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 23emphasis 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.
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
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
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.
NATO NUCLEAR PLANNING
14. Although the early nuclear weapons of
the 1940s and early 1950s were essentially strategicintended
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
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
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
"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
alliancethat is, before you are subject to (conventional
Soviet military) penetration on a fairly broad scaleyou
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 politicalto 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."
OF NATO NUCLEAR
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
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
"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,
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
"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
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 UKsimilar 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