Select Committee on Defence Written Evidence

Memorandum from Paul Rogers


  1.  On the issue of Trident replacement, the Defence Committee "...looks forward to a robust and thorough Parliamentary and public debate over the coming months." Its new enquiry "...will consider the arguments put forward by the Government for the retention and renewal of the UK's current Trident system and will analyse the White Paper's assessment of the role of nuclear deterrence in the 21st Century."

  2.  This paper seeks to examine a key aspect of the Trident replacement decision that is scarcely figuring in the debate - the use or threatened use of UK nuclear weapons in circumstances that fall short of a major nuclear exchange. In this respect, the maintenance of a "substrategic" or tactical variant of the new system, and the inclusion of a first use option are particularly relevant.


  3.  The proposal to replace Britain's existing Trident nuclear force with a new system means that Britain is likely to remain a nuclear power until around 2050. As the Government acknowledges, the global security context over that period is likely to be complex, with a variety of potential security challenges. Even so, the thrust of the Government's case for replacing Trident is that Britain needs a nuclear force that is a deterrent to fundamental threats - an insurance against such threats.

  4.  Indeed, the two words "deterrent" and "insurance" are oft repeated in the White Paper and in speeches and statements, so much so that the very strong impression is given that this is the sole function of UK nuclear forces. Very little is said about the role of UK nuclear forces in conflicts that fall short of a major nuclear war.

  5.  Although Britain continues to deploy tactical nuclear weapons, currently in the form of what is termed a "substrategic" variant of the Trident system, there is only one brief mention of the planned inclusion of such a variant in the Trident replacement in the recent White Paper, The Future of the United Kingdom's Nuclear Deterrent (Command 6994).

    As with our current deterrent, the ability to vary the numbers of missiles and warheads which might be employed, coupled with the continued availability of a lower yield from our warhead, can make our nuclear forces a more credible deterrent against smaller nuclear threats. (page 23—emphasis added)

  6.  The White Paper also says little about Britain's willingness to use nuclear weapons first, even though nuclear first use has formed a part of the UK nuclear posture, either within NATO or in terms of independent use, for some five decades. The only substantive mention is as follows:

    We deliberately maintain ambiguity about precisely when, how and at what scale we would contemplate use of our nuclear deterrent. We will not simplify the calculations of a potential aggressor by defining more precisely the circumstances in which we might consider the use of our nuclear capabilities. Hence, we will not rule in or out the first use of nuclear warheads. (emphasis added)

  7.  Neither the continued deployment of a tactical (substrategic) nuclear system nor the maintenance of a first use option is included in the Executive Summary of the White Paper.

  8.  Given that the government seeks a public discussion on the replacement of Trident prior to a vote in parliament, it is perhaps unfortunate that this core aspect of the UK nuclear posture gets so little attention. The Defence Select Committee has expressed concern over the dearth of information in this regard in the past, and may find it of interest to encourage more openness from the Ministry of Defence at the present time. This paper seeks to aid that discussion by:

    —    reviewing some aspects of the origins and development of UK nuclear forces relevant to this subject;

    —    summarising aspects of NATO's nuclear posture; and

    —    pointing to the deployment of UK nuclear weapons in the past in circumstances other than a direct threat to the UK homeland.


  9.  Britain commenced its nuclear weapons programme shortly after the end of the Second World War and tested a fission (atom) bomb in October 1952 and a crude fusion (hydrogen) bomb in May 1957. By the end of the 1950s Britain had developed a strategic nuclear force based on the V-bomber medium-range jet bombers, the Valiant, Victor and Vulcan.

  10.  From the mid-1960s, Britain began to develop a force of ballistic missile submarines capable of deploying the US Polaris submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM). The first such submarine, Resolution, commenced patrol in June 1968, and control of the UK strategic nuclear force passed to the Royal Navy in July the following year.

  11.  Britain also developed a range of tactical nuclear weapons, principally bombs, that were deployed on a number of land-based and carrier-based strike aircraft from the late-1950s onwards. These included the Scimitar, Buccaneer, Jaguar, Tornado and Sea Harrier, and the Lynx and Sea King helicopters. In addition, US-made nuclear depth bombs were carried by Nimrod maritime patrol aircraft and US-made Lance missiles and nuclear warheads, and nuclear artillery shells, were deployed with the British Army.

