current affairs

60 years of burning money: Britain’s nuclear weapons

This week defense secretary Philip Hammond announced £350 million for designing a replacement to Britain’s nuclear weapons programme. This is a little odd because we haven’t officially decided that we’re doing that yet, and throwing money at a replacement for Trident while the review is still going on doesn’t suggest an open mind.

It’s also premature because the Scottish National Party have said they won’t host Britain’s nuclear submarines if Scotland votes for independence. The referendum is in 2014, so if the Scottish Nationalists win, that’ll presumably be £350 million down the drain. (And this is the second tranche of £350 million announced this year, by the way.)

But I’m not surprised. Britain has a long history of throwing money at nuclear weapons. It began during the Second World War, when Britain was one of several countries working on nuclear technology. Our programme was folded into the top secret Manhattan Project in partnership with the US and Canada. That was the project that delivered the bombs that were dropped on Japan. Despite Britain’s involvement, the US decided not to share the technology after the war. That was wasted effort number one.

With the US not sharing, we decided to press ahead with developing the technology alone. We tested our first nuclear weapon in 1952. But by that time the US had already tested the hydrogen bomb, then Russia tested one two years later. All of a sudden our little bomb wasn’t good enough – obsolete at the point of readiness and wasted effort number two. We decided we needed a hydrogen bomb too, and we had one by 1957.

So far our nuclear bombs were air-dropped, but by the mid-50s Britain was embarked upon its own home-made missile system called Blue Streak. It was ambitious and innovative – the first nuclear missile to launch from an underground silo. Unfortunately the initial £5o million price tag was an underestimate. Costs had ballooned to £3oo by the end of the decade, with certain technical problems unsolved. With estimates of total cost running to £1.3 billion (£21 bn in today’s money) the programme was shelved – another wasted effort.

Having spent so much on Blue Streak, the government were loathe to drop it altogether, so they attempted to recycle the technology as a civilian space rocket instead. After several false starts and many more millions this eventually morphed into the Europa rocket, designed for launching satellites. It managed one test launch in 1971, but it broke up after its guidance system failed. The project was then finally cancelled.

Fortunately for our nuclear ambitions, the US  had started cooperating with us again by then. The Mutual Defence Agreement, signed in 1958, is still the basis for our nuclear weapons today. (It runs out in 2014, which is why Trident is up for review.) Under the scheme, the US and the UK would partner on a new air-launched missile venture – Skybolt.

For the US, who were developing Minuteman and Polaris at the same time, this was just one more option out of many, but Britain decided to switch entirely to the new Skybolt system. Thus it came as a bit of a shock when, after five successive failed tests, President Kennedy cancelled the programme.

That was the fourth giant waste of money, but Anglo-American relations were so damaged by the cancellation that the US agreed to lease us Polaris technology to make up for it. That, fortunately, was the end of our attempts to develop our own missile programmes. The US provided the missiles, and we provided the warheads and submarines. Polaris was largely a success, if you discount the Chevaline update. This was a top secret British project to improve Polaris. Four successive governments kept the secret, until it had overrun the budget so much that it became impossible to keep authorising new funds. It became public under Thatcher, at which point it had cost a billion.

Trident was announced in 1980 and became operational in 1994. It has, to be fair, been a fairly successful system so far. It still works well for us, if you think the capability to destroy Moscow at short notice remains a priority in the 21st century. The missiles aren’t actually ours. They belong to the US and we lease them. They’re even kept in the US, at King’s Bay in Georgia. Our submarines pick them up and sail about with them, and bring them back for their next maintenance round. Britain’s ‘independent’ nuclear deterrent is actually a myth, and a very expensive one.

It’s worth remembering that when politicians start talking about the next generation of nuclear weapons – ours is an extension of America’s, and can’t function without them. Why not just scrap our fleet and sit under their umbrella? It would be a whole lot cheaper, in an age when we can’t afford things like libraries or police officers.

Over the last few decades, Britain has thrown countless billions at nuclear weapons. There have been occasional successes. I haven’t mentioned our V bombers, for example. But then this isn’t an exhaustive list of failures either – no time to go into Blue Steel 2, or the nuclear landmine (can you imagine?) codenamed Blue Peacock and intended for deployment along the East German border. Now that the Cold War is over, and the biggest threats are from terrorism and cyber-warfare, do we really still need our own nuclear capacity? I don’t think so, and I’ve written about that in more detail here.

When Britain was considering pursuing the hydrogen bomb in the early 50s, the Chief Scientist for the Ministry of Defense advised them not to: “We are not a Great Power and never will be again” he said. “We are a great nation, but if we continue to behave like a Great Power we shall soon cease to be a great nation. Let us take warning from the fate of the Great Powers of the past and not burst ourselves with pride.”

