivers for Brexit was the need to avoid the implementation of new EU rules on the handling of suspicious funds. Additionally, the removal of London from its key role in the European banking system may make it even more dependent on handling Russian money of questionable origin, and we are concerned about the impact that the threat of the withdrawal of EU oversight might have. The recent leaks of FinCEN files are beginning to bring this relationship into the public domain. You will also be aware of the close links that exist between Conservative politicians and the banking and financial sectors.
Our second concern relates to the UK’s continuing need for nuclear weapons. The US–UK programme goes back 75 years to a time when the UK was a genuine world power. It was a founding member of the United Nations and, as a result, has a permanent seat on the Security Council. This has served the US well, since we can usually count on the Brits for support. However, it is fair to say that, if we were drawing up the organisation from scratch, the UK would no longer be one of the top five. It has remained of importance largely because of its membership of the EU, where, together with France, it has been able to influence a major power block, usually towards a course that aligns with our own. With Brexit, that influence has gone and France and Germany are more influential allies in Europe. It is not clear what influence an ‘independent UK’ will have on the world stage in the future and its recent willingness to renege on a recently signed international treaty reduces its credibility with potential partners still further. Part of the heritage of 75 years ago was the significant British contribution to the early development of nuclear weapons but evidence of British innovation has been notably absent in recent years.
Our third concern relates to the growing independence movement in Scotland. The Scottish National Party has been in power in the Scottish Parliament for over a decade and has a strong anti-nuclear weapons policy. The UK deterrent is currently based at Faslane in Scotland and, in the event of a vote for Scottish independence, the base would certainly have to be relocated. One option might be Plymouth, where Devonport dockyard already has the capability to refuel nuclear submarines and was an operating base until quite recently. This might be feasible although, taken with the loss of the Scottish economy and manpower, it is clear that the UK without Scotland would struggle to field the same military power as it does now. The carrier/strike capability provided by the UK’s two new aircraft carriers is already a major challenge for the Royal Navy’s manpower, and Scottish independence would inevitably provoke a major review of the defence posture that Westminster government could support. With a significantly reduced status in the world post-Brexit, it is not clear what the new priorities would be – or, Mr President, what we would want them to be.
There is one upside that you might like to consider. If the UK’s two aircraft carriers were to be offered for sale, in the event that the British could no longer afford to support them, they would be ideal for the US Marine Corps with their F35Bs. This would be a quick and cheap way to plug the gap that is currently developing, as and when our own current aircraft carriers become obsolete. This is a real opportunity, Mr President, and perhaps one that we should grasp.