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British Nuclear Capability Data

July 9, 2008
Center for Defense Information

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Delivery Vehicle

Year Deployed

Range (km)

Launcher Total

Warhead

Warhead Yield (kt)

Notes

SLBMs

D-5 Trident II

1994

7,400

Up to 64

1-3 W76

100

On four Vanguard class SSBNs

Summary of United Kingdom Nuclear Forces:

The United Kingdom likely has fewer than 160 operational nuclear warheads, all based on Trident submarines. There are probably another 20-50 warheads in the stockpile that are not operational.

The United Kingdom dismantled all of its air-delivered nuclear weapons by 1998, leaving its deterrent force based solely on four Vanguard-class SSBNs. Each submarine is armed with 16 U.S.-supplied Trident II (D-5) submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) and 48 nuclear warheads (although up to 64 could be fitted if needed), for a total of fewer than 200 operational warheads. The Trident missiles are not owned by the United Kingdom Instead, it shares a pool of D-5s with the United States which are not owned by the United Kingdom; rather, it has title to 58 missiles, so that a missile currently loaded on a British boat could be later put on an American one, and vice versa.[1] At any given time, one British submarine is on patrol, and that sub’s missiles are de-targeted and off alert—it would take several days for the British submarine on patrol to ready its nuclear weapons for launch.

These four Vanguard submarines, first introduced in 1993, are aging and will start to reach the end of their operational lifetimes in the 2020s. Because designing, building, and deploying new submarines takes years, