Yesterday’s Observer Sunday newspaper breaks probably the most important news story of the week. For reasons hard to fathom, the editor placed it on page 20!
Broken by Jamie Doward, one of the few investigative reporters still engaged by national newspaper- and who has a track record of breaking path-breaking nuclear stories Government’s don’t want the media to report - it concerns the long expected development of the UK collaborating with the US to replace the ageing Trident nuclear warheads – jointly designed by Aldermaston and Los Alamos weapons labs scientists - in its stockpile.
Doward reported: “Earlier this month, Pentagon officials confirmed that its proposed W93 sea-launched warhead, the nuclear tip of the next generation of submarine-launched ballistic missiles, would share technology with the UK’s next nuclear weapon, implying that a decision had been taken between the two countries to work on the programme.
(“Pentagon reveals deal with Britain to replace Trident: MPs dismayed after US defence officials leak news of nuclear weapons deal before parliament is told, 23 February 2020; “https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2020/feb/22/pentagon-gaffe-reveals-uk-deal-replace-trident-nuclear-weapon)
The Observer explained that last week Admiral Charles Richard, commander of the US strategic command, told the Senate defence committee that there was a requirement for a new warhead, which would be called the W93 or Mk7. Richard said: “This effort will also support a parallel replacement warhead programme in the United Kingdom, whose nuclear deterrent plays an absolutely vital role in Nato’s overall defence posture.”
Alan Shaffer, Pentagon deputy under-secretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment, also made reference to the new UK programme in a briefing session at the annual nuclear deterrence summit, in Alexandria, Virginia. “I think it’s wonderful that the UK is working on a new warhead at the same time, and I think we will have discussions and be able to share technologies,” Shaffer said.
Hans Kristensen, director of the nuclear information project at the Federation of American Scientists, said the development of the new warhead posed significant geopolitical problems. “Britain and the US have come a long away from being leaders in reducing the role of nuclear weapons and contemplating the possible road toward potential disarmament to re-embracing nuclear weapons for the long haul. They are obviously not alone in this, with Russia, China and France doing their own work. So, overall, this is a serious challenge for the international non-proliferation regime,” he said.
SNP defence spokesperson Stewart McDonald rightly raised the question about how the decision could impact the UK's commitment to the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.(NPT) saying "This is a quite astonishing story. Not only are we learning about a new UK nuclear missiles programme from the US Senate, but the programme itself clearly sets the UK on course to breach the Non-Proliferation Treaty, to which it is a signatory. "The treaty makes it clear that nuclear armed states are required to 'pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament.' This programme clearly rips up that commitment and that is of utmost concern. (“Leaked plan to renew Trident sets UK on course to break nuclear treaty,: The National , 3 February 2020; https://www.thenational.scot/news/18255695.leaked-plan-renew-trident-sets-uk-course-break-nuclear-treaty/
David Cullen, director of technical research group the Nuclear Information Service, told the Observer “The UK’s reliance on US knowledge and assistance for their nuclear weapons programme means they will find it almost impossible to diverge from any development path the US decides to take. “We are legally bound to take steps towards disarmament under the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, but this would take us in the opposite direction.”
The concern over nuclear warhead development for the UK’s nuclear WMDs - including contemporaneously the rented rockets from the US Trident missile stocks at King’s Bay, in Georgia - has a long legacy.. This has been raised in Parliament over the past sixty or so years by a very small number of MPs who have scrutinised this least transparent of defence procurement exercises.
One such MP with a consistently strong record of serious scrutiny is outgoing Labour Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn.
For example, he asked the MOD in June 1990 what information in support of the United Kingdom nuclear weapons and warhead design and development had been made available by the United States under the 1958–59 as amended mutual defence agreement on atomic energy matters?
Defence minister Alan Clark said helpfully in response: “It has been the policy of successive British Governments not to disclose information exchanged under the terms of the 1958 United Kingdom/United States defence agreement.
Corbyn also asked what would be the financial savings made if the planned number of warheads for the Trident D5 programme were reduced by (i) 50 per cent. and (ii) 75 per cent?