We don’t appear to have learnt much in the six decades since. In 2009 the Institute for Public Policy Research concluded the same thing in a review of defence strategy: “As a medium-sized nation in a globalising world, and in the context of severe resource constraints, it is neither appropriate nor feasible to sustain the military ambitions and structures of a superpower.” How many more billions will we burn before we take that to heart?


  1. I have never bought the argument that “we lease the missiles so we are only an extension of the US deterrent”. The US does not control the missiles once they are in our submarines. There is no US officer on Trident with a key that can stop us launching them on David Cameron’s say so only. If the UK decided that a nuclear response was necessary but the US did not, the UK can fire independently. That is the definition of an independent deterrent. We buy and lease all manner of weapons from the US but once we have them, we can us them as we wish. Obviously if the US disapprove they can refuse to supply more but that is only after use, not before.

    As to the idea that there is no threat. The first answer is that nuclear policy is over 30 year horizons. 30 years ago our strategic situation was very different, You can not say it won’t be totally different again in another 30. NATO and the EU both are under strain. We could end up cold and alone. We also have one major potential threat – Iran. Iran clearly has nuclear ambitions. Within 5 years it will have nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them to the UK. The history between the UK and Iran means that for Iranians Britain is a potent bogeyman. It is easy to imagine the leadership of a nuclear Iran attempting to blackmail a non-nuclear UK as a way of bolstering their position internally and externally. Trident prevents any such blackmail.

    A great amount of defence spending is wasted. But as ever the issue is knowing what is a waste before hand. If you write a history of low carbon technology there will be huge amounts of wasted spending. Does that mean we shouldn’t develop it?

    Security is intangible. Given that we can’t afford a balanced conventional defence, we are back to the 1950’s policy of letting nuclear weapons provide the ultimate backdrop. Trident replacement is cheap compared to having a large army, navy and air force.

  2. You’ll notice I’m arguing that Britain doesn’t need a nuclear deterrent, not that everyone should scrap all their nuclear weapons – though I wish that were possible. I just don’t see any circumstances in which a country like Iran would be deterred by Britain’s nuclear capacity, but not by America’s, or Israel’s (assuming they have it).

    That doesn’t seem remotely credible to me – what would have to happen to relations with the US for us to be standing alone in that way? And if relations with the US had deteriorated so badly that we didn’t share a common enemy of that severity, surely they would be withdrawing their partnership agreement on leasing us missiles. They wouldn’t trust us with them.

    I won’t repeat the arguments, as I’ve written about them in more detail here:

    1. I didn’t suggest you were arguing for general nuclear disarmament.

      We have a situation where America is demographically becoming less European and is making a strategic pivot towards Asia. Europe is a backwater and is becoming less an less relevant to the US. They may no longer be prepared to risk New York for York but unless there is a major falling out, why wouldn’t they be happy to sell us the means of our own defence?

      I ready your article and you glibbly wave away Iran as a threat when as we saw with HMS Cornwall, they are looking for any opportunity to humiliate us. Iranians hold historical grudges against us. Don’t forget our nuclear weapons policy allows use in return for chemical and biological attacks so it deters state actors using those against us too. Iran is basically rational. They would not want a nuclear exchange so Trident would deter them from major actions against us.

      Our nuclear deterrent has not encouraged any other nation to go nuclear. Russia, China, Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea all have nuclear weapons for reasons totally unrelated to the UK deterrent. They did not go nuclear because we had the bomb, they will not disarm if we do. After South Africa disarmed I didn’t see a response from anyone else,and we would be the same. UK unilateral disarmament will not make the world safer one iota.

      So the case comes down to whether we want or can afford this ultimate insurance policy against Rumsfeldian ‘unknown unknowns’. Trident is cheap relative to any nuclear alternative and a British Prime Minister who gave up the nuclear deterrent would worry that the judgement of history may eventually curse their name. We may not need Trident but we don’t know that. You can make sweeping statements but it isn’t your neck on the line.

      1. I don’t dismiss Iran as a threat, I just disagree that they pose a unilateral threat to us here in Britain. Can you imagine a scenario in which we’d have to face Iran on our own?

        I also disagree that Britain disarming would have no effect. (South Africa never formally announced that they had the bomb in the first place, so it’s very different circumstances) The US and Russia have both talked positively about reducing their stock of weapons. We would be supporting that and encouraging other countries to do likewise. That’s not leaving yourselves hostage to fortune, that’s taking steps towards the kind of world we want to live in. It’s a proactive statement about the importance of peace-building.

        1. Here’s a scenario for a non-nuclear UK vs Iran. 2030 UK has left the EU, NATO has been dissolved. Iran has economic problems that are destabilising the regime. In an effort to build support they decide to pick on the weak old colonial bogeyman (think Argentina in ’82). The President of Iran demands the UK give Iran $40 billion in compensation for economic exploitation in the 19th and 20th centuries or they will destroy London. Can we be totally sure a disengaged US or prickly France would step up to defend us, putting their cities at risk for a bit of money? With Trident Iran wouldn’t dare, without it we’d be humiliated.

