Necessary Evils: UK Nuclear Weapons

The Strategic Implications of the Renewal / Non Renewal of the UK Nuclear Deterrent

A Trident D-5 submarine launched ballistic missile (picture: Royal Navy / US Navy)

As you will have seen in the news lately, the issue of the United Kingdom’s status as one of the five recognised nuclear powers, alongside the United States, Russia, China and France, as be brought back out of the Cold War freezer. The reason for this is that in 2016, Main Gate (Treasury) approval will have to be granted to provide the funding required to update the existing weapons systems, which are approaching the end of their service life.

A Brief History of the British Bomb

During World War 2, the UK was intricately involved with the Manhattan Project in the United States, to develop and deploy the world’s first atomic weapons. However, after the war and fearing (with good reason) Soviet espionage, the USA put the kibosh on all nuclear cooperation (the McMahon Act 1946), leaving them as the sole nuclear superpower. The Atlee Labour government decided soon after to develop an independent atomic bomb, as it was seen as the weapon of a first rank power, and the UK, despite being ruined from 6 years of war, as one of the victorious Allied powers, thought itself a first rank power.

“We've got to have this thing. I don’t mind it for myself, but I don’t want any other foreign secretary of this country to be talked at or to by the Secretary of State for the US as I have just been… We've got to have this thing over here, whatever it costs … We've got to have the bloody Union Jack on top of it.”
  • Ernest Bevin, UK Foreign Secretary 1945–1951

The first successful nuclear test took place near the Monte Bello Islands, Western Australia, in October 1952. The United Kingdom became the 3rd nuclear weapons state, after the US and Soviet Union, who had tested their first bomb in 1949.

Operation Hurricane, 1952 (picture: public domain)

The UK in the 1950s was a world leader in advanced combat aircraft, and quickly adopted a nuclear strategy built around the famous ‘V-Bombers’ (Valiant, Vulcan, Victor), who would fly supersonic at high altitude into the Soviet Union to deliver their deadly payloads. However, the shooting down of a U-2 spy plane over the Soviet Union in 1960, and the development of long range ballistic missiles (developed from technology taken from the Nazi V-2 programme at the end of the war, as were the space programmes of both superpowers), made bombers vulnerable and increasingly obsolete.

Vulcan, Valiant and Victor flying together (c) Crown Copyright

To counter this, the UK developed an air launched ballistic missile, the Blue Steel, but the cost was ruinous and eventually it was decided to purchase the similar US Skybolt missile instead. However, the US cancelled the Skybolt system, in favour of their new weapon of choice: the submarine launched ballistic missile (Polaris). The American had successfully developed nuclear power for submarines, and coupled it with the ability to launch missiles from underwater. This created a silent, deadly, unseen platform that could lie in wait for months underwater, and launch at a moments notice. In short, the perfect strategic weapon. The cancellation of Skybolt put the UK nuclear capabilty in dire straights; they retained nuclear free fall bombs and depth charges, but no modern delivery system. However in 1962, the Nassau Agreement between the UK and US permitted the transfer of the submarine technology and Polaris missiles to the UK. In the 1960s, the UK built 4 large submarines to carry the Polaris missile, which could carry 3 warheads (MIRVs) each.

Polaris test launch from HMS Revenge, 1983 (Picture: Public Domain)

In the 1970s and 1980s, Polaris was upgraded with an advanced decoy system (Chevaline). However the growing sophistication of the Soviet Union’s missile defence systems required a more sophisticated weapon: the Trident missile, or more specifically to the UK, the Trident II (D-5). This missile could carry up to 8–12 warheads, and had a far longer range. The government of Margaret Thatcher agreed to replace the 4 ageing ‘Resolution’ class submarines, carrying 16 Polaris missiles each, with 4 ‘Vanguard’ class submarines, each carrying 16 of the more advanced Trident D-5 missiles.