  12.  At its peak, in the early 1980s, Britain deployed some 400 of its own nuclear weapons together with several scores of US nuclear weapons. With the ending of the Cold War, the majority of the types of nuclear weapons declined fairly rapidly, but two major types of British nuclear weapon remained in service until the late 1990s, the Polaris submarine-launched ballistic missile and the WE-177 tactical nuclear bomb.

  13.  In the 1990s, these were replaced by Trident, another submarine-launched missile, which is deployed with two warhead variants, a powerful strategic version many times more destructive than the Hiroshima bomb, and a "sub-strategic" or tactical version that has, at most, around half the explosive power of the Hiroshima bomb and possibly much less. Since the 1950s onwards, Britain has operated a twin-track policy of committing forces to NATO and having them available for independent deployment and possible use.


  14.  Although the early nuclear weapons of the 1940s and early 1950s were essentially strategic—intended for use against the core assets of an opposing state, the development of nuclear weapons intended for tactical use within particular war zones was an early feature of the East-West nuclear confrontation. As well as free-fall bombs, short-range battlefield missiles were developed along with nuclear-tipped anti-aircraft missiles and several types of nuclear artillery and mortars. The presumption was that if such weapons were used, they would not necessarily involve an escalation to an all-out nuclear war. In other words, nuclear war-fighting could be controlled.

  15.  For NATO in the 1950s, prior to the Soviet Union's having developed a large arsenal of nuclear weapons, the posture was codified in a military document MC14/2, colloquially termed the "trip-wire" posture. Any Soviet attack against NATO would be met with a massive nuclear retaliation, including the use of US strategic nuclear forces, and this assumed that the US could destroy the Soviet Union's nuclear forces and its wider military potential without suffering unacceptable damage itself.

  16.  By the early 1960s, the Soviet Union was developing many classes of tactical and strategic nuclear weapons, making it less vulnerable to a US nuclear attack. In such circumstances, MC14/2 became far less acceptable to western military planners who consequently sought to develop a more flexible nuclear posture for NATO. This became known as "flexible response" and involved the ability to respond to Soviet military actions with a wide range of military forces, but also with the provision that nuclear weapons could be used first in such a way as to force the Soviet Union to halt any aggression and withdraw.

  17.  The new flexible response doctrine was progressively accepted by NATO member states in 1967 and 1968 and was codified in MC14/3 entitled Overall Strategic Concept for the Defence of the NATO Area. It was a posture with one particular advantage for the United States in that it might avoid nuclear weapons being used against its own territory. A US Army colonel expressed this rather candidly at the time, writing that the strategy:

    "recognizes the need for a capability to cope with situations short of general nuclear war and undertakes to maintain a forward posture designed to keep such situations as far away from the United States as possible." (Walter Beinke, "Flexible Response in Perspective", Military Review, November 1968, p 48.)

  18.  By the early 1970s, flexible response was well established under the Nuclear Operations Plan which embraced two levels of the use of tactical nuclear weapons against Soviet forces, selective options and general response. Selective options involved a variety of plans, many of them assuming first use of nuclear weapons against Warsaw Pact conventional forces. At the smallest level, these could include up to five small air-burst nuclear detonations intended as warning shots to demonstrate NATO's intent.

  19.  At a rather higher level of use were the so-called pre-packaged options involving up to 100 nuclear weapons, the US Army Field Manual at the time defining a package thus:

    "a group of nuclear weapons of specific yields for use in a specific area and within a limited time to support a specific tactical goal... Each package must contain nuclear weapons sufficient to alter the tactical situation decisively and to accomplish the mission." (Operations: FM 100-5, US Department of the Army, 1982.)