          All present nuclear powers have nuclear weapons for their own strategic reasons. Russia has it to remain a great power and to compensate for its weak army. China has them because Russia and India do. India does because China has them. Pakistan has them to balance India. Israel to prevent an existential threat. North Korea has them to deter America from a conventional attack. Iran wants them for the same reason. Only France has similar reasons to us of holding nuclear weapons, and like us their weapons are a wider irrelevance.

          At the crunch yours is a case of hope over Realpolitik. Get it wrong, find the hope is misplaced and the result is national disaster. National security isn’t about hoping for the best. That is why it makes sense to keep Trident. Better safe than sorry when you can’t see 30-40 years ahead. Statements about peace building in 1922 didn’t prevent the Second World War, just meant we weren’t prepared for it.

          You’d say to someone who says “Don’t worry, I’m sure we’ll just solve global warming” of complacent hope over experience. Your case against Trident is similar.

          1. And I’m arguing that my approach is not ‘don’t worry about it, it’ll be fine’. Disarming is a deliberate statement of intent, it changes the way you are viewed in the world. We’d no longer be the old aggressor, but a country that was seeking to build bridges.

            Don’t forget that we just signed a deal to build new nuclear power stations yesterday, but we insist that other countries can’t be trusted with nuclear technology. How do you think that looks to countries like Iran? Arrogant and hypocritical, no doubt. When you lord it over other countries in that way, you make yourself a target. So what happens if we change the debate, if we choose to lay down that ‘ultimate power’? Laying down our nuclear weapons is an act of peace-building and reconciliation, and certainly Britain and France are in a position to do that. It would be a defense strategy based on defusing aggression in the first place.

            Japan is an interesting case. It was a major military power at the turn of the last century, and fought wars of aggression against China and Russia. At the end of the Second World War it was disarmed under US occupation, but when the occupation ended they declined to re-arm, despite the US encouraging them to do so.

            Japan is one of the richest and most advanced countries in the world, but its armed forces remain technically civilian and strictly for defensive purposes. That doesn’t mean they have no military capacity – their spending is still pretty high and they’ll deploy the navy when they need to (see current spat with China). But they have a non-aggressive stance.

            Obviously every country’s military policy is a product of its history, and Japan is no different – especially on their no-nuclear policy. But what Japan have done is to completely change their attitude to military force. It’s best described in the Japanese constitution: “The Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation”

            I’m suggesting we could do something similar, in our own way, resetting the clock on our centuries-long legacy of aggression. And we could start by not renewing Trident.

            1. Japan can follow its ‘peaceful’ path whilst there is an explicit US defence guarantee and a view that America’s interests are synonymous with Japan’s. The debate in Japan is now more towards normalising their military and changing the constitution. Being a free rider means a loss of independence and the risk the big boy you are piggy-backing on abandoning you. Voices in the US military are not happy with European’s free riding on the US (example not having enough smart munitions during the Libyan war). As our interests diverge the will be less prepared to let us ride on their coat tails except when it suits them.

              The idea that we give up nuclear weapons will make the rest of the world treat us more kindly is not borne out by experience. As I said, the countries that have nuclear weapons have them for their own reasons. A disarmed UK wouldn’t change the debate in any of those countries. It would just be taken as weakness if acknowledged at all. Iran’s beef with us didn’t start with the NPT, which anyway doesn’t prevent other countries having peaceful nuclear technology. It is historic. Self hating renunciations of our history will not make us safer, just diminish us.

              I fear you are too utopian. 100 years ago people said there wouldn’t be another was because the world was too economically interconnected. 75 years ago they said if we disarmed we’d be a role model for peace. Wrong on both counts.

              You want to take a huge risk with our future, at least admit its a risk.

  3. This is really interesting, thank you.
    Reading through it I was reminded by the mention of the Polaris technology about the Chagos Islands and thought it worth mentioning. As I understand it, the United States gave Britain a discount on the lease for the Polaris missiles in exchange for a fifty year lease on Diego Garcia, where they built a naval base. The British government forcefully evicted the inhabitants of the islands and left them to perish in Mauritius. They have been struggling to return for decades in the face of persistent deceit from successive Conservative, Labour, and Liberal Democrat governments. There is an excellent John Pilger documentary about it here: and plenty more information on the UK Chagos Support Association web site:
    Thank you again for your article. I hope you do not mind me adding these small, but significant, details.

  4. Of course its a risk DevonChap, but so is your position. You risk throwing the tens of billions we’ll spend on a technology that serves no obvious purpose. And you take the risk of prolonging Britain’s reputation as a foreign aggressor who needs to be opposed. When was the last terrorist attack against Japan’s interests? Or Germany, or Switzerland?

