The United Kingdom

A conflicted nuclear weapons state

Authored by: Paul Ingram , Michael Collins

Handbook of Nuclear Proliferation

Print publication date:  December  2011
Online publication date:  February  2012

Print ISBN: 9781857436044
eBook ISBN: 9780203840849
Adobe ISBN:


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The United Kingdom, with the smallest nuclear arsenal of the recognized five nuclear weapons states, has been seen by some as the most committed of them to the nuclear disarmament agenda, with a domestic political debate that has raged for 60 years. 1 Yet Britain’s nuclear weapons policy can best be characterized, right from its inception to the present day, as being ambiguous and contradictory. The third state to acquire a nuclear capability, the United Kingdom currently operates just a single nuclear delivery system. In this respect it is unique among nuclear weapons states. The system comprises of a fleet of four Vanguard-class submarines (SSBNs – ship submersible ballistic nuclear), each armed when on patrol with up to 16 Trident II D5 submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) and up to 40 warheads between them. 2 At any given time, under a policy of ‘continuous-at-sea deterrence at least one of the four submarines is submerged on patrol at sea, thereby guaranteeing a “second strike” capability’. The system thus has four elements – the submarines, the missiles, the warheads and the supporting infrastructure.

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