  20.  Thus, by the end of the 1970s, NATO had developed a flexible response strategy that involved detailed planning for the selective and even the early first use of nuclear weapons in the belief that a limited nuclear war could be won. One indication of this coming eventually from a remarkably candid interview given by the NATO supreme commander, General Bernard Rogers, who said that his orders were:

    "Before you lose the cohesiveness of the alliance—that is, before you are subject to (conventional Soviet military) penetration on a fairly broad scale—you will request, not you may, but you will request the use of nuclear weapons... (emphasis in the original)." (International Defense Review, February 1986.

  21.  The long-standing NATO policy of the first use of nuclear weapons was not promoted widely in public, where all the emphasis was placed on nuclear weapons as an ultimate deterrent. Even so, the policy was made clear on relatively rare occasions, as in this example of evidence from the Ministry of Defence to a Parliamentary Select Committee in 1988:

    "The fundamental objective of maintaining the capability for selective sub-strategic use of theatre weapons is political—to demonstrate in advance that NATO has the capability and will to use nuclear weapons in a deliberate, politically-controlled way with the objective of restoring deterrence by inducing the aggressor to terminate his aggression and withdraw."


  22.  With the ending of the Cold War, there was some easing of NATO nuclear policy, with withdrawal of a substantial proportion of NATO nuclear weapons from Western Europe as the Soviet Union withdrew from Eastern Europe, and the possibility of first use was considered increasingly unlikely, but not abandoned as a facet of NATO policy. Although the Soviet Union is no more, NATO nuclear planning still involves a policy of first use, British nuclear weapons remain committed to NATO and the United States still maintains tactical nuclear bombs at one of its remaining bases in the UK, Lakenheath in Suffolk.

  23.  Until around three years ago, the relevance of NATO's Cold War nuclear posture appeared limited, given the low risk of a confrontation with Russia. That may well remain low risk, but NATO has undergone a recent transformation in that it is now engaged in major military operations in South West Asia, with some 32,000 troops involved, many of them involved in high intensity conflict.

  24.  That particular conflict in Afghanistan does not itself relate directly to NATO's nuclear posture, but it does mean that NATO is now an alliance that has embraced the concept of operating out of area on a very substantial scale. As such, the relevance of its nuclear posture, including its maintenance of a nuclear first use option, is most certainly pertinent to this enquiry, given that the UK is one of only two countries that provides NATO's nuclear forces. As the White Paper makes clear: "Nuclear deterrence plays an important part in NATO's overall defensive strategy, and the UK's nuclear forces make a substantial contribution". (page 18)


  25.  Since the 1950s, Britain has deployed nuclear weapons on many occasions outside the immediate NATO area of Western and Southern Europe and the North Atlantic. This included the basing of RAF nuclear-capable strike aircraft in Cyprus in the 1960s and 1970s, regular detachments of V-bombers to RAF Tengah in Singapore in the mid-1960s, and the deployment of Scimitar and Buccaneer nuclear-capable strike aircraft on the Royal Navy's aircraft carriers from 1962 to 1978. Nuclear weapons were also carried on four Task Force ships during the Falklands/Malvinas War of 1982.

  26.  This long history of "out-of-area" deployments of nuclear weapons by Britain is matched by a number of indications of a willingness to use them in limited conflicts. In one of the few published studies of British tactical nuclear targeting, Milan Rai wrote in his 1994 paper Tactical Trident (Drava Papers):

    "Sir John Slessor, Marshall of the RAF in the 1950s, and one of the most influential military theorists of the period, believed that `In most of the possible theatres of limited war... it must be accepted that it is at least improbable that we would be able to meet a major communist offensive in one of these areas without resorting to tactical nuclear weapons,'"

  27. Although this came from a senior military figure rather than a politician, there were several statements from more official government sources. Back in 1955, the Defence Minister at the time (and later Prime Minister), Harold Macmillan stated in the House of Commons

    "...the power of interdiction upon invading columns by nuclear weapons gives a new aspect altogether to strategy, both in the Middle East and the Far East. It affords a breathing space, an interval, a short but perhaps vital opportunity for the assembly, during the battle for air supremacy, of larger conventional forces than can normally be stationed in those areas."

