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UK Nuclear Deterrent

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History

The end of the Second World War threw Britain into the race for nuclear weapons. From the first systems developed in the early 1950s to the current Trident missile system, the history of the UK's Nuclear Deterrent brimmed with political and social controversy.

What's the history of the UK's nuclear deterrent? What role did it play during the Cold War? What opposition has the nuclear program faced? Read on to find out.

Nuclear deterrent keywords

Here is a list of some keywords to understand for this article. You can refer back to these at any time.

KeywordDefinition
The Manhattan ProjectA US research project that developed the first nuclear weapons during WW2, which the UK and Canada supported.
The Atomic Energy Act (The McMahon Act) An act passed by the US government that controlled the use of nuclear weapons technology. Crucially, it restricted access to nuclear information for Britain and Canada.
V-BombersThe three classes of aircraft that comprised the UK's nuclear strike force during the 1950s and 1960s, which were the Victor, the Valiant, and the Vulcan.
Mutual Defence Agreement (MDA)A bilateral treaty between the UK and the US that guaranteed the sharing of nuclear information, materials, and technology.
Skybolt ProgrammeA US nuclear programme aiming to create an air-launched stand-off missile. It was cancelled in 1962, much to the annoyance of the UK.
The Nassau AgreementAn agreement signed between Prime Minister Harold MacMillan and President Kennedy, agreeing that the US would make the Polaris nuclear system available to the UK.
Polaris Sales AgreementSigned in 1963, it confirmed the sale of the Polaris nuclear system to the UK.

UK nuclear deterrent history

Here is a timeline of the important events in the UK's nuclear deterrent history.

DateEvent
1941

Winston Churchill authorises the development of an atomic bomb in the UK.

1943The UK joins the American-led Manhattan Project.
1946The Atomic Energy Act is signed; the end of the UK–US nuclear collaboration.
1947Clement Atlee restarted the UK's independent nuclear program.
3rd October 1952The UK had its first successful test of an atomic bomb.
1956The first operational British nuclear bomb is created, called the Blue Danube and carried by V-Bombers.
1957-58The UK successfully tests thermonuclear weapons during the Grapple trials in the Pacific Ocean.
1958

The Mutual Defence Agreement (MDA) is signed between UK and US - collaboration resumed.

1961

Yellow Sun Mk.II, the UK’s first thermonuclear weapon came into service.

UK scraps its unsuccessful Blue Streak programme and joins the US’s Skybolt Programme.

1962

The Skybolt Programme is cancelled due to cost overruns and delays.

Blue Steel, the UK's first nuclear missile comes into service – launched from a V-bomber.

MacMillan and Kennedy concluded the Nassau Agreement.

1963The Nassau Agreement was formalised with the signing of the Polaris Sales Agreement.
1966

The WE177 Free-Fall bomb, the last of the UK’s air-launched nuclear weapons, comes into service.

1968

The Polaris Nuclear System enters service with the Royal Navy.

1969

V-Bombers withdraw from their nuclear role.

Yellow Sun Mk.II and Blue Steel go out of service.

1982

The government decides to purchase the Trident D5 Nuclear System.

1994

The Trident Nuclear System comes into service.

1996

The last Resolution-Class submarine is decommissioned, marking the end of the Polaris era.

1998

The WE177 Free-fall bomb is taken out of service.

UK missile systems

The UK has had two nuclear missile systems in the history of its nuclear deterrent – Polaris and Trident.

Polaris

In December 1962, Prime Minister Harold MacMillan negotiated with US President John F Kennedy for Britain to have the US-made, submarine-launched Polaris missiles. After some reluctance, Kennedy agreed, and in 1968 the Polaris Nuclear System came into service in the UK.

The Polaris nuclear deterrent submarines

The introduction of the Polaris system transferred responsibility for the UK's nuclear program from the Royal Air Force (RAF) to the Royal Navy.

