New Nuclear Notebook: British Nuclear Forces 2011

The British Cold War stockpile was bigger than previously thought but will be the smallest of the five original nuclear weapons states by the mid-2020s.     Click image for bigger version

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By Hans M. Kristensen

Britain’s disclosure last year of the size of its nuclear weapons stockpile shows, when combined with official information released earlier, that its Cold War nuclear stockpile was bigger than previously thought – more than 500 nuclear warheads in the 1970s.

Since then, Britain has reduced its stockpile by more than half to approximately 225 warheads and has decided to reduce it further to 180 warheads by the mid-2020s, a reduction of two-thirds compared with the Cold War level.

Modernization and continuous deployment at sea continues, however, and current plans might ironically lead to an increase in the number of warheads carried on each operational missile.

This and more is described in our latest Nuclear Notebook published in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

See also: Previous British Nuclear Notebook from 2005

This publication was made possible by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York and Ploughshares Fund. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author.

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2 Responses to “New Nuclear Notebook: British Nuclear Forces 2011”

  1. Distiller September 22, 2011 at 9:58 am #

    Standard comment 1: Without the UK-US angle the British nuclear capability is purely a geopolitical symbol, not a warfighting or military capability. Budget should be moved into the same pot where Royal visits abroad are paid from!

    Standard comment 2: Reasonable granularity of a possible nuclear response is missing, since the minimum is at the same time the maximum: A Trident from a SSBN. Which sets the threshold impossibly high, even if just a single WH would be on some of these British Tridents – which does not seem to be the plan, reading your pdf.

    Guess you know “Yes, (Prime) Minister”?
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IX_d_vMKswE
    Always LOL. Still so true!

    With less than 40 ~100kT yield (low-ish!) warheads per deployed boat resp 120 max in time of crisis (with only one single location to load warheads and missiles onto boats; predictable max simultaneous deployment duration) the question arises if that level is not already below “minimum deterrence” if seen on a global scale. Whom, btw? Russia? – Maybe. China? – Nope. Russia has 15 or so cities over 1 million (whereby MOW met area should count as multiples), China has almost 50 of them (same thing applies to a lot of them as to MOW). Assuming counter-value targeting, as 100kT won’t do against a whole range of counter-force targets. And 120 max warheads might not be enough to break through a strategic BMD system (let’s assume Chinese) by the 2025/30 timeframe. Also not to forget that 3 max SSBN at sea are not a terribly safe bet, delousing procedures or not (and even without collisions).

    Without the factor of national prestige (symbolized by SSBNs + SLBMs) the most reasonable way ahead for nuclear-UK would probably be more Astutes (like twice as many as planned) each armed with a dozen nuclear armed LO long range cruise missiles (something that could even be domestically designed + built). Way better granularity, increased survivability, and good enough for a deterrence force without the need of rapid response (only available with ballistic missiles).

    Otherwise I think the European angle is the most interesting aspect of the whole story. If, IF, in a distant future the European unification should ever reach the stage of full integration the question of strategic nuclear weapons will come to the table as the ultimate symbol of (national) souvereignity. Strategically nuclear armed Europe, with the British and the French capability forming the nucleus of a Force de Frappe Europeenne

    Until then the cooperation with France should be accelerated. And should include a good hard look at the M51 missile instead of Trident D-5, and a common warhead design.

  2. Peter Burt September 22, 2011 at 3:50 pm #

    Note that last year’s announcement on the number of warheads in the UK nuclear stockpile said that it contains “no more than” 225 warheads.

    At the time that UK Trident warheads were being produced at the Aldermaston Atomic Weapons Establishment in the last 1980s / early 1990s the A90 facility was experiencing serious production problems, and there is some doubt as to whether even 200 Trident warheads were produced. Information from monitoring of warhead convoys that transported warheads from AWE to the Coulport warhead store in Scotland over this period suggests that only around 200 Trident warheads were ever manufactured.

    I’m not aware that any UK warhead Trident warheads have ever been decommissioned – it appears that those which have been retired from deployment are being kept in storage at Coulport.

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