  28.  Such an idea of a small nuclear war was further expressed during the 1957 Defence Debate by the Defence Minister, Duncan Sandys:

    "one must distinguish between major global war, involving a head-on clash between the great Powers, and minor conflicts which can be localised and which do not bring the great Powers into direct collision. Limited and localised acts of aggression, for example, by a satellite Communist State could, no doubt, be resisted with conventional arms, or, at worst, with tactical nuclear weapons, the use of which could be confined to the battle area."

  29.  This historical context raises the question as to whether the smaller sub-strategic Trident warheads, or indeed the more powerful strategic versions, might be used independently of NATO. Britain reserves this right, and one of the more detailed assessments of the range of options for sub-strategic Trident warheads was made in the authoritative military journal International Defence Review in 1994:

    At what might be called the "upper end" of the usage spectrum, they could be used in a conflict involving large-scale forces (including British ground and air forces), such as the 1990-91 Gulf War, to reply to an enemy nuclear strike. Secondly, they could be used in a similar setting, but to reply to enemy use of weapons of mass destruction, such as bacteriological or chemical weapons, for which the British possess no like-for-like retaliatory capability. Thirdly, they could be used in a demonstrative role: ie aimed at a non-critical uninhabited area, with the message that if the country concerned continued on its present course of action, nuclear weapons would be aimed at a high-priority target. Finally, there is the punitive role, where a country has committed an act, despite specific warnings that to do so would incur a nuclear strike. (David Miller, "Britain Ponders Single Warhead Option", International Defence Review, September 1994)

  30.  It is worth noting that three of the four circumstances envisaged involve the first use of nuclear weapons by Britain.

  31.  Such issues rarely surface in the public arena, but there has been concern expressed in parliament that the government has not been sufficiently clear about the circumstances under which British nuclear weapons would be used in post-Cold War circumstances. For example, the Defence Select Committee noted, in 1998:

    We regret that there has been no restatement of nuclear policy since the speech of the then Secretary of State in 1993; the SDR [Strategic Defence Review] does not provide a new statement of the government's nuclear deterrent posture in the present strategic situation within which the sub-strategic role of Trident could be clarified. We recommend the clarification of both the UK's strategic and sub-strategic policy.

  32.  This was, in part, in response to comments made to the Committee by the then Secretary of State for Defence, Mr (now Lord) Robertson. He had told the committee that the sub-strategic option was "an option available that is other than guaranteed to lead to a full scale nuclear exchange". He envisaged that a nuclear-armed country might wish to "...use a sub-strategic weapon making it clear that it is sub-strategic in order to show that... if the attack continues [the country] would then go to the full strategic strike," and that this would give a chance to "stop the escalation on the lower point of the ladder".

  33.  This statement indicated that "a country", such as Britain, could consider using nuclear weapons without initiating an all-out nuclear war, and that the government therefore appeared to accept the view that a limited nuclear war could be fought and won. It was evidently not the clear statement that the Committee sought, and it did not indicate the circumstances in which such weapons might be used. In particular, it did not appear to relate to whether Britain or British forces had already been attacked with nuclear weapons, or whether nuclear weapons would be used first in response to other circumstances.

  34.  At the same time, there had been no evidence to suggest that Britain had moved away from the nuclear posture of the Cold War era that included the possibility of using nuclear weapons first. Indeed, just as the Cold War was winding down, the first Iraq War in early 1991 was one occasion when British nuclear use might have been considered. As the UK forces embarked for the Gulf in September 1990, The Observer reported that Britain was prepared to retaliate to an Iraqi chemical attack with nuclear weapons:

    "A senior officer attached to Britain's 7th Armoured Brigade, which began to leave for the Gulf yesterday, claims that if UK forces are attacked with chemical gas by Iraqi troops, they will retaliate with battlefield nuclear weapons. The Ministry of Defence refused to confirm this last night, but it is the first unofficial indication that British troops might be authorised to use nuclear weapons to defend themselves if attacked." (Observer, 30 September 1990).

  35.  More than a decade later and prior to the start of the second Iraq War in 2003, the then Secretary of State for Defence, Mr Hoon, was questioned by members of the Select Committee and appeared to indicate that Britain maintained this policy. In relation to a state such as Iraq he said that "They can be absolutely confident that in the right conditions we would be willing to use our nuclear weapons."