  • The Polaris System consisted of four Resolution-Class Submarines:
    • HMS Resolution
    • HMS Revenge
    • HMS Repulse
    • HMS Renown
  • These submarines had been built in the UK. The only American part of the program was the missiles – everything else was designed and built in the UK.
  • Each submarine was armed with 16 Polaris missiles. Each missile was capable of carrying three thermonuclear warheads.

Resolution-class refers specifically to these four nuclear submarines. A class refers to a group of ships/naval vessels with a similar design.

Chevaline

In the 1970s, there were concerns that the Polaris missiles could not penetrate the Soviet Union's new anti-ballistic missile system (ABM). Therefore, the UK decided to upgrade the Polaris warheads through a programme called Chevaline.

It was an entirely British programme, receiving no outside help. Four successive governments kept it a secret. The program was a success, though it was met with controversy when it was finally revealed in 1980.

UK nuclear deterrent, HMS Resolution, StudySmarterHMS Resolution in 1967. Image via The National Archives.

Trident

In 1980, the government announced their plans to replace the Polaris system, which was out of date, with the Trident C4 Missile System. In 1982, however, they changed their minds and instead chose the Trident D5 system as it had increased capability and was more cost-efficient. In 1996, the Polaris system was completely phased out, and Trident took over.

The Trident nuclear deterrent submarines

  • Like the Polaris system, the Trident system consists of four submarines. The Trident submarines are Vanguard-class and are named:
    • HMS Vanguard
    • HMS Vengeance
    • HMS Victorious
    • HMS Vigilant
  • Each submarine carries no more than 40 thermonuclear warheads, split between eight missiles.
  • According to the Royal Navy, the Trident system operates as a Continuous At Sea Deterrent (CASD), i.e., there is always at least one submarine on patrol at all times.

UK nuclear deterrent, HMS Victorious, StudySmarterHMS Victorious, Flickr

The UK nuclear deterrent and the Cold War

It would be impossible to explain the UK's nuclear deterrent without addressing the UK's role during the Cold War.

Tensions between the Soviet Union (USSR) and the USA began to intensify after World War Two, not least as the US had used nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to end the war in Japan in 1945. The US monopoly of nuclear weapons lasted for only four years, as in 1949, the Soviet Union successfully tested their atomic bomb, starting the arms race.

The UK felt the threat of nuclear war as much as any other country. The UK was a founding member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) in 1949 and was committed to defending its allies if the USSR attacked them – potentially by using nuclear weapons if necessary.

UK–US relations

The relationship between the US and the UK surrounding nuclear weapons was fairly stable. The two countries collaborated during the Manhattan Project. Although the UK did not have its nuclear capability in 1945, it had a relationship with the only power that did. When the UK became the third nuclear power in 1952, this was seen as keeping the country relevant on the international stage, given that they had recently dismantled most of the British Empire.

Tensions did emerge a couple of times throughout nuclear development; the Atomic Energy Act in 1946 effectively meant that the US stopped collaborating on nuclear technology with the UK, which was not well-received. Similarly, the sudden cancellation of the American Skybolt Program caused tension as it left the UK with a very outdated nuclear system based on V-bombers with no replacement system in development.

Despite these occasional breakdowns in the relationship, overall, the US and the UK remained good allies and close partners in developing nuclear technology. According to American and British declassified documents, both countries saw each other as their most important ally in nuclear development.

UK nuclear deterrent, John F Kennedy and Harold Macmillan in Bermuda 1961, StudySmarterJohn F Kennedy and Harold MacMillan in Bermuda, 1961 - they would sign the Nassau Agreement a year later. Image via Wikipedia.

The Limited Test Ban Treaty 1963

In August 1963, the UK signed the Limited Test Ban Treaty, along with the US and USSR.

Amid rising concern and public anxiety about the effects of radiation from nuclear tests, it was decided that there needed to be limits placed on where nuclear tests could be conducted.

The treaty banned nuclear weapons testing underwater, in the atmosphere, and outer space.