However, by the time that the first Vanguard class submarine (HMS Vanguard, previously the name of the Royal Navy’s last ‘Dreadnought’ type battleship) was commissioned in 1993, the Soviet Union had collapsed. The New Labour opposition of Tony Blair, to appeal to ‘conservative’ (with a small ‘c’) swing voters, decided to support the continued commissioning of the Vanguard system, with the final V boat, HMS Vengeance, commissioning into service in 1999, under a Labour government. The New Labour government however, retired all of the UK’s remaining free fall tactical nuclear bombs, and reduced the stockpile of the UK’s nuclear weapons to less than 200 warheads, although the actual total is classified. A patrolling Vanguard submarine, of which there is always at least one on duty, typically carries around 40 warheads, split across 16 missiles. Some missiles are armed with a single warhead in the even more unlikely event of a ‘sub-strategic’ nuclear attack, in which a limited strike is called for. This posture has continued up until now.

The 4 Vanguard submarines are now between 16–22 years old, with a hull life expectancy of around 30 years, so will need to start being replaced around 2023, with design and construction needing to commence within the next couple of years to meet this timetable. Which is why the funding needs to be approved in the 2015–2016 parliamentary term. Any further delays in the programme risk running submarines well past their safe usage limits, even with a SLEP (service life extension programme), and possibly creating gaps in the deterrent patrols, which means… it’s not a deterrent(!).

What is Deterrence?

Nuclear Deterrence came about in the 1950s and 1960s when it became increasingly apparent to both NATO and the Warsaw Pact that with the advent of ballistic missiles and early warning systems, it would be virtually impossible to launch a nuclear ‘first strike’ that would wipe out enough of the opposition’s nuclear arsenal to prevent a devastating ‘counter-strike’. With thousands of warheads and hundreds of delivery systems, if only a small percentage of the force remained, it would be more than enough to deliver to bring civilisation to an abrupt halt. This was known at the height of the Cold War as M.A.D: Mutually Assured Destruction.

Put simply, nuclear deterrence is about preventing a nuclear first strike against yourself, by having sufficient nuclear forces in quality and quantity that can survive a first strike, and provide a ‘secure second strike capability’. In this manner, no one would ever launch a first strike, knowing that it would certainly lead to their own destruction. This has been the case for over half a century. The US and Soviet Union engaged in proxy and covert warfare against each other, as a military confrontation was deemed to risky, especially after the close call of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. The important thing to remember: Deterrence only works if you have a means for your nuclear forces to survive a first strike. Historically in the UK’s case, this means nuclear powered ballistic missile submarines hiding very quietly in the vast Atlantic and Arctic oceans. This also discounts the procurement of a ‘cheaper’ system built around cruise missiles or aircraft. They are not survivable systems, and cruise missiles can be shot down. An MIRV from a Trident D-5 missile travels at Mach 10 on re-entry. No technology outside of the incredibly flawed and unreliable $100bn US NMD system in capable of kinetic interception, and nuclear tipped interceptor systems are prohibited by the START II treaty, and would be ineffective regardless. In short: it’ll work.

With the Soviet Union gone: in the 21st Century, does the UK need nuclear weapons?

Potential Threats

It is very trendy to push the resurgence of Putin’s Russia, or the spectre of an Islamist regime in Iran or perhaps North Korea holding the world to ransom, as justification alone for renewing the UK deterrent. However, long term strategy requires more nuance. What is illustrative of renewed Russian expansionism and the diplomatic deal to reduce Iran’s nuclear stockpile, is the inherent unpredictability of geopolitics, and that today’s enemies can become friends, and today’s friends can become adversaries. US involvement in NATO cannot be taken for granted: the European nations must take an active role and shoulder there responsibilities. In the case of the UK and France, that means holding the nuclear umbrella over Europe alongside the United States. Paying for defence is expensive, and nuclear weapons are expensive. But nobody ever wants to pay for insurance, right up the point that they need it. A steady and sustainable investment in both nuclear and conventional capabilities is the most cost effective manner to guarantee peace. Disarmament followed by rapid rearmament in the face of a rising threat would trigger an arms race that would be dangerous, and historically looking back to the naval arms race that preceded the First World War, incredibly destabilising. The threats are uncertain, but retaining a strategic commitment to NATO and keeping the United States involved in European security, across a broad spectrum of areas, is arguably worth the price in the long term.