Clark added again helpfully: ” It has been the policy of successive Governments not to reveal details of this nature, for security reasons.
(Nuclear Weapons, HC Deb 13 June 1990 cc243-4W; https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/written-answers/1990/jun/13/nuclear-weapons)
A decade later, Corbyn brought up the issue on Trident nuclear warheads, this time with Labour Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon, whom he asked what information senior officers on Trident submarines are given on the specific yields and likely targets of the missiles they are responsible for. 
Hoon replied: “The Trident missiles on which our nuclear deterrent is based have been de-targeted since 1994. In the circumstances of our having to use our nuclear weapons, 95W members of the patrolling submarine crew would be provided with the information they need to discharge their duties.” adding ever helpfully “ I am withholding the details of this information under Exemption 1 of the Code of Practice on Access to Government Information relating to defence, security and international relations.”
Hoon also stressed: “The United Kingdom's minimum nuclear deterrent is consistent with international law. It follows that UK military personnel engaged in the operation or support of Trident are acting legally under the Nuremberg Principals. This has been made clear down the chain of command, and members of the Armed Services who seek further guidance on these issues can in the first instance do so through their chain of command.
Guidance on the Law of Armed Conflict for the Armed Services is set out in the draft Joint Service Manual on the Law of Armed Conflict (Joint Service Publication 383)…. The relevant section on Nuclear Weapons was reconfirmed following the 1996 Advisory Opinion of the International Court of Justice on the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons. It reads: ‘There is no specific rule of international law, express or implied, which prohibits the use of nuclear weapons. The legality of their use depends upon the application of the general rules of international law, including those regulating the inherent right of self defence and the conduct of hostilities. Those rules cannot be applied in isolation from any factual context to imply a prohibition of a general nature. Whether the use, or threatened use, of nuclear weapons in a particular case is lawful depends on all the circumstances. Nuclear weapons fall to be dealt with by reference to the same general principles as apply to conventional weapons. However, the new rules introduced in Additional Protocol I [to the Geneva Conventions] are not intended to have any effect on and do not regulate or prohibit the use of nuclear weapons.’”
(Nuclear Weapons; HC Deb 10 January 2000 cc94-6W; https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/written-answers/2000/jan/10/nuclear-weapons)
A further decade later, in late March 2009, and Corbyn was still probing the MOD on Trident warheads, asking the MOD what was its most recent estimate is of the cost of the replacement of the Trident nuclear warhead system. 
Labour’s Defence Secretary, John Hutton, responded, stating: :We published our initial estimate of the costs for the possible refurbishment or replacement of the warhead for our future nuclear deterrent capability in the December 2006 nuclear White Paper. This is in the range of £2 billion to £3 billion at 2006-07 prices. We have not yet made a decision to develop a new UK nuclear warhead. However, work is being undertaken to inform decisions, likely to be taken in the next Parliament, on whether and how we might need to refurbish or replace our current warhead.(emphasis added)
Corbyn followed up with a perspicacious question - in light of today’s Observer revelations that the WMD warhead replacement was being undertaken behind the back of Parliamentary scrutiny, requesting the Defence Secretary to assure the House of Commons that there would be “no expenditure on developing a new warhead without the specific approval of the House of Commons,” and added the supplementary seeking assurance the MOD was “satisfied that the development of a whole new warhead system is legal within the terms of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty”?
Unsurprisingly, but disingenuously, Hutton retorted: “Yes, I believe that it certainly would be within the framework of the non-proliferation treaty. The NPT did not require unilateral disarmament on the part of the United Kingdom, and we are able to maintain very properly within the terms of the NPT our minimum nuclear deterrent; and, yes, I believe that there should be a vote in this House before such a decision was taken.”
It may be noted Corbyn asked nothing about unilateral nuclear disarmament, but this was gratuitously included in the answer,
(Trident, 30 March 2009, cols 650-52; https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200809/cmhansrd/cm090330/debtext/90330-0003.htm)
Other MPs have explored WMD warhead replacement and deployment in earlier exchanges in Parliament.
