In his article in the October–November 2015 issue of Survival on the replacement of the UK’s Trident-armed submarine force, William Walker mentions the possibility that, if Scotland were to become a sovereign state and expel British nuclear forces, the United States might offer to allow the UK to use the base at Kings Bay in Georgia, at least temporarily, while other basing options in England or Wales were developed. It is an idea that has been raised before. There are some aspects to the proposal which seem superficially attractive. But the obstacles are very significant.
Kings Bay is the home of the US Navy’s east-coast-based Ohio-class Trident-armed ballistic-missile submarines, which are even larger than the UK Royal Navy’s current Vanguard class. British submarines call in on Kings Bay to load and unload their Trident missiles from and back into a common US–UK pool of weapons. But, when they do so, the missiles are unarmed, as they have their nuclear warheads fitted and removed at the Royal Naval Armament Depot at Coulport, adjacent to the submarines’ current base at Faslane.
Therein lies one of the critical practical obstacles to the idea of Kings Bay as even a temporary base for Britain’s Trident submarine force. It is possible that, as part of a temporary transition, the warhead fitting, storage and maintenance facilities at Coulport could be retained, even if the submarines were relocated. But separating the submarines from their armament facilities by an entire ocean would present massive operational difficulties, especially if the operational concept to sustain a continuous at-sea deterrent with no more than four boats were unchanged.
A permanent move, whether to the United States or within the rest of the UK, would require the recreation of the Coulport facilities elsewhere. In the context of a relocation to Kings Bay, and sustaining the notion of a national independent nuclear force, that would surely also at least require the development of a national UK nuclear warhead facility in Georgia. The hurdles to creating such a facility on US soil (not least, satisfying two sets of national regulatory authorities), are likely to be significantly greater than attempting to do the same thing in another part of the United Kingdom. And what would the transport arrangements be for delivering UK warheads from their manufacturing site, the UK’s Atomic Weapons Establishment at Aldermaston, to the United States?
Providing broader maintenance facilities for the submarines would also be complicated. Devonport plays host to the Vanguard-class boats for long refits. But, in terms of operational sustainment, there would need to be significant additional provision for British boats at Kings Bay. They share the same missiles as their US counterparts. The next generation of submarines will share a common, jointly US/UK-developed missile compartment. But virtually all the other major systems, including the nuclear propulsion plant, are different.
There is also the personnel issue. Migrating all the necessary crews, their families, and any required sustaining UK workforce, to Georgia – when maintaining manning is proving a huge challenge as it is – would surely present at least as many practical problems as finding a new home for Trident within the United Kingdom.
Finally, of course, there are the political and strategic considerations. There is some precedent for all of this in the forward basing of US ballistic-missile submarine capabilities at Holy Loch in Scotland for three decades from 1961. And today there are US tactical nuclear weapons based on European soil. But that is at a much lower rung on the strategic nuclear ladder. And Holy Loch was nuclear-equipped in the context of both the Cold War and a massive home-based US nuclear infrastructure, of which Holy Loch was just an element. Moving the UK’s Trident force to Kings Bay today would mean basing an entire national nuclear-missile force on foreign soil.
Basing what is meant to be a nation’s ultimate deterrent capability on foreign soil must raise questions about that nation’s willingness to use it. And would the American authorities be willing to take on the political controversy that would undoubtedly go along with establishing a base for non-US nuclear weapons on US soil? The Westminster government would likewise face redoubled allegations that its independent deterrent was no such thing. (That argument might be different if the focus of the justification for maintaining the UK force were to change significantly, becoming much more founded on NATO-wide, rather than national, nuclear capability.)
All this suggests that the Kings Bay option would seem to present at least as many obstacles as any of the other alternative sites for the future of the UK nuclear force. Perhaps the key question is to what extent the UK government will choose, or be forced, to confront these options more publicly in the future than it has been prepared to do up to now.
Nick Childs is Senior Fellow for Naval Forces and Maritime Security at the IISS.