Atomic: The United Kingdom’s nuclear
deterrent

The renewal of the United Kingdom’s independent nuclear deterrent has always stirred intense debate over the years. It is no surprise that politicians within the coalition government are at odds with each other over what course to take.

The Trident weapons system the UK currently uses will come to the end of its lifespan in another decade or so and a replacement system will need to be decided upon in the coming few years in order to ensure the UK retains a 24/7 operational deterrent capable of meeting any potential pre-emptive strikes.  

It is my firm belief that there is no question over whether the deterrent should be renewed or not. In the chaotic, uncertain world we live in it is logical to pursue the traditional realist doctrine, regardless of whether there is a Cold War or not.

During such a time, we had to be just as wary of our allies as our enemies. During the operational programme and following the detonation of the end products over Nagasaki and Hiroshima in 1945, UK scientists were completely locked out by the Americans.

The British government virtually pleaded with the Truman Administration to disclose further details of the programme in the hope of developing their own deterrent, but such calls were met with a new sharp and cold suspicion. In 1946, the Attlee government launched a civilian programme charged with developing components for the military operation to build a viable nuclear device.  

By 1952, Britain was ready to drop its bomb. The Prime Minister of the day, Sir Winston Churchill, announced the successful detonation of a UK nuclear tactical device off the coast of Australia – Operation Hurricane made the UK the third country to achieve nuclear weapons capability.

Just a month later the Americans detonated a hydrogen bomb and the stakes were raised. The Americans were playing catch up with the Soviet Union, whilst the Brits were playing catch up with both.

By November 1953, the UK had developed the Blue Danube free fall bomb and it subsequently became one of the most important pieces of cargo ever to be carried on a British military aircraft. From 1955 to 1969, the UK primarily used Vulcan bombers as the delivery system for its nuclear deterrent. The UK based its bombs as far afield as Singapore and Cyprus, as well as on Royal Navy ships. 

With the signing of the US-UK Mutual Defence Agreement in 1958, new devices were up for grabs. The change in attitude from our American cousins was not so much the product of generosity but more the result of a shrewd political calculation to make the United Kingdom dependent on American tactical nuclear technology.

From a realist perspective, it makes much more sense to sell your friend your missiles, in the full knowledge that you know every inch of the specifications and the potential pitfalls, than to refuse to co–operate and see your friend steam off into the distance developing an array of unfamiliar technologies.  

The calculation paid off and after the cancellation of the Blue Streak order, Polaris missiles were duly purchased by Prime Minister Harold Macmillan from President John F. Kennedy in 1962. From 1968 to 1996, the UK operated a nuclear submarine system capable of delivering Polaris missiles into the heart of Russia or anywhere else that might cause a spot of bother.

The history of the UK’s nuclear dealings underpins an important lesson which we must heed in the 21st century – lamentably that we cannot trust another state entirely and that we must retain an independent deterrent capable of meeting any eventuality that conventionality may not be able to solve. 

UK governments have exhibited signs of tenacious realism from time to time. During the 1960s and 1970s, successive UK governments kept the Chevaline programme secret from the public. Chevaline was charged with adapting our nuclear missiles so that they could penetrate Soviet anti-ballistic missile defences around cities like Moscow.

A range of penetration tools and decoys were developed to break through the missile shield. It was only after a cost of £1 billion by 1979 and the disclosure of the programme by Defence Minister Francis Pym (Thatcher government) that the stark reality of Britain’s stone-cold realist muscle was truly unveiled.  

By 1994, Polaris was replaced by the Trident system – another submarine-based programme. Today there are four Vanguard class submarines capable of delivering Britain’s nuclear hammer blow. One always remains at sea ready to meet the challenge, whilst two others remain on training exercises or in port. The fourth is currently undergoing maintenance.

It is roughly assumed that the UK has a stockpile of around 225 thermonuclear warheads of which two thirds are operational. The exact figures are unknown and quite rightly so given the realist paradigm. Each submarine can be armed with up to 16 Trident II missiles and deal the holocaust necessary to prove we can fight back. 

Currently, the coalition government is split – should we build four submarines to replace the existing four, or should we build three? Incorporating the nuclear arsenals of the United States, Russia and China, taking into account cost and the viability of any future system, I have concluded that we can do with three submarines.

I am therefore inclined to agree with the Lib Dems on this one. Defence Secretary Philip Hammond suggested any reduction would be “naïve or reckless”– he further indicated that;

 “Just because we do not perceive an immediate threat today, does not mean there would not be a threat over the 60-year odd time horizon we are looking at”.

I would agree with the latter statement, in that we must retain our deterrent. But I see little cause for a like-for-like replacement. I have summarised my reasoning below: 

  • Given the consequences of using such devices, a holocaust would be in no state’s best interest. Therefore if such devices were launched, only a handful would be needed to do the required job. If I recall correctly, the UK government in the 1960s concluded that the country could only take 9 Russian nuclear bombs before it was well and truly returned to the Stone Age. It would therefore be logical to retain a weapons system capable of delivering the missiles, but given that our 225/160 warheads would send any other state back to the Stone Age at least 3 times over, is there any need for four submarines? No.
  • Secondly, if the UK were to have three submarines instead of four; one submarine could fulfil the continuous-at-sea role, whilst the second and the third submarines could undergo training exercises or remain in port. Given one submarine contains up to 16 missiles, if we were to target Russia, China, or even America, the load of one submarine would send the same message as four (that is if we could scramble all four in time!) The message sent would read ‘Retaliation means obliteration’ and we would most certainly receive the same note back. Of course our missiles would have to negotiate anti-missile shields, but launching say 40 instead of 10 wouldn’t accomplish a more decisive blow.
  • Finally, if we concluded that our defensive capability would be just as viable with three submarines rather than four (based on the above criteria); in financial terms it would be in our best interests to reduce the number of submarines by one. In the event of a nuclear war, our arsenal, whether it consisted of 100, 140 or 180 operational warheads would be lost in the ensuing missile traffic of the hundreds of operational missiles launched by the United States and Russia. Further, in the event of a non-nuclear state causing a crisis, quite frankly one or two missiles would do the job- heaven forbid however this situation ever arises- it’s just not good sport to target those in the lower league (of technological superiority or colossal stupidity).

I fear that Conservative calls for a like-for-like replacement are only to convince the public that you can trust us when it comes to national defence – regardless of whether ring-fencing projects would offer any further tactical superiority to the country.

I think the Lib Dem proposals should be addressed and considered seriously. Quite simply, national defence should be above party politics and military chiefs should support sober measures aimed at either retaining or improving defence capabilities. The money saved from one submarine would be more wisely spent on conventional forces.

When First Sea Lord, Lord Mountbatten, in the dark depths of the Cold War, supported the development of a UK hydrogen bomb, he did so with a clear view that additional support should be given to conventional forces.

His logic, which stands true, acknowledged that the Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) orchestrated by the United States and Russia would make conventional wars more likely. From Korea and Vietnam to the Falklands, Iraq (I & II) and Afghanistan (I & II), his realisation stands the test of time.

P.S. (a charge I have all too often heard) – As for those who say we need four submarines to fight any potential alien invasion – I doubt one more submarine would beat the invaders off successfully.

If a species has developed the capability and means to travel to another world and attempt the subjugation of 7 billion life forms, I doubt we have the technology to repel them. We should put more faith in Jeff Goldblum’s cold virus or Will Smith’s piloting technique…or, on a wittier note, Brick Tamland’s own trident system.