Wind of change as US removes last nuclear bombs from Britain

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The Independent Online
The last US nuclear weapons have gone from the United Kingdom, defence sources confirmed yesterday.

They went with a whimper, not with a bang. At the weekend, someone noticed the gates at the US nuclear weapons storage site at RAF Lakenheath, Suffolk, were open, blowing in the wind, and the site was unguarded. There were no armed guards in the watchtowers, and no guard dogs. Very quietly, the US had withdrawn its entire UK nuclear stockpile.

The removal of the last US B-61 nuclear bombs had taken place over the past two months, the sources revealed with unusual candour. Lakenheath was the only place in Britain where US nuclear weapons remained. With the site deserted and unguarded, there was little point in maintaining the usual,"We cannot confirm or deny the presence of nuclear weapons." Unless they had been stolen, of course, which would have been acutely embarrassing.

Last night Ministry of Defence sources said the weapons had gone. Lakenheath remains a US air base, but any air attacks from the UK are likely to be with high-precision, conventional bombs, like the US attack on Libya in 1986. In military terms, nuclear bombs are close to obsolete.

"It closes a very significant chapter in the history of Anglo-American relations," said Eddie Goncalves of Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND). "Britain's role as America's unsinkable aircraft carrier could be coming to an end."

CND said yesterday there had been about 90 B-61 bombs at Lakenheath at the start of the year, but in recent weeks there were large-scale movements and now security had been relaxed. "Lakenheath was the last bunker for US nuclear bombs in the UK."

The withdrawal of the last American nuclear bombs marks the end of nearly a half-century during which Britain was regarded as Airstrip 1 for the United States in its confrontation with the Soviet Union. The first US nuclear bombs arrived at the beginning of the 1960s, when the "ban-the-bomb" movement was at its height. Their presence again became a major issue in the mid- 1980s with the basing of Tomahawk cruise missiles at Greenham Common and Molesworth, marking the era of renewed activity for CND and the Greenham Women.

The Intermediate Nuclear Force Treaty of 1987 began the reduction of US nuclear forces in Europe. That was followed by cuts in intercontinental ballistic missiles under the Strategic Arms Reduction treaty, and cuts in conventional weapons under the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty. And with the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe, the threat diminished.

The final withdrawal of the US bombs is therefore more significant symbolically, politically and emotionally than militarily. The idea of flying over a target and dropping a nuclear bomb on it is deeply archaic. If Britain or the US wanted to launch a nuclear strike on anybody now, they would do it with submarine-launched guided missiles. Britain will get rid of its own WE-177 free-fall nuclear bombs in 1998. From then, Britain's only nuclear weapons will be warheads for the submarine-launched Trident missiles.

The withdrawal also sends messages to Russia and to east-European nations hoping to join Nato in 1999. With the range and accuracy of modern nuclear and conventional weapons, it is no longer necessary to base them in a particular area to provide the Nato security guarantee. For the "nuclear guarantee" to be extended to Poland, for example, does not require atomic bombs to be based in Poland.

Any more than in England.