US-UK Nuclear Cooperation After 50 Years

Title:                  US-UK Nuclear Cooperation After 50 Years

Author:                Jenifer Mackby

Jenifer Mackby (2008). U.S.-UK Nuclear Cooperation After 50 Years. Washington, DC : Center for Strategic and International Studies

LCCN:    2008022027

UA23 .U784 2008

Date Updated:  February 26, 2016

As Britain and the United States commemorate five decades of the special nuclear relationship embodied in the 1958 Mutual Defense Agreement (MDA), two leading research institutes—one on either side of the Atlantic—have collaborated to examine that history. The Center for Strategic and International Studies, in Washington, D.C., and the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, London, enlisted senior officials, scientists, academics, and members of industry who have been involved in the implementation of the MDA over the years. The contributors were asked to recount how the U.S.-UK nuclear relationship flourished despite such obstacles as the halt in the scientific cooperation that had spurred the Manhattan Project; the Suez crisis; and sharp disagreements over scientific, political, and technical issues. They were also asked to look to the future of this unparalleled transatlantic relationship. Abstracts from 36 oral histories (taken with, among others, Des Browne, UK secretary of state for defence; James Schlesinger, former U.S. secretary of energy; and Harold Brown, former U.S. secretary of defense) add to the historical dimension of this work. The resulting collection of histories, analyses, and anecdotes provides valuable reading for an understanding of how the two nations were drawn together by a common threat during a turbulent era, as well as how they will face future challenges in a radically changed security environment.

The US-UK Special Relationship

[What follows is a summary of a talk given on July 10, 2010 by Nigel West on board Queen Mary 2, headed from New York to Southhampton, UK]

The term “special relationship” often heard mentioned by the President of the United States and The Prime Minister of Great Britain has a specific, narrow meaning related to intelligence and spills over into the nuclear program. It really is an extraordinary relationship, particularly between NSA and GCHQ, the FBI and MI5.

It all began at the end of December 1940. There was considerable doubt, even in Britain, if the UK could survive WWII without the USA. Two FBI agents, Hugh Clegg and Clarence Hince, went to the UK in December 1940 to determine if the UK had a secret means to survive and win the war with Germany. MI5 misunderstood Hince’s name, reporting it as “Florence Hince,” so only one room was booked for the two of them (thinking they were boyfriend, girlfriend.) They had an extraordinary tour of secret facilities including Bletchley and the Radio Security Service (RSS). They were authorized to share everything in hopes of wooing USA help. Not a single cabinet member knew about the access the agents were given.

They learned of Group 5 traffic. This was a radio transmitter channel between Long Island and the Abwehr in Germany. The encryption was very crude and easily broken. It became  the US. Revealing this to the FBI would raise the problem of the FBI closing the operations and the Nazis would realize their hand ciphers were broken.

Some traffic was relayed to Enigma channels. This gave an advantage to breaking Enigma by comparing easily broken messages with those encrypted by Enigma. Arthur Owen, a Welshman, was known to be suspect. He was taking in to custody and tried to make a deal. The Germans gave him a radio. He had been sending weather reports to Germany. RSS recruited amateur radio operators in the UK and were thrilled with Owens because he transmitted.

Owens was codenamed SNOW. They were astonished he was transmitting to Hamburg. But triangulation showed the Germans were using a trawler radio ship. They began monitoring this ship and discovered the same message from the spy ship to Hamburg was Enigma encrypted. Thus if you know the message it is possible to work out the key setting for Enigma. This was crucial since knowing the settings was elemental in breaking the Enigma encryption for other messages.

Not just the settings on one machine but for all machines were changed across Europe, making Enigma quite readable. By sending weather reports Owens gave MI5 a huge advantage. But now the question was, could the two US agents be trusted with this information?

When told, the two FBI agents didn’t react at all. This surprised RSS. The agents owned up that they knew all about the Long Island operations since they were sending it. They had blown the ring and took over transmission. They had been tipped off by William Sebold. Frederick Joubert Duquesne [See] was a key German agent in the US. The FBI filled every person meeting Duquesne. Thirty-two spies were identified by observation. MI5 and RSS discovered a huge advantage by cooperating with the U. S. This began an astonishing exchange of information between the U. K. and the U. S.

Among some of the areas of information the British exchanged with the American representatives (without cabinet approval!) were (1) degaussing; (2) centimetric radar; and (3) proximity fuse.

