The nuclear deterrent, based on four nuclear-powered, nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarines and supported by RAF ballistic missile early warning radar, is the fundamental factor regarding the defence of the UK.
Yet it is amazingly often overlooked. And when it is not overlooked, it is very misunderstood.
This article was submitted to the UK Defence Journal by Rebecca Campbell. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the UK Defence Journal.
Rebecca is British and permanently resident in South Africa, where she works as a science and technology journalist, covering, among other things, the aerospace, defence and nuclear sectors.
She has a MA degree, with distinction, in International Relations from the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Her thesis was entitled Armed Forces as Instruments of Foreign Policy: Some Case Studies. This paper is entirely her own opinions and does not reflect the views of her employers. Rebecca Campbell is not, and never has been, on Twitter or Facebook.
There seems to be an assumption it can be ignored because it seems to do nothing. Comparisons are difficult to make, because there is no precedent in human history for nuclear weapons.
But it is rather akin to a Briton in the late Victorian era ignoring the Royal Navy battlefleet of that time because it apparently did nothing. Between 1856 and 1914, the British battlefleet engaged in action only once – the bombardment of Alexandria in Egypt in 1882 (1).
Even the mission of the nuclear deterrent is usually misconstrued. It is all too often assumed that it exists to deter nuclear attack on the UK. But that is not what the British Government says.
The Ministry of Defence ‘UK Nuclear Deterrent Factsheet’ (last updated in February 2018) actually says “The role of nuclear weapons is to deter the most extreme threats our nation might face” and, “The UK deterrent will retain the capability to deter the most extreme threats from anywhere in the world”(2).
There is no mention of nuclear attack, or even, more generally, of weapons of mass destruction. The term used is “extreme threats”. The Government’s webpage ‘The UK’s nuclear deterrent: what you need to know‘ is even more vague, stating that the retention of the British nuclear deterrent “makes clear to any adversary that the costs of an attack on UK vital interests will outweigh any benefits”(3).
And back in 2007, a report of the House of Commons Defence Committee noted that, in its late 2006 White Paper on the country’s nuclear deterrent, the British Government had stated that the UK would only use nuclear weapons in “self-defence”, under “extreme circumstances” to defend the country’s “vital interests”, without defining any of these terms, and that this ambiguity was deliberate(4).
On ‘The UK’s nuclear deterrent‘ webpage, it states that a “potential adversary might miscalculate the degree of US commitment to the defence and security of Europe. An independent [UK] deterrent provides assurance that it can be used to deter attacks on our vital interests.”
It adds that the British deterrent also reinforces North Atlantic Treaty Organisation nuclear deterrence.(5)
It is also very important to grasp that Britain has always reserved the right to use nuclear weapons first. The UK has always explicitly rejected the idea of no-first-use of nuclear weapons. In its 2006 White Paper, the British Government stated that the UK “will not rule in or out the first use of our nuclear weapons”(6). Confusion comes from the fact that in 2015 Britain confirmed it would not use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapon states which were party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). But this undertaking did not apply to countries which were in material breach of the NPT (7).
During the 20th Century, the UK faced four “extreme threats” – mass starvation caused by submarine blockade; mass destruction and casualties caused by intense and indiscriminate aerial bombardment (with the possibly that that could include the use of poisonous gas – hence the universal issue of gas masks to civilians during the Second World War); invasion; and then, post-1949 (when the then Soviet Union detonated its first nuclear device), nuclear attack.
It is, I would argue, safe to assert that all of these extreme threats are covered by the nuclear deterrent. Any of these threats, if actualised, would cause mass death and destruction; only the nature of the deaths and the time scale on which they occurred would differ.
In support of my argument is the fact that, since the UK achieved its own nuclear deterrent (with the first device exploded in 1952 and the first weapons available in 1954(8)), the country has made no attempt to maintain a naval escort force capable of undertaking large-scale convoy escort, nor an air defence force capable of defeating large-scale indiscriminate conventional air attacks, nor army forces (even part-time reserve forces) dedicated to resisting invasion.
In further support of this position, the capabilities of the Trident D5 missile, which is what equips the UK deterrent force, should be noted.
According to the US think-tank the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), the Trident D5 has a maximum range of 12 000 km and an accuracy (a circular error probable) of 90 metres (Polmar estimated the D5’s range as about 6 000 nautical miles)(9). The missile is thus long-ranged and very accurate, meaning that it can be used to attack precision targets (including national and strategic command and control centres) and not just used as a crude ‘city-buster’.
Moreover, the British nuclear warheads fitted to the Royal Navy’s Trident missiles have warheads whose yield can be varied (10).
Back in 2001, the website The Nuclear Weapon Archive estimated that the variable yields of British Trident warheads were 0.3 kilotons (kT), in the range from 5kT to 10kT, and 100kT(11). This allows the UK to tailor a response to a threat, and makes a response highly credible. No country could afford to risk triggering such a response: the dangers would be far too great.
Any firing instructions to Britain’s Vanguard-class ballistic missile submarines would be transmitted using UK equipment and UK codes. The SSBNs do not need to use America’s Global Positioning satellite navigation system.
The Trident missiles do not use GPS (it would be a ridiculous vulnerability if they did).
Of course, the nuclear deterrent cannot deter harassing attacks on British shipping, nor attacks on military convoys, nor carefully targeted conventional air attacks on non-nuclear-related strategic targets, all aimed at disrupting British conventional war-making capability while not posing a threat to the country’s survival or independence.
Nevertheless, the nuclear deterrent is the UK’s fundamental defence shield. To say that, far from doing nothing, the deterrent does everything, would be an exaggeration – but it would not be a gross one.
Finally, it must also be realised that, while hopefully the RN’s SSBNs will never fire their missiles in anger, Britain uses its nuclear deterrent all the time. It underpins the UK’s position in the world, including its permanent seat on the UN Security Council, and is a fundamental basis for the conduct of British foreign policy, just as the RN’s battlefleet was in the Victorian era, even though it only fired its guns in anger once in 58 years.
- Andrew Lambert “The Shield of Empire 1815-1895” in JR Hill (ed) The Oxford Illustrated History of the Royal Navy Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1995, p.184
- https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/510878/Fact_sheet-nuclear_deterrent_FINAL_v15.pdf accessed 18/04/2020
- www.gov.uk/government/publications/uk-nuclear-deterrence-factsheet/uk-nuclear-deterrence-what-you-need-to-know (last updated 19/02/2018) accessed 18/04/2020
- The Future of the UK’s Strategic Nuclear Deterrent: The White Paper House of Commons Defence Committee, Ninth Report of Session 2007-2007, p.30, www.bipsolutions.com/docstore/pdf/16247.pdf accessed 18/04/2020
- See note (3)
- See note (4)
- Claire Mills and Oliver Hawkins “Replacing the UK’s ‘Trident’ Nuclear Deterrent” https://commonslibrary.parliament.uk/research-briefings/cbp-7353, 11 July 2016, accessed 18/04/2020
- Norman Polmar Strategic Weapons: An Introduction Crane, Rusack & Company, New York, 1982, p.19, p.63
- https://missilethreat.csis.org/missile/trident/; Polmar, Appendix C, p.118 (see note (8))
- See note (4)
- https://nuclearweaponarchive.org/Uk/UKArsenalRecent.html, dated 30/04/2001, accessed 18/04/2020
- See note (2)