    When you de-militarise, you cease to be a threat. You’re not free-riding in the global security balance, because you’re not destabilising it in the first place.

    My position is neither utopian nor self-hating. It is responding to the realities of the world today, while Trident was designed for a Cold War context that ended 20 years ago. The world is different, our enemies are different, and our approach needs to be different. The idea of the deterrent worked within the mutually assured destruction dynamic of the Cold War. It doesn’t in a context of Islamic jihad, or of rogue nuclear states.

    1. Germany has suffered or foiled terrorist attacks on its territory in 2010, 2011 and 2012. So much for being non nuclear protecting them from attack. Switzerland’s last was in 2011. In 2010 a Japanese oil tanker was attacked by terrorists.

      You think Trident marks us out as an aggressor, and not Iraq or Afghanistan, both decidedly non-nuclear actions? The fact is to other countries our possession of Trident is an irrelevance. It doesn’t change their impression of us for good or ill. All it does is give a final backstop that Britain’s most vital interests will not be violated. Trident is not aggressive, unlike aircraft carriers or tanks. It probably will never be used. It is insurance. Like any insurance you probably will never need it but if you do and don’t have it , you will feel its loss. Money paid on your home insurance is wasted until you are flooded.

      The risk I take is we waste money. The government wastes billions every year on loads of things. Its only money. Your risk is greater. To our security as a nation. Indeed without Trident we would have to be more active militarily to prevent threats before they emerge. With Trident we can be more relaxed. When you de-militarise, you might cease to be a threat, you also become a target.

      btw Trident works just fine against rogue nuclear states, it is against non state actors nuclear deterrence fails.

      1. The attack on the Japanese tanker was, according to those carrying out the attack, to demand the release of an Egyptian cleric held in a US jail – not an attack on Japanese interests. The most high profile terrorist incident in Germany recently was an attack on US military personnel. Switzerland’s incident in 2011 was domestic.

        You don’t see angry mobs burning german flags (except in Greece). Swiss embassies aren’t stormed; Ahminejad doesn’t denounce Japan in the UN – not because they don’t have nuclear weapons, that would be a facile argument, but because they’re not international aggressors.

        America is, and Britain certainly has been. You’re quite right to mention Iraq and Afghanistan, because it’s all of a piece. This isn’t something that begins and ends with nuclear weapons, it’s to do with our attitude towards the rest of the world. I’d suggest that we scrap our aircraft carriers too, and in fact the latest government cuts have apparently made it impossible for us to fight two wars at once again – good.

        1. We get to the actual point at last. This isn’t about money, it is a about a near pacifist security policy. If that’s what you are arguing for then argue on those grounds, not the cost of particular systems. I think you know politically that is a much harder sell than cost saving.

          I think you are wrong. As I suggested 100 years ago general war was said to be unthinkable because the interconnectedness of the major economies. 75 years ago disarmament and pacifism were seen as the way to security. Both were wrong then and I see no reason why they are not still wrong. Human nature has not changed. You do not apologise your way to security, nor unilaterally disarm to get it. It is only achieved by lasting agreement between the main actors and deterrence of those who do not join that consensus.

          Our nuclear deterrent is cheap (compared to conventional defence), non offensive and hidden. We can, if we choose, shield ourselves behind it and not have to engage in overseas adventures. It is interesting that you see Afghanistan as an aggression. We are there under UN mandate in response to direct aggression against a NATO ally coordinated from Afghanistan by a terrorist organisation supported by the Afghan government. Afghanistan is the kind of war we should be fighting, it is just that it got caught up in many people’s minds with Iraq.

          I for one am proud of the work our military has done in defending the rights of self determination of the people of the Falklands, Kosovo and Kuwait and removing the terror of the RUF from Sierra Leone and Gaddafi in Libya. You want a meek security policy but means we would have to foreswear many of those operations and the humanitarian benefits they brought.

          And you may have noticed that Japan ain’t too popular in Asia with flag burning, its embassies being pelted with eggs and boycotts of its businesses. This is after 60 years of a security policy you so admire.

          1. I’m not a pacifist, and my case isn’t economic either. This post is about the costs, since that’s the news angle this week. I’ve written other arguments elsewhere, and I’ve linked to them already.

            I understand the idea of nuclear weapons as a final insurance policy, I just disagree with you that it’s essential. My point is that plenty of other countries don’t have them and appear to share my view that they’re not essential, including Germany or Japan, Canada, Australia or Brazil. These places aren’t any less safe for not having nuclear weapons. They are not being intimidated or blackmailed.

            I completely understand why Israel or India have them, but I don’t see the case for ours. If you do, that’s fine by me. I respect your views and I’m aware that I’m in a minority, certainly politically. I can live with that.

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