  36.  This exchange did not make clear whether this would be in response to a nuclear attack initiated by a state such as Iraq, but Mr Hoon was questioned on this point on 24 March on the Jonathan Dimbleby Programme on ITV. He was asked whether nuclear use might be in response to non-nuclear weapons such as chemical or biological weapons. He replied:

    Let me make it clear the long-standing British government policy that if our forces if our people were threatened by weapons of mass destruction we would reserve the right to use appropriate proportionate responses which might... might in extreme circumstances include the use of nuclear weapons.

  37.  Later in the exchange, Mr Hoon made it clear that he could envisage circumstances in which British nuclear weapons were used in response to chemical or biological weapons. He was later asked by Mr Dimbleby:

    But you would only use Britain's weapon of mass destruction after an attack by Saddam Hussein using weapons of mass destruction?

  Mr Hoon replied:

    Clearly if there were strong evidence of an imminent attack if we knew that an attack was about to occur and we could use our weapons to protect against it.

  38.  Surprisingly, Mr Hoon later confirmed (July 2003) that there had not actually been a change in policy since Mr John Major had ruled out the use of British nuclear weapons against Iraq in 1991, some time after the Observer news report cited above. The problem is that there have therefore been thoroughly confusing signals as to British nuclear weapons policies, and the current White Paper has done nothing to clarify the situation. Indeed in its brief statements about continuing to deploy a low yield nuclear system and not ruling out nuclear first use, there are firm indications that Britain will retain a far more flexible and usable nuclear system then the deterrent insurance policy that receives so much attention.


  39.  UK nuclear warheads are produced at the Atomic Weapons Establishment at Aldermaston and nearby Burghfield which is responsible for "...initial concept and design, through component manufacture and assembly, to in-service support and, finally, decommissioning and disposal." (AWE website) Although the White Paper states that the current warhead design "is likely to last into the 2020s" (page 30) AWE is presently undergoing a very substantial development programme, the reasons for which are not clear.

  40.  Current developments include the recently ordered Larch supercomputer with a power some ten times that of the Blue Oak computer installed in 2002, and the Orion Laser, due to be completed by the end of 2007 and 1,000 times more powerful than the current Helen Laser. In addition, a new Core Punch hydrodynamic testing facility is planned that will be tens times as powerful as the existing facility, and planning permission was sought last year for two new office blocks to accommodate 1,400 people.

  41.  AWE currently has some 3,600 people on its staff, is investing £1,050 million in new projects over the three years to 2008 and will have an annual budget of just under £1,000 million a year early in the next decade, equivalent to about 10 universities. According to AWE Today (December 2005). "At its peak the construction work will make AWE one of the largest construction sites in the UK—similar in scale to the Terminal 5 project at Heathrow."

  42.  Although AWE is responsible for decommissioning and disposing of old warheads, Britain's most recent systems, (the Polaris warheads and the WE177 tactical gravity bombs) were withdrawn at least a decade ago. A decision on a new warhead for the Trident replacement is not even going to be contemplated until the next parliament (White Paper page 31). It might therefore be helpful for the Ministry of Defence to be more informative as to the reasons for the current high level of investment in AWE, given that the cost of AWE over the period to 2050 is likely to exceed £35 billion.


  43. Britain has deployed nuclear forces for 50 years. For most of that time, they have been primarily committed to NATO, which has maintained a nuclear targeting posture that includes the first use of nuclear weapons. Britain also retains the capability to use nuclear weapons independently, it maintains a tactical or substrategic variant of Trident, will have a similar capability in its replacement, and will retain the option of nuclear first use. It is currently investing heavily in its nuclear weapons research and production facility even though no new warhead programme is contemplated at present.

  44.  Unfortunately, the current debate on the replacement of Trident is being expressed primarily in terms of an ultimate deterrent, an insurance policy, whereas evidence suggests a substantially greater versatility. In seeking a "robust and thorough public and Parliamentary debate" the Committee might aid the process by examining the wider issues and gaining more of an insight into government thinking on these issues than is currently available in the public domain.

15 January 2007

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2007
Prepared 7 March 2007