Tony Blair and George W Bush Handshake

Lima Charlie: How 'Special' Is Special?

The UK and USA enjoy a 'special' relationship ... but in 2021, how relevant are the national ties?

Tony Blair and George W Bush Handshake

The inauguration of Joe Biden as the new President of the United States heralds a new era for American politics.

It will also spark wider media conversations about the role that allies play for America, and the relative importance countries hold in Washington DC.

In London, there will almost certainly be public debates about the alliance between the US and the UK, and whether there really is a ‘special relationship’ or if it is something that has had its day. 

The relationship between the two countries has been extraordinarily close since the Second World War, when, brought together in the fight against Germany and Japan, both countries formed close military ties.

Later, during the Cold War, these ties deepened into a much wider alliance encompassing military, nuclear and intelligence sharing, coupled with a strong set of shared foreign policy values.

Joe Biden was sworn in as the 46th President of the United States on January 20, 2021. Credit: Reuters

The question sometimes asked is whether the alliance is still relevant for the 21st Century, and if in an age of shifting security problems and challenges, whether the UK still matters to Washington DC?

Is London still living in an age of imperial glory, not matched up in reality in terms of the influence or power that it actually has, and in fact is far less relevant to the US than ever before? 

There will always be ups and downs in the relationship between political leaders – it is inevitable that different leaders, often with different perspectives, will be in power.

It is also equally to be expected that there will not always be a close personal link between President and Prime Minister – but that does not really matter. 

The core of the relationship between the UK and US is in fact relatively little to do with the personal dynamics of the leaders of each country, and far more about the strength of the ties in the military, security and intelligence space.

In fact the UK is able to bring a number of genuine advantages to the relationship with the US, many of which no other country has. 

The first advantage is that the UK has a global network of interests and presence that closely aligns with the USA. This means that in a diplomatic crisis, the chances are that both Washington and London have a strong interest in seeing a successful resolution to it. 

The UK has one of the largest number of overseas diplomatic posts in the world, which means that London takes an interest in all manner of different global issues.

In many countries the UK enjoys a close relationship with the host nation, or is able to take advantage of deep personal ties (for example with leaders who attended Sandhurst or Oxford) to help get diplomatic access and perspectives. 

In other countries like Iran or North Korea, the UK has a diplomatic presence, even where the US does not.

This gives the UK access in a way that Washington does not enjoy, which makes London a very valuable partner. The US can use London as a conduit to send messages, get perspective on the local situation and in turn the UK can be used as a diplomatic ‘back channel’ to send messages that will be listened to in both Washington and other capitals. 

This perspective means that Washington keenly values the UK view on the world, helping give British policymakers access to US Government decision-makers.

To them, the UK is a nation that acts as a diplomatic force multiplier, able to both support Washington's interests and also lobby on behalf of the US Government where it cannot reach. 

This diplomatic link is born out across the wide range of alliances and international organisations that both countries belong to. For example, the UK and US are both permanent members of the UN Security Council, an extremely powerful position that enables the UK to exercise significant diplomatic power. 

In NATO, the UK and US work closely together to keep the alliance focused on providing international security, while there is close collaboration on other global issues like arms control and security.

The UK also adds value by being members of organisations that the US is not in - for example, the leading role that the UK plays in the Commonwealth, opens doors to enable to capitals that the US may have more difficulty in getting into.  

Brought together, this means that the UK provides access, influence and an ability to lobby on behalf of the US that no other nation possesses.

Other countries will have valuable links, but there is no other country with a diplomatic relationship quite like the UK.  

HMS Vanguard's DASO Trident missile being launched
The UK and USA share similar technology, including Trident 2. Credit: MOD

The next reason that Washington values the UK is the fact that both nations are long standing nuclear powers. Although the UK’s nuclear arsenal is significantly smaller than the US (some 200 warheads versus nearly 6,000 in the US), there is a lot of shared interests here. 

Both nations use the Trident 2 nuclear missile onboard their ballistic missile submarines – the Vanguard class in the UK, and the Ohio class in the USA.

This missile is capable of deploying nuclear warheads around the world at extremely short notice, and has for decades now formed the basis of both countries at sea nuclear deterrent capability.  

The UK and US initially worked closely together in WW2 on the Manhattan project, before the UK became a nuclear power in the early 1950s.

Since the 1960s, the UK has sought a cost-effective approach to nuclear deterrence by deploying US missiles (initially Polaris from the 1960s-1990s, and then Trident) with British designed nuclear warheads mounted on them. 

There is a significant amount of co-operation between the UK and US on nuclear matters, with both nations sharing their experiences and insight, and co-operating on future projects. For example, both nations are building replacement ballistic missile submarines, which will have the same design of missile compartment installed. The Royal Navy will be the first navy to take this missile compartment to sea when the new HMS Dreadnought goes to sea later in the decade.  