Our place in the world

The case for the United Kingdom remaining a nuclear weapons state is of course tied in to how one perceives the UK’s role in the world. The UK is small in population terms compared to many countries (65+ million and growing), but is a member of the G7 and G20 Groups of advanced economies, and is currently the 5th largest economy in the world (although this is likely to shift in relative terms over time). Due to the legacy of the British Empire, the UK retains alliances and commitments around the globe, and the use of English as the de facto ‘international’ language gives a huge advantages. We have historically been one of the leading nations in NATO, behind the obvious might of the United States, but ahead of non-nuclear states such as Germany, Italy and Spain. France opted out of the NATO command structure in the 1960s. As one of the victorious Allied powers, the UK was given a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, with veto power. If we wish to retain this role, then maintaining our nuclear weapons state status is probably a bare minimum membership requirement. If we do not, and wish to take a less proactive, passive role in the business of hard power and geopolitics, then there is a case to be made for that perspective. But do not believe for a second that it will not be without consequences to our historic alliances and the strategic defence

Ethics of Nuclear Weapons

The use of nuclear weapons on even a small would likely cause death and destruction of an unparalleled nature. They are barbaric, monstrous creations. Therein lies the problem: they were created, and cannot be unmade. Despite various arms reduction treaties and UN resolutions, the likelihood of a nuclear free world is extremely unlikely. An effective nuclear deterrence strategy means an enforced peace, comparable to the horrific bouts of escalating industrial warfare and genocide that dominated the 20th century. 70m people died between 1939–1945. Nuclear weapons give us a simple ethical clarity: peace or holocaust.


Nuclear weapons are expensive. But the figures quoted by CND and Greenpeace are incredibly misleading: $100m is the often quoted figure, taken out of context of what that actually entails. According to a written reply to a parliamentary question, the estimated cost over the 40 year life cycle of the entire like for like replacement programme is £167 billion. Sounds like a hell of a lot of money, right? Except… it’s not really. £167 billion is about as much as the UK spends on the NHS per year. Aside from the missiles and associated launch systems which are leased from Lockheed Martin (US) as part of the US Navy Atlantic Command nuclear forces, and maintenance from being part of that pool of missiles (the US Ohio class ballistic missile submarines use the Trident (II) D-5 missile, each of the 12 boats packing 24 launch tubes, compared to the Vanguard class with 16 launch tubes), most of the capital spend on the British nuclear programme remains within the UK, with the submarines being manufactured at the BAE Systems submarine yard at Barrow In-Furness, with hundreds of secondary and tertiary suppliers across the UK, supplying everything from advanced sonar to rivets. The warheads themselves are manufactured at the Atomic Weapons Establishment in Aldermaston, Berkshire, and are stored at the RNAD Coulport facility adjacent to the Royal Navy’s submarine ‘super’ base on the Clyde (HMNB Clyde, or Faslane as it colloquially known as from the town it is built around) in Scotland. This is an important distinction to make, as many weapons purchases are off the shelf procurements from American defence contractors, which means capital exits the country, never to return.

In short, if we can find £4bn a year to pay for the BBC, the UK can afford nuclear weapons.

Independent Launch Capacity

Of course, the notion that the UK would launch separately from a NATO counter-strike is extremely unlikely given that the UK is firmly committed to the collective defence and deterrence polices of NATO. That being said, the UK does exercise independent launch capability, and doesn't need the ‘PIN code’ from Uncle Sam. The missiles themselves are guided by an inertial guidance stellar navigation system, and have nothing to do with the US Global Positioning System (GPS), so the notion that they could be disabled by the US simply turning off or scrambling the GPS is utterly incorrect. It is correct that the US could withhold maintenance of the missiles, and degrade the capacity over time, but it would take a huge schism in UK-American relations, of historic proportions, for that to happen. Would it surprise me if the Americans had built a back door into our launch systems just in case? No. But nothing short of a Islamist revolution in Great Britain is going to bring those hypotheticals into play. It is an independent system in all the scenarios it needs to be.


In deciding its nuclear future, the United Kingdom is also determining its strategic future. Despite the short term, transactional nature of politics, such things do matter and need to be weighed accordingly. There is no room in this debate for name calling or fudged numbers. Each side of the decision will have profound long term strategic consequences, and nobody should be under any illusions otherwise. I support the renewal of Trident and the UK remaining an involved, internationalist middle rank nation. But this debate must be informed and reach beyond the immediacy of the current security / financial environment.