Is Britain sufficiently prepared for nuclear war?


It has been 70 years since Britain first tested nuclear weapons, yet our trajectory today appears very different

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Image by Maxine Davies

By Yelena Jurkenas

On 3 October 1952, 70 years ago this month, Britain became the third country to test nuclear weapons. Entitled ‘Hurricane’, the test took place at the Montebello Islands in Western Australia before Britain secured collaboration with the United States, when testing moved to the Nevada test site. This involved amending the McMahon Act which had previously excluded Britain from nuclear information and technology sharing and the signing of a mutual defence agreement.

Britain then launched its first nuclear missile from a V-bomber, a resource that Britain would later become dependent on due to the participation and subsequent cancellation of the Skybolt programme with the United States. Progression from this point branched into the Royal Navy.

Then in 1996 the Vanguard-class carrying Trident came into service, this is the service which is more commonly known as Trident and which many will recognise as Britain’s current nuclear force. The force carries four nuclear powered submarines, with each one capable of carrying up to 16 missiles and each missile can carry up to 8 warheads.

Trident is now the only nuclear weapon delivery system Britain has access to after withdrawing from tactical bombs in 1998. This fact along with the realisation that without Trident Britain could no longer be a capable nuclear power state caused the House of Commons to vote in favour of renewing the Trident programme in 2016. Hence, it is now expected that four new submarines will enter service between 2028 and the early 2030s under the names of Dreadnought, Valiant, Warspite and King George VI. Each of these submarines will have the capacity to carry up to 16 trident missiles and 48 warheads at any given time, meaning they will have a maximum of 192 independently targetable warheads. Thus, maintaining the nuclear state status of Britain and reinforcing its credible delivery system and its claims as a relevant country in the international arena.

Britain, therefore, is nuclear prepared in theory. Yet the question still lies, for what?

The answer may be warfare with Russia, a possibility which has increased in likelihood after Putin’s recent aggression. In a national address earlier this month, Putin announced a ‘partial mobilisation’ of Russia, confirming he will use “all means available to us” and explicitly warned “I’m not bluffing”. Britain could utilise the US Strategic Defence Initiative (also known as ‘star wars’ defence) to respond to such threats, deploying the military’s Type 45 destroyer vessels which can be placed in the Thames Estuary to defend London and the surrounding areas. These weapons are Britain’s intentional defence set aside for keeping peace, preventing coercion and deterring aggression.

However, practically Russia’s forces are greater in number than Britain’s, France’s and the United States’ forces combined. And in the eventuality of an attack happening it may be a matter of time as it is estimated that from spotting missiles at the satellites in North Yorkshire, Britain would have around 15 minutes to prepare for a nuclear strike. Therefore, Britain is capable of fighting but the chance they stand of winning will all depend on the timescale and length of warning Britain is given.

On the other hand, if the answer is working towards a world without nuclear weapons, Britain might stand more of a chance of success. Britain supports the treaty on the Non-proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, a treaty which is successfully working to reverse the trend of increasing global competition, challenges to international order and the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Currently, Britain possesses the smallest store of nuclear warheads of the five weapon states (China, France, Russia, the UK and the US) and are the only country to have reduced their forces to a single delivery system. This follows significant cuts in defence spending since 2010, with Prime Minister Liz Truss backing plans to cut the Army by a further 10,000.

Presently, Britain is taking the following steps needed for multilateral disarmament: entrance into the force of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, and commencement of negotiations on a Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty in the Conference on Disarmament. Britain is playing a leading role by being the first to improve transparency, verification and irreversibility.

This is alongside liaising with international partners, civil society and academia to not only reduce the risk of nuclear conflict but also to increase mutual trust and understanding. This work is what is vitally needed in order to reach the target of no nuclear weapons and a shared peaceful use of nuclear technologies.

Therefore, though the answer to the original question of whether Britain is competently prepared for nuclear warfare should it happen, it is for good reason as Britain has reassessed its goals since 1952 and boldly decided that the way forward is to work towards a peaceful world without nuclear weapons.