Similarly, there is a lot of close co-operation on warhead design too, with both nations currently looking to replace their existing nuclear warheads with more modern variants to deploy on the next generation of SSBNs.

Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman - the wartime presidents of the United States - initiated what is referred to as the Special Relationship.

This level of co-operation is unparalleled – no other countries on the planet enjoy the same level of close co-operation and mutual trust as the UK and US do on nuclear matters.

This is a genuinely close relationship and one that is magnified due to the co-operation that this helps facilitate in other areas – for example, in arms control talks or in NATO discussions.  

That said, there is no truth in the myth that the US has some kind of veto or control on the UK nuclear deterrent. In the exceptionally unlikely event that the British government decided to fire nuclear warheads, then there is no way that the US could prevent or stop this launch from occurring.

The nuclear weapon co-operation is also closely linked to wider co-operation on nuclear submarines in general. Both the Royal Navy and the US Navy operate nuclear attack submarines and have long worked closely together in developing their technology and operations. There is a long history of shared missions around the world since the end of World War 2, particularly in the North Atlantic. 

Today both nations work closely together on submarine operations, and US submarines are regular visitors to Faslane. The Royal Navy uses Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles onboard its Astute and Trafalgar class submarines and has regularly fired them on hostile targets as part of wider UK/US military operations together. 

President George Bush Sr and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher enjoyed a close relationship in the build up to the Gulf War. Here, President Bush awards the former British PM the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Shutterstock

This close co-operation means that the US places real value on the contribution that the Royal Navy can make to supporting US missions – the ability to deploy Tomahawk and to provide intelligence collection facilities via an SSN is an asset that no other nations have.  

Intelligence collection is particularly important, given that there are very strong and close links between the UK and US intelligence communities. Since WW2 there has been an extremely well-honed intelligence-sharing relationship, born out of the work done in places like Bletchley Park and cracking the Enigma codes. 

This evolved over time into the so-called ‘Five Eyes’ alliance between the UK, US, Australia, Canada and New Zealand. Each nation shares intelligence with the others, and there is significant co-operation and co-ordination on intelligence work around the globe. 

Within 5 Eyes, the UK/US link is by far the closest, with the relationship between GCHQ and the US National Security Agency (NSA) being exceptionally close. Both nations have staff embedded into operational positions across each other's organisations, and there is a lot of joint working – something that in the intelligence world is extremely unusual indeed to see between nations. 

As the threat has evolved into cybersecurity, the UK and US have worked very closely to tackle cyber terrorism and prepare for the threat of cyberwar. Both GCHQ and NSA have worked to stay at the very leading edge of this evolving operational areal. The UK brings real value and expertise here, supporting US activities, and its participation is hugely valued.  

From a practical perspective then, the UK is seen to add value by virtue of its intelligence community that have global interests and reach, and which are seen as trusted partners by their US equivalent.

Both countries mutually benefit from this relationship, and it helps ensure that London is seen as a credible partner by Washington.

RAF Lakenheath
RAF Lakenheath in Suffolk remains a US Air Force base.

One of the ways the UK helps boost American intelligence capabilities is due to the wide number of overseas territories that the UK still maintains sovereignty over around the world.

One of the legacies of history, the UK has no less than 13 UK Overseas Territories based in various different places around the world, and bases in other locations that are of interest to the US.  

For example, the US Air Force retains a small airbase in Ascension island, which was used by the UK in the 1982 Falklands War.

The US Air Force still use the site as a major enabler for refuelling stops and logistical support to US military activity, particularly in Africa. Reportedly the site also houses a variety of intelligence collection facilities too. 

Elsewhere, the UK island of Diego Garcia is particularly valued by the US as providing a secure anchorage and airbase in the middle of the Indian Ocean. This facility houses facilities for a fleet of prepositioned shipping containing vehicles, equipment and munitions, and able to rapidly deploy across the Indian Ocean in a crisis.  

There is also an extremely large runway there, capable of handling the largest aircraft in the US arsenal. This means that the site regularly supports deployments by B1 and B52 bombers, which can use this as a staging post to conduct missions in Afghanistan and the Middle East if required.  

The UK retains sovereignty over Diego Garcia until such point as the island is no longer required for defence purposes, and this provides a lot of reassurance to the US. They value that the UK is a trusted and able ally, and is prepared to let them conduct a very wide range of missions from there without raising concerns. 

This is a real issue for American policy makers, who remember the operation in the 1980s when the US bombed Libya, and multiple NATO allies refused permission for their airspace or facilities to be used for the operation. The UK was alone in providing support and access, which Washington was grateful for.  

The fact that the UK is willing to permit the US to use facilities like this is a reason why the US finds the UK an extremely valuable ally. It knows that it can safely conduct operations from UK territory without challenges, and in turn, the UK gains because the US will want to consult with them and share thinking about operations ahead of time.