For example, the inveterate peace and nuclear disarmament campaigner, Labour MP Frank Allaun asked in March 1962 if the Government would request the United States Government to circulate to their North Atlantic Treaty Organisation allies details of the steps taken to ensure security of nuclear warheads where custody pending use remains with the United States Government.
The minister Joseph Godber declined, asserting “No, Sir. The North Atlantic Alliance is aware that the security of such nuclear warheads is rigidly enforced and that they remain in the constant physical custody of United States military detachments. Detailed security arrangements are concluded bilaterally between the United States and each North Atlantic Treaty Organisation country concerned. I see no reason to recommend any change.
Allaun followed up asking: “But has not the Mace already been supplied to Germany? Did not the Minister of Defence on 20th December  admit that nuclear warheads are allocated to Germans in N.A.T.O. as they are to the British? Since the warheads in time of emergency must be stored near the missiles, would this not mean that they could be seized and used by German officers?”
Godber replies: “I am advised that this is definitely not so. There is no question of this happening. The security arrangements are strict and are stringently enforced, and I am sure that they would cover all eventualities.
(N.A.T.O. NUCLEAR WARHEADS; HC Deb 26 March 1962 cc834-5; https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/commons/1962/mar/26/nato-nuclear-warheads)
A few years later, Labour’s Stan Orme, who later himself became a defence minister asked the Prime Minister (Harold Wilson ) if he was aware that “for more than six years nuclear warheads have been mounted secretly on aircraft and missiles of West Germany and other North Atlantic Treaty Organisation allies;
Wilson responded: “No non-nuclear members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation have nuclear warheads under national control. The forces of a number of non-nuclear members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation are equipped with nuclear delivery vehicles. My information is that the warheads for these weapons are kept under strict United States custody and control at all times.
Orme followed up citing the New York Times; asking the prime Minister if he was aware that this statement, first published in the New York Times and subsequently in the British Press, has caused great concern, and will he give an assurance that in no circumstances will there be a German finger on the nuclear trigger? “
Harold Wilson retorted: “I am not responsible for what appears in the Press, whether it be the New York Times or any other newspaper. So far as the Question is concerned, the arrangements have always been known, …and certainly as far as these particular weapons are concerned there is no German finger on the trigger for the reason set out in my original Answer.
(NUCLEAR WARHEADS; HC Deb 30 November 1965 cc1234-5; https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/commons/1965/nov/30/nuclear-warheads)
Labour MP John McFall, who later chaired the Treasury select Committee and is now a Labour peer, asked in March 1991 what review the MOD had “made of the safety of the existing designs and designs currently under development of nuclear warheads; what application of three-dimensional modelling has been used; and what reconsideration has resulted of the safety case for an actual nuclear explosion which might be accidentally or unintentionally initiated leading to the dispersal of radioactivity and/or a nuclear yield?”.
Defence minister Archie Hamilton said :” All of the United Kingdom's nuclear warheads are designed to meet stringent safety requirements. Before entering operational service, the designs are subject to a comprehensive series of trials and assessments, encompassing normal and credible abnormal environments of in-service life, and to formal safety approvals procedures, which are assessed independently. In addition, the United Kingdom conducts a continuous safety review of all operationally deployed designs by way of routine examination and sophisticated modelling.”(Nuclear Warheads; HC Deb 25 March 1991 c300W https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/written-answers/1991/mar/25/nuclear-warheads)
Left Labour MP Llew Smith, now retired, for whom I did research for twenty odd years on security issues, asked in April 1995 whether the figures the MOD cited (oral answer, 28 March,Official Report, columns 817–18) on future deployment of United Kingdom nuclear warheads include all existing categories of British land, sea and air-launched nuclear weapons presently deployed by the Untied Kingdom or allocated to NATO. 
Churchill’s grandson, Defence minister Nicholas Soames answered: “The figures cited are for the total number of Untied Kingdom nuclear weapons, excluding only any awaiting final dismantlement.”
(Nuclear Warheads; HC Deb 21 April 1995, c302W; https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/written-answers/1995/apr/21/nuclear-warheads
Select Committee on Defence Written Evidence 7 March 2006