It was not an easy process – the negotiations took about eight years and suffered from many interruptions, notably in 1960 when the U2 incident occurred. The USSR had concerns over how adherence to the treaty would be verified – they worried the methods would be too invasive or that the US would hijack them to spy on the Soviet military.

When it was eventually signed, the outcome was significant. It was the first piece of disarmament legislation approved during the Cold War and was a small step towards the de-escalation of hostilities between the US and the USSR.

The U2 incident occurred when the USSR shot down a US U2 spy plane flown by Gary Powers. The plane had been tasked with collecting intelligence on the USSR's nuclear capability.

Opposition to the UK nuclear deterrent

This section will discuss the opposition to the UK's nuclear deterrent from within the UK itself.

Much of the opposition came and still comes from public organisations and campaigns. Dome of the significant anti-nuclear groups in the UK include:

  • Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament

  • Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation

  • Trident Ploughshares

  • Greenpeace

  • Direct Action Committee

  • Nuclear Information Service

Cost of the UK nuclear deterrent

A significant argument against developing a nuclear weapons program has always been the cost.

How much does a nuclear deterrent cost?

In 1980, the Ministry of Defence estimated the cost of the Polaris system at around £330 million when it was purchased in 1963. In today's money, that's around £7.5 billion!

The Chevaline modification for the Polaris system was estimated to have cost around £1 billion in 1980.

In 1998, the Strategic Defence Review put the total expenditure on the Trident program at around £12.52 billion.

We must also consider the money spent on running the deterrent from year to year.

A common argument has been that the money spent on a nuclear deterrent could be better used in improving public services, healthcare, and all-around quality of life.

Political opposition

Throughout the development of the UK's nuclear deterrent, there was political opposition to certain aspects of it.

In the mid-1960s, just after purchasing the Polaris system, the Conservative government was facing heavy attacks from the Labour Party. They criticised the government for the amount of money they were spending on the Polaris system, especially after a plan had been outlined to construct a fifth Polaris submarine.

In addition, the government was accused of narrow-mindedness; the opposition was concerned that such a focus on nuclear deterrent meant Britain's military commitments elsewhere in the world were being forgotten.

A particular cause of controversy was the development of the Chevaline modification for the Polaris system.

This enormous public expenditure caused outrage, especially since Britain was going through severe economic austerity when it was being developed. Chevaline also led to calls from the Labour Party to support disarmament and do away with the nuclear weapons system.

Public anxiety

Since the earliest days of the development of nuclear weapons, there had been much worry from the British public about how nuclear weapons might impact them.

Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND)

One of the most prominent anti-nuclear groups in the UK is the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. It was founded in February 1958 in London.

Their marches in Aldermaston, Berkshire, for which they are well known, took place in the 1950s and 1960s. Their march from Aldermaston to London in 1959 attracted a huge following. Around 20,000 people were at the final rally in Trafalgar Square.

The next year, in 1960, their march gained a following of 40,000, with around 100,000 joining the final rally in Trafalgar Square.

The public was considerably aware of UK's nuclear deterrent and concerned over the impact of the development of nuclear weapons on ordinary people's lives.

UK nuclear detterent, CND march in Trafalgar Square 2015, StudySmarterCND march in Trafalgar Square 2015, Flickr

Cross-society support

Many different areas of society supported the anti-nuclear movement. It was not solely a phenomenon of the working classes; many church and scientific community members also supported it.

Many in the scientific community opposed the nuclear program because they were well aware of its dangers to society. In 1950, well-respected physicist Patrick Blackett published a response to the government's advice for civil defence in the case of a nuclear strike, stating that Britain could not be adequately defended in the case of a nuclear attack.

John Collins, an Anglican priest, was instrumental in founding the CND. In the aftermath of the Second World War, he had waited for the UK to condemn the development of nuclear weapons by the US and USSR. When it was announced the UK would develop its nuclear weapons, he decided to help found the CND, becoming frustrated at the lack of condemnation of the nuclear program.