Other areas where the UK can offer value to the US includes the UK airbase facility in Cyprus, where the US regularly operates aircraft like the U2 spy plane to carry out missions across the Middle East, and the Royal Navy facilities in Singapore, where the US often makes use of the small naval base and fuel depot located there.  

President Trump with Philip May, Prime Minister Theresa May, and First Lady Melania Trump on a state visit to the UK. PA

For all the diplomatic, intelligence and logistical benefits that the UK can bring to the relationship, perhaps the most important link of all though is the close military relationship between both countries.  

The British Armed Forces remain highly valued partners of the US military due to the combination of having very similar equipment, an ability to operate around the world, the fact that they can bring some very niche capabilities to operations and finally due to the close personal links between the two militaries. 

For many years, the UK and US have often bought into major projects together, operating the same types of equipment. The UK, for example, is the only Tier 1 partner on the Joint Strike Fighter project alongside the US and has played a key role in the development of the aircraft. 

This means that when the US goes to war, it knows that the UK is one of the very nations out there who operate the same equipment that is able to seamlessly integrate into their own war plans.

This is sometimes called ‘Day One’ capability – in other words, the UK has invested in very high tech equipment that is on a par with the US, to ensure that it is present at the start of the operation, and can take part.

For the US this is really important, knowing you have an ally who can deploy with you, and who is able to operate without putting plans at risk is invaluable. It also means that the UK matters considerably to US military planners, who know that few other countries are capable of doing this in any meaningful way. 

Another way that the military links are strong is by the fact that the UK is able to bring some specific capabilities to operations that enhance or complement existing US ones.

For example, the Storm Shadow air-launched cruise missile or the Brimstone anti-tank guided weapon are both good examples of equipment that the US doesn’t use, but which is really useful to have in an operation. 

In the Gulf, the presence of four Royal Navy mine warfare vessels is seen as critical to joint efforts to tackle the potential mines threat in the event of tensions. The US Navy relies on the UK to contribute to a joint force, using the presence of UK ships to both deter aggression, and act as a base ship for their own operations if required (e.g. the RFA Bay class vessel permanently based there). This is a good example of where a small UK presence can pay real dividends in terms of increasing reputation and standing in Washington.

Likewise, the fact that the British Armed Forces can deploy globally, and self sustain themselves is a significant advantage. Unlike many other militaries, the UK can deploy military power around the world without expecting the US to provide logistical support. This means that the UK is particularly helpful to have as a partner because it can deploy armed forces at the same level of capability as the US, but not need significant assistance to do so.  

The US can, and does, work with a high level of interoperability with the UK, and there is an increasing trend towards joint operations. For example, when the US Air Force moves its first F35 squadrons to RAF Lakenheath in the near future, they will work very closely with the RAF F35 force based nearby at RAF Marham.  

At sea, the Royal Navy is planning to embark the US Marine Corps (USMC) F35 squadrons on board the aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth for her deployment out to the Far East. These aircraft will be used as an integral part of the air wing, and a US Navy destroyer (USS The Sullivans) will accompany the group on their trip. 

The ability to use the UK carrier force to embark F35s is a big advantage for the USMC, which will be able to use the ship as a useful base, particularly as a temporary cover for the USS Bon Homme Richard which was damaged beyond repair by fire in 2020.  

These sorts of joint operations help reinforce the value of the UK as a provider of military capabilities that the US can make tangible use of. It is further reinforced by the fact that there is an extremely close personal relationship between the two militaries as well. 

Hundreds of British personnel are on loan, on exchange tours and embedded into the US military, carrying out all manner of jobs from deputy divisional commanders through to pilots on different aircraft. 

When coupled with the close personal links built up over many years of joint operations on the battlefield, from Iraq, the War on Terror, Afghanistan and beyond, there is a genuinely strong personal link between the two countries armed forces that helps build positive effects for the future. 

Overall then, for all the focus on the political relationships between Presidents and Prime Ministers, the simple fact is that the UK will continue to enjoy a very special and close relationship with the USA over the years ahead. This is nothing to do with politics but instead is about the deep and enduring military, intelligence and other links that exist between the two countries.

Although some may want to say there is no such thing as a ‘special relationship’, the links between the UK and US are so enduring and effective that it is hard to think of any other two countries on earth with such a close relationship when it comes to defence and national security matters. This will not change, regardless of who is in No 10 or the White House. 


This article is the latest contribution in our Lima Charlie columnist section.

This is part of a series featuring unattributed contributions from experts and insiders providing opinion, insight and analysis on today’s Armed Forces, the wider politics of the military and observations on military life.

Under the pseudonym Lima Charlie, our contributors aim to explore the issues facing today’s military and their comment remains unattributed to allow our writers to present their analysis candidly and under one editorial voice.