Although the United Kingdom has maintained its own nuclear arsenal since 1952,
its stockpile never grew to more than 350 warheads and the bulk of its nuclear
plan was to cooperate in planning and strategy with the United States' much larger
since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Britain has taken several steps toward
reducing its arsenal, while categorically stating it will maintain some nuclear
force. The final step in Britain's nuclear reduction took place after the election
of Labor leader Tony Blair as prime minister.
Seeking to reduce the costs
of maintaining the British military, the Blair government outlined a streamlined
and reduced nuclear arsenal in 1998 that packed 70 percent less punch than the
nation boasted during the Cold War.
The British government now possesses
approximately 200 nuclear warheads. It has four submarines capable of launching
a nuclear missile strike, but only one is on patrol at any given time. Additionally,
the Labor government decided to reduce the number of missiles aboard each sub
to 20 and none are targeted at a specific site.
By the end of 1998, the
U.K. had also moved to completely denuclearize its air force and reduced the number
of planned missile purchases from the United States from 65 to 58 Trident sub-launched
With its decision to eliminate the Royal Air Force squadrons capable
of launching a nuclear strike, Britain's nuclear arsenal can only be launched
from one of its four nuclear missile submarines. But the British government has
maintained that the current global situation requires that it maintain a nuclear
"[T]he continuing risk from the proliferation of nuclear weapons,
and the certainty that a number of other countries will retain substantial nuclear
arsenals, means that our minimum deterrent capability, currently represented by
Trident, is likely to remain a necessary element of our security for the present,"
Foreign Office Minister Bill Rammell told the House of Commons in March 2004.
The government has, at times, had to fight its own Labor Party over nuclear
weapons, arguing that Britain must retain an active nuclear arsenal to create
a deterrent to those who might attack, including terrorists.
of extreme self defense are extraordinarily difficult to contemplate but we must
reserve the right to use our nuclear weapons in those circumstances, otherwise
clearly they cannot act as the deterrent that they are," Minister of Defense Geoff
Hoon said on the eve of the Iraq war.
The British government has made the
case that its desire is to maintain a nuclear arsenal capable of a "substrategic"
The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists quotes a British defense
ministry official as describing a substrategic strike as "the limited and highly
selective use of nuclear weapons in a manner that fell demonstrably short of a
strategic strike, but with a sufficient level of violence to convince an aggressor
who had already miscalculated our resolve and attacked us that he should halt
his aggression and withdraw or face the prospect of a devastating strategic strike."
policy is the latest of a nuclear weapons program as old as any other nation,
for although Britain was the third nation to develop a usable nuclear weapon,
its scientists were the first to theoretically design a fission bomb in the early
days of World War II. The work, shared with the United States and largely stolen
by the Soviet Union, paved the way for the development of the first generation
of atomic weapons. For much of its early work, British scientists paired with
United States research teams.
But in the days after the war, and after the
election of the opposition Labor government, the British government decided it
would also develop an independent program, free of the Americans.
its program, the British government relied mostly on the work and memory of one
scientist, William Penney. Penney had worked in the Los Alamos Laboratory in New
Mexico with the Americans developing the first atomic weapons used to end World
Once the British government had agreed to develop its own program,
it turned to Penney to design the weapon and assist with the program to build
it. For the British, it remained a politically important development in the early
1950s to develop its own bomb program if it were to remain one of the world's
Then Prime Minister Harold Macmillan explained the government's
rationale, saying as the British hydrogen bomb tests began in 1957, "We have made
a successful start. When the [nuclear] tests are completed, as they soon will
be, we shall be in the same position as the United States or Soviet Russia. We
shall have made and tested the massive weapons. It will be possible then to discuss
on equal terms."
The British tests, centered often in or off the coast
of Australia, proceeded throughout the 1950s. The testing included atomic weapons,
free-fall bombs, tactical weapons and, by 1957, thermonuclear devices.
British nuclear program underwent a major shift at the end of the 1950s. Having
proved it could develop thermonuclear weapons, Britain was approached again by
the United States. The Americans wanted a strategic partnership that would carefully
combine nuclear development, testing and deployment to better deter the Soviets.
British work to build later versions of its warheads was aided by American engineering
and vice versa. The two countries also combined their testing programs, continuing
to share information on tests up until the 1990s.
Despite the end of nuclear
tests, the two nations have continued to partner closely. When the British wanted
to upgrade its missile systems for launching nuclear weapons, it turned to the
Americans to purchase newer Trident missiles.