Historiography of the UK nuclear deterrent

The UK Atomic Energy Authority commissioned an official history of Britain's nuclear programme. The task was given to Margaret Gowing, an English historian. She had access to files that were not available to the rest of the academic community, and her work set the foundation for the study of Britain's nuclear program. Thanks to this, a lot of work in this field has focused on reviewing the nuclear policy and political aspects of the UK's nuclear deterrent.

However, in more recent years, there has been an attempt to shift the focus to make it broader, incorporating a wider variety of angles and voices. For example, the impact of nuclear development on popular culture (music, art, literature) has been of increasing interest. The history of the social, psychological, and philosophical impacts of the UK's nuclear deterrent has also expanded.

Although many historical debates concerning the UK nuclear deterrent exist, historians nearly unanimously agree that the development of the UK nuclear deterrent has had a deep and long-lasting impact on the structure of society and politics during the latter half of the 20th century.

Safety will be the sturdy child of terror, and survival the twin brother of annihilation."

- Winston Churchill, in an address to Parliament in November 1953

UK Nuclear Deterrent - Key takeaways

  • The UK developed its nuclear weapon in 1952, becoming the third nuclear power globally. Before this, the UK had worked on the Manhattan Project with the US.
  • The UK and US have enjoyed a relatively stable nuclear relationship. However, there have been periods of tension, particularly with the 1946 Atomic Energy Act and the cancelling of the Skybolt Programme in 1962.
  • The UK has had two missile systems, z-Polaris and Trident. Both systems used/use nuclear submarines. The Polaris system was completely phased out in favour of Trident in 1996.
  • UK's nuclear deterrent was important in Britain's role in the Cold War. It gave them the power to defend themselves and their NATO allies if the USSR attacked them; they also signed the instrumental 1963 Limited Test Ban Treaty.
  • Opposition to the UK's nuclear deterrent has come from within the UK, notably from groups such as the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. The opposition focused on cost and public anxiety.

UK Nuclear Deterrent

Yes – the UK has used the Trident D5 missile system since 1996.

Trident.

The UK's nuclear deterrent is kept onboard four submarines. At least one submarine is on patrol at all times.

Yes – the UK's nuclear deterrent is operationally independent. Only the Prime Minister can authorise the use of the UK's nuclear deterrent, even if it was being deployed in the case of an international incident.

Nuclear deterrent refers to keeping nuclear weapons to stop or discourage attacks from other nations.

Final UK Nuclear Deterrent Quiz

Question

What was the Manhattan Project?

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Answer

A US research project that developed the first Nuclear weapons during WW2, supported by the UK and Canada

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Question

What year did the UK have its first successful test of an atomic bomb?

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Answer

1952

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Question

What was the UK's first missile system called?

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Answer

Polaris

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Question

The Polaris system transferred responsibility from which organisation to the Royal Navy?

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Answer

The Royal Air Force

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Question

What was Chevaline?

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Answer

A program developed in the 1970s to address concerns that the Polaris missiles could not penetrate the Soviet Union's new anti-ballistic missile system 

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Question

In what year was Polaris completely phased out?

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Answer

1996

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Question

What alliance was the UK a founding member of?

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Answer

The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation

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Question

What did the Limited Test Ban Treaty do in 1963?

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Answer

The treaty banned the testing of nuclear weapons underwater, in the atmosphere, and in outer space.

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Question

Name two UK anti-nuclear groups

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Answer

Any two from:

  • Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament
  • Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation
  • Trident Ploughshares
  • Greenpeace
  • Direct Action Committee
  • Nuclear Information Service

Show question

Question

How has cost been used to argue against nuclear weapons?

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Answer

The money spent on a nuclear deterrent could be better used in improving public services, healthcare, and all-around quality of life.

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Question

How did Labour criticise the Conservative government in the mid-1960s re Polaris?

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Answer

They criticised the government for the amount of money they were spending on the Polaris system, and accused them of narrow-mindedness.

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Question

Who was John Collines

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Answer

An Anglican priest instrumental in the founding of the CND

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