The government’s nuclear weapons policy is still dictated by a decision made in 1962

Britain’s ability to deploy nuclear weapons has come to rely increasingly on US technology


When Britain sends its nuclear armed submarines on patrol they are three-quarters empty. By that I mean that each boat carries 40 nuclear weapons, rather than the 192 warheads its 16 missiles are capable of delivering to separate targets. Why, you might ask, does Britain spend money on an advanced weapons system whose capacity it doesn’t use?

The answer is partly the legacy of history, where Britain’s ability to deploy nuclear weapons has come to rely increasingly on US technology, and partly the transformation in the strategic environment since the end of the Cold War.

Britain’s deterrent has been losing its independent character since the 1960s. In the aftermath of the Second World War Britain began the acquisition of nuclear weapons, testing its first atom bomb in 1952 and its first H-bomb in 1958. Initially these bombs were carried on long range bombers, but fearing the development of anti-aircraft measures Britain decided to buy an American air-launched missile known as Skybolt.  

When President Kennedy cancelled the programme, British prime minister Harold Macmillan rushed to Nassau for a hastily arranged summit, lobbying to keep Britain in the nuclear club. A sympathetic Kennedy made an offer that defined Britain’s nuclear future. Rather than revive the Skybolt programme, he offered to sell Britain the submarine-launched Polaris missiles.

Upgrading to Polaris gave Britain a far more advanced nuclear system than it had been looking for. In addition, as strategic doctrine developed, submarine launched systems came to be seen to have many advantages, not least that they were best placed to survive a ‘first strike’.

One quid pro quo for this generous offer was that the missiles would be committed to NATO, who would decide the targeting. Independent use of the missile was possible only in a case of ‘supreme national interest’.

Fast forward to the 1980s: the Polaris fleet of four submarines carrying 16 missiles could not go on forever, and the government decided to look for a successor. Its first choice was the Trident C4 missile. Each missile would be capable of delivering eight warheads to separate targets (compared to Polaris which could send three warheads spread out over a single target). Unlike Polaris, Britain would not buy but would lease the missiles drawing them from a pool owned and maintained in the US.

In an echo of 1962, the US decided to limit the C4 programme and step up to the D5 missile. The D5 was larger, more powerful, more accurate and capable of delivering 12 independently targeted warheads. For Britain the choice was to stick with the C4 for as long as the US would keep it in service or to go with the upgrade.

The government opted to build the larger submarines the D5 missile needed but committed itself not to increase the number of warheads. Once again Britain bought into a more powerful weapon system than its strategy required.

The Trident decision was taken at the height of the Cold War. Britain and its NATO allies faced Soviet Union’s tanks, infantry, and air forces stationed in Warsaw Pact countries, mainly East Germany Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary. Both sides had short range nuclear weapons on the territory of their allies. Even at that time, Trident was more than the UK’s defence policy needed.

When the first boat set sail in 1994 the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union had been dissolved, East Germany had merged with the Federal Republic and Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic were applying for membership of NATO. Short and medium range nuclear weapons were withdrawn from Europe. Disarmament treaties, firstly between the US and USSR and then between the US and Russia, had begun to cut the number of strategic nuclear weapons by more than 80 per cent.  

In this new context Trident was understood to be even more of an exaggeration than before. In 1998, following a strategic defence review, the government announced that each submarine would carry no more than 48 warheads on eight missiles. The warhead limit was cut to no more than 40 in 2010

The image that comes to mind is of a child wearing an adult’s overcoat. It looked wrong in winter, and it is bizarre in summer.

That is the background to the Conservative government’s decision to build four new submarines to carry Trident missiles into the future. Despite the fact that the USSR’s Warsaw Pact allies are now in the EU, and indeed the Baltic states that were once part of the Soviet Union are now members of both the EU and NATO, Trident remains.

It seems that Britain’s current choices are dependent on a path set by US generosity in 1962. The options are narrowing to Trident or nothing. If the UK gives up strategic nuclear weapons it may not be because of a positive decision to disarm but rather that the country has not the means to escape its history. Ironically Trident renewal may ultimately be the road to unilateral nuclear disarmament.

Jos Gallacher is a Brussels-based economic development professional

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