Britain’s dependent independent nuclear deterrent

One of the major issues which is claimed to make Corbyn unelectable is his views on nuclear disarmament and the independent British nuclear deterrent. Whether this makes him unelectable or not is an open question – like many trusims it may be inaccurate. That though is an issue for another day. Rather it is interesting to look at the history of the British nuclear deterrent.

British scientists were heavily involved in attempts to produce a nuclear weapon. Immediately before the war a number of scientists – ironically mostly German or Austrian Jews demonstrated nuclear fission and the possibility of a chain reaction (vital to produce a nuclear explosion). By 1940 these individuals had, unsurprisingly, ended up outside continental Europe: many of them in the UK. There in March 1940 whilst working at the University of Birmingham Otto Frisch and Rudolf Peierls wrote the Frisch-Peierls memorandum which was the first technical exposition of how to make a practical and functional fission bomb using uranium 235. This lead to the secret project known as Tube Alloys which intended to construct a nuclear bomb.

The scientists involved in this work moved to the American Manhattan Project which did produce the actual Uranium 235 bomb “Little Boy” dropped in Hiroshima and the technically more advanced Plutonium 239 “Fat Man” dropped on Nagasaki. After the war, however, in 1946 the McMahon Act in the USA unilaterally reversed the agreement between the British and the USA regarding sharing atomic secrets.

The British were extremely unhappy with this development and the Attlee government decided to recommence independent work on a nuclear bomb. The suggested need for such a weapon was (for its supporters) confirmed when under the next Tory government an Anglo French force along with the Israelis attacked Suez. Militarily this was a massive success but the Soviet Union, which did possess nuclear weapons, threatened to support the Egyptians and the Americans also sent a carrier force to threaten the British fleet. Whether the Russians would have used nuclear weapons and whether the Americans would have tried to stop the British and French (or been able to as their forces in the area were smaller than the Anglo French ones) is unclear but the pressure worked and the British and French were rapidly forced into a humiliating withdrawal.

Suez is rightly seen as pivotal in British foreign policy: it ended the ideas of great power status and signposted the rapid end of empire. It also marked the beginnings of the fairly slavish following of the American lead in foreign policy which, with the exception of Wilson’s refusal to commit combat divisions to Vietnam has led us into assorted wars.

In defence policy terms, however, it was regarded as demonstrating the need for an independent nuclear deterrent. As such the already revived independent programme was continued. By 1953 it had already detonated the first Blue Danube free fall nuclear bomb but this was essentially similar to the “Fat Man” bomb dropped on Nagasaki eight years previously. Only a month later the USA detonated the first thermonuclear bomb (these are often called hydrogen bombs implying most of the energy comes from nuclear fusion. Usually, however, fission predominates from the production and then fission of Plutonium 239 by the Teller – Ulam configuration).

Some felt Britain could not produce a thermonuclear device but work continued with a failed thermonuclear device in 1956 (the same year as Suez) until in late 1957 the British demonstrated that they had produced a different (according to some reports superior) Teller – Ulam typed system. This resulted in the Americans changing tack and sharing technology with the British which reduced the latter’s expenses. Either way it was clear that Britain had a functioning high yield thermonuclear weapon and the ability to produce warheads as needed.

The British also went on to develop weapons systems to deliver these bombs. The initial Vickers Valiant longrange strategic bomber was supplemented and replaced by the Avro Vulcan and Handley Page Victor. The theory during the 1950s was that nuclear bombers would fly at high altitude to Russia and drop traditional free fall nuclear bombs. The Victor could actually fly higher and with a larger bomb load than the Vulcan. However, after Gary Powers’ U2 was shot down by a missile in 1960 whilst over central Russia, it became clear that Soviet air defence could stop high altitude bombers – this eventually led to the abandonment of the American XB-70 Valkyrie programme. Instead the emphasis switched to low level attacks.

vulcanFortuitously the Vulcan proved extremely adept at this role and along with the Blackburn Buccaneer both the RAF and Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm had the capability to launch nuclear bombing missions entirely independently of the Americans. The efficacy of the weapons systems was demonstrated in 1960 when as part of a war game eight Vulcans “attacked” the USA and Canada (four from Scotland and four from Bermuda). A Canadian fighter “shot down” one of the Scottish Vulcans but the other seven “destroyed” New York, Chicago and Washington. The RAF repeated the trick in 1961 whilst the Buccaneers proved uncatchable even into the 1970s in part due to their low flying (being essentially ekranoplans at low level). One Buccaneer broke a telegraph wire in the Nevada desert with its tail whilst climbing (in other words they routinely flew below 30 feet).

As such the independent nuclear deterrent was credible in the 1960s. By the later 1960s, however, nuclear deterrence was increasingly moving towards missiles. Technology allowed bombers to be shot down in sufficient numbers to make it more difficult to achieve reliable destruction of the enemy. In addition preemptive strikes could destroy the bombers on the ground. As such the Russians and Americans increasingly diversified into nuclear armed missiles which would fly either as cruise missiles or else fly into low earth orbit before reentering the atmosphere to hit their targets. The British looked at land based missiles and at either their own or American plane launched missiles but eventually like the French opted for submarine launched ballistic missiles.

In some ways these offer an optimal solution: although not especially good as first strike weapons (the early Polaris missiles were not sufficiently accurate) the submarines were and are very difficult to detect. They tend to sail very slowly at great depth in the Artic or Atlantic Oceans though their movements are highly secret (and difficult to track). As such even if an enemy had totally destroyed the United Kingdom they would be very concerned that in the immediate aftermath an equally terrible retribution would follow.

The French have a few land silo based nuclear missiles and still a few aircraft based ones. However, their main nuclear deterrence has been based with French nuclear powered nuclear missile armed submarines. These missiles are of French manufacture and are wholly independent of any other country.

vanguard1In contrast Britain alone amongst nuclear armed states uses foreign missiles – the American Trident II (previously Trident I and prior to that Polaris): these missiles are manufactured by the American firm Lockheed Martin. We are assured that the British Prime Minister can order the firing of these weapons without American consent and that they will fire and target as designated by their British controllers. This may well be true though it would not be inconceivable that some mechanism is incorporated preventing independent British firing of the missiles: just as it is not inconceivable that the British military have a way round such a possibility.

More serious, however, is that the missiles are maintained as part of a common stockpile with the American missiles. As such if the Americans chose to cease the arrangement the British nuclear deterrent would cease to be functional within a few months.

There are of course a whole series of arguments against nuclear weapons. One can argue that weapons of mass destruction are inherently wrong. One can also argue that they are inherently pretty useless in modern conflicts. One can also argue that the only conceivable scenarios which would lead to their use would also lead to the American use of the weapons against the same enemies. All of those, however, are arguments against having an independent British nuclear deterrent.

What we have rather is a situation which seems to be a nuclear deterrent dependent, in all but the very short term, on our closest ally. One can argue against the logic of those who, like Corbyn, oppose a British nuclear deterrent. Instead we have an independent nuclear deterrent, itself dependent on a not wholly dependable ally, whose very undependable-ness led to our perceived need to have such an independent nuclear deterrent. This seems highly illogical. One can take Corbyn’s position but if one does not the French alternative seems much more logical than our own.

This author has not written a biography and will not be writing one.