The US returning nuclear weapons to British soil will not make anyone safer, writes John McGrath, reporting from the protest outside RAF Lakenheath
On Saturday 21 March, hundreds of protesters gathered at RAF/USAF Lakenheath, an air force base in Suffolk, to rally against the redeployment of US nuclear weapons on British soil. The demonstration was organised by CND (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament).
RAF/USAF Lakenheath is a sprawling military campus with fast food restaurants and a golf course roughly 80 miles north of London. There are 13 US-controlled military bases in the UK and roughly 24,000 US military personnel deployed on them, but Lakenheath is the largest and hosts the US’s 48th Fighter Wing. The 48th is entrusted to provide ‘worldwide responsive combat airpower and support’ which is ‘capable of dominating any adversary.’
This ‘domination” was on full display when the US launched combat and support missions in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, as well as being the US launch pad for the bombing of Libya in 1986. US free-fall nuclear bombs, which had been at the site for decades, were withdrawn in 2008 after sustained anti-nuclear protest and a change in US policy.
The legal framework for US-operated military bases is the Status of Forces agreement between Nato and the UK in 1951, which allows US military forces to operate within, and with the consent of, the UK. The US is the only country in the world which foists nuclear weapons onto other countries. Currently these countries include Nato members Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey.
Ultimately countries in the Nato military alliance are subject to the whims of the US Pentagon; Nato is an affront to UK sovereignty in that the decision to house US nuclear weapons isn’t subject to votes in parliament, as was the case with Trident, but by bureaucrats in the Pentagon. The British Air Force forgoes control of Lakenheath and the decision to redeploy nuclear bombs has neither been confirmed nor denied by government officials on either side of the Atlantic. Public scrutiny has been marginalised as the bases are firmly under US control.
The Pentagon’s decision to bring back nuclear weapons to the UK is a recent one, possibly as a result of the war in Ukraine, possibly before that. The news was revealed by Hans Kristianson when he went over recent US department of Defence documents with a fine comb and noticed money set aside for investments in UK bases for the storage of “special weapons”. In Department of Defence jargon, “special weapons” means nuclear weapons. Brand new nuclear-capable F-35A Lightning planes arrived to the base 6 months ago. The B61-12 guided nuclear bomb, the world’s most expensive nuclear bomb to date, is expected to arrive to Lakenheath this year. This will make the military base a target should there be a war.
CND corralled peace activists from around the country into hired coaches to meet at the Lakenheath base. Colourful peace flags and banners which read “No to Nato” festooned the barbed wire fence outside the compound. Kate Hudson of CND hosted the event and speakers across the peace movement spoke of the timing and danger of US nuclear weapons returning to Lakenheath.
Kate Hudson, CND
Representing the Stop the War Coalition, Chris Nineham highlighted the war in Ukraine in his remarks. “…Russian troops should be withdrawn, but we also have to recognise that the politics that have been pursued by the western powers over the last years and decades have played an important contributing factor in creating this war and the crisis in Ukraine. And this decision is part of that process,” Nineham said as he pointed to the air base. “There’s been a process over the last years of the expansion of Nato, even now we’re seeing that process continuing. And of course, the response to the crisis in Ukraine has been from the start one of war and not one of peace.”
Chris Nineham, Stop the War Coalition
Some speakers appealed to common sense concerns about the dangers of nuclear weapons, especially while there is a proxy war between nuclear countries. “The war in Ukraine provides us with dangerous evidence… of how we are on the whims of a small group of rulers- their missteps, miscalculations and emotions in a time of crises,” Ludo De Brabander of Vrede Vzw in Belgium told the crowd.
Samantha Mason of Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS), took a different approach, and highlighted the Cost of Living Crisis in her remarks. She introduced a slogan used by Italian workers: “Lower the weapons, raise the wages.” She also mentioned that the trade union movement shouldn’t be defending the jobs created by Trident and should advocate for clean energy jobs in solidarity with workers in the poorest countries of the world who will be hit by climate change the hardest. “This is about our class and defending that, wherever that is.”
Jess Barnard, Young Labour
Jessica Barnard, the chair of Young Labour, pointed to the popularity of global nuclear abolition by Labour voters and the absence of leadership on the issue from the Tories and Keir Starmer and the Labour frontbench. She also made compelling points about the lack of democracy and the budgeting of the war machine at the expense of social spending:
“We need to be real: arms dealers and global powers are not going to hand us this path to peace, because their profits depend on it. We, the people, have to be willing to build it, and that’s what this is about and why we have to keep growing these movements. And if we live in this vibrant democracy we claim to live in, why is it that war hungry bureaucrats in Washington can decide to impose weapons of war and destruction in rural Suffolk?
“And while we’re spending billions upon billions upon nuclear weapons, and flexing our muscles at people we deem a threat internationally, we are abandoning the real threats on our hands- the climate crisis, the erosion of human rights across the globe, the disastrous impacts of capitalism. It’s a disgusting reality that we condemn 4 million children to living in poverty in our communities while we throw unimaginable money at nuclear weapons.”
CND Chair Tom Unterrainer and International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) co-director Rebecca Johnson also made contributions as did Phillip Jennings of International Peace Bureau (IPB) and Dave Webb of Drone Wars UK.Protestors gather
Readers are encouraged to follow the CND website for updates on the status of US nuclear weapons in the UK.
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