Degaussing is the process of decreasing or eliminating an unwanted magnetic field. The term was first used by (then) Cmdr Charles F. Goodeve, RCNVR, during World War II while trying to counter the German magnetic mines that were playing havoc with the British fleet. Decreasing the magnetic field signature of a naval vessel will reduce its susceptibility to detonating naval influence mines and the probability of a submarine being detected by underwater barriers and maritime patrol aircraft.

Centimetric Radar[See was developed by the British to determine the altitude and speed of aircraft and was crucial in the Battle of Britain.

The Proximity Fuse The proximity fuse was highly classified. It was described as “the war’s second top secret, the proximity fuse, had a major portion of its development take place at the Evans Signal Laboratory, it was revealed during the day-long tour of the Fort Monmouth laboratories by the press Thursday, November 15th [1945].” Evans Laboratory is located at Camp Evans, NJ, and is now a museum for electronics research for military purposes. Lee DuBridge, helped establish the research program for proximity radar for anti-aircraft shells at the Radiation Laboratory of Massachusetts Institute of Technology.] concept originated with British researchers (particularly Sir Samuel Curran) and was developed under the direction of physicist Merle A. Tuve at The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab (APL).

A fourth development was the sharing of research on a potential nuclear weapon. Nuclear physics began in Germany, but owing to the racial policies of Hitler, many eminent physicists fled to Britain. They were interested in research in U238 and U235 and the related fission process. They worked out a great deal of the physics for miniaturizing the fission fuel so a bomb would be feasible from an engineering point. Most scientists discounted the possibility of such a weapon until the MAUD Committee considered the feasibility. The MAUD Committee was the beginning of the British atomic bomb project, before the UK joined forces with the US in the Manhattan Project. [For the complete report see] It is worth noting that John Cairncross was secretary to the MAUD Committee. He had been recruited as a Soviet spy, so from the beginning the Soviets were aware of research underway on a nuclear weapon.

Sir Marcus Oliphant in the UK was a leading nuclear physicist in Britain and directly related to Britain’s consideration of a nuclear weapon. In a television interview he recalled the following]

“Now the interesting thing is that working with me in the laboratory at that time were two German refugees, from Hitler’s Germany.  One was named Piles [sic His name was Rudolf Peirels] the other one’s name Frish [sic The name is Otto Frisch. Frisch was the nephew of Lise Meitner, and the two of them have priority in the discovery of nuclear fission. (Fred Wilson.)] These two people together, of course they were enemy aliens, they weren’t allowed to know anything about this secret weapon or radar you see. So they had to be kept out of that.

“So not being allowed to do that, they set to work to do some calculations about nuclear energy, about the possibility of getting nuclear energy, and, they lo and behold – they came through with a paper, which they said that if one could separate the uranium then one could make a bomb of enormous power and they calculated the amount of uranium 235 that was required and also the explosive force that might be produced.

“And this was absolutely hair-raising. Here were these two chaps not allowed to have anything to do with the secrets of radar, producing this paper on this possibility of making a nuclear weapon. So this paper was sent to the United States to inform them. So I had to dash across to America in connection with the Magnetron, but while I was there, I was asked to see what had happened to our report, the Piles Frish [sic Frisch-Peirels] report, so I went to the, to Washington, to the Chairman of the American committee, who was the head of their department that was responsible for standards, their standards laboratory. And he was a real stick in the mud and he’d taken this report, thought it was a bit interesting, but had stuck it in his safe and hadn’t circulated it to the other members of the committee.

“So I went straight away to see [Vannevar] Bush and [James] Connant, who were the President’s scientific and technical advisers and both of them took the point of view, well this is very interesting but this if for the next war, not for this war.

So still dissatisfied, I got on an aeroplane and went to see [Ernest O.] Lawrence whom I’d worked with you see and knew to be a live wire and a member of the committee. So I told him about this, and he was so upset that he got on the plane with me and we went back to Washington. Within a few days the man had the project well on its way. And we moved to America, whole of the British team moved to America.” [See]

The Frisch-Pierels Report did suggest it might be possible to develop and air-transportable weapon. But [See] this was hardly an option for the UK owing to the enormous resources required. Henry Tizard was impressed with the report and had the connections within the U. K. Ministry of Defence to take it to the War Cabinet, who found it should be further considered.

The Frisch-Pierels Report is published in Robert Serber’s The Los Alamos Primer[1] [Serber, Robert (1943, 1992) The Los Alamos Primer (Appendix 1)]. Actually, there are two memoranda, the first of which was lost until the British historian Ronald W. Clark (published in Ronald W Clark, Tizard[Clark, Ronald W. (1965) Tizard, pp. 215-17]. Clark discovered it among the papers of Henry Tizard, some twenty years after the end of World War II.

As mentioned above, John Cairncross became an aide to Lord Hankey, secretary to the British Cabinet. He typed the final report to the Prime Minister. Cairncross and Donald Maclean were active at that time but knew nothing of each other. Cairncross admitted to spying in 1951 after MI5 found incriminating papers in his possession. Some believe that the information he supplied about the Western atomic weapons programmes kick-started the Soviet nuclear programme.

It became clear that huge resources would be needed to build an atomic weapon. The government decided that it would develop a reactor at Chalk River in Canada. In the US the decision was finally made to go on with the weapon development. Vannevar Bush was the scientific head of the project and General Leslie Grove was the factotum. It was indeed an Anglo-American project. The UK depended on the US but maintained its own development.

The special relationship extended to cooperation with the OSS. The VENONA cooperation on cryptography became the BRUSA-UKUSA. [BRUSA[2] was the acronym for the security agreement concluded between Great Britain and the United States in May 1943, which set the terms of the Anglo-American exchange of cryptographic techniques and products, the reciprocal cross-posting of liaison personnel, and the standardization of procedures. BRUSA was enhanced in the postwar era with UKUSA, signed in 1947.]

In June, 2010 the NSA-GCHQ declassified and posted on the internet the early papers of this cooperation that extended through the 1950s[See].

British pilots trained on U2 aircraft to get imaging of the Soviet Union. U2 aircraft flew so high they were immune to Soviet missiles. British planes adapted to deliver nuclear weapons, but standoff targeting was required. That is, delivery of a weapon at a considerable distance from the target so the delivery platform is not seen and never visually acquires the target. This necessity led to cruise missiles. The first British cruise missile was Skybolt (December 1962). However President John Kennedy cancelled the program without warning the UK. Kennedy met MacMillan to deal with this. MacMillan begged for assistance, so Kennedy shared the Polaris missile. Stung by being unwarned and in political difficulty, MacMillan vowed to have the Union Jack on the nose cone of every British Polaris.

The American needed ground stations for NSA and the UK had little islands all over the world, remnants of the empire. NSA shared its product (even raw data.) In 1970 the UK elected an anti-American prime minister (Edward Heath). As a young man he was dismayed by U. S. isolationism before WWII. Further, the US did not help the UK, French, and Israeli attack in Suez. During the 1973 Yom Kippur War Heath refused permission for the US to use any UK bases for resupply.

The US reconnaissance aircraft, the SR71 “Blackbird”, was a great aircraft but burned a huge amount of fuel. British bases were needed for refueling. There was an enormous US antipathy to Heath. The US-UK finally got together after Prime Minister Heath. Nevertheless, the US-UK intelligence cooperation was unaffected.

The Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) in Britain is at the apex of British Intelligence. At its table sits the heads of the secret agencies plus Whitehall representatives, and it reaches agreed views, by consensus, which are then circulated to an inner group of ministers and departmental consumers. It prepares and circulates the “Red Book, the classified weekly summary of current events which senior ministers take home and read each weekend.” The US CIA station chief also sits on the JIC.”[See West, Nigel (1997). The Secret War for the Falklands, p. 26]

When a new prime minister is named in Britain, he (or she) makes a call on the Queen. The outgoing minister is quickly and quietly shown the back door of the palace. Upon return to Number 10, Downing Street the new PM is told to write three letters, for the UK nuclear submarine commanders. It is he who must determine what they are to do in the event of a nuclear attack on the UK (and decapitation of the UK command system). The cabinet secretary gives guidance but it is the PM who must write the letters. They have some options which the PM must prioritize

  • Use your own initiative.
  • Go to Australia (become part of the retaliation)
  • Place yourself under command of the U.S. President

[1] Serber, Robert (1943, 1992) [edited by Richard Rhodes(1992)]. The Los Alamos Primer: First Lectures on How to Build an Atomic Bomb. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press

[2] West, Nigel (2006). Historical Dictionary of International Intelligence. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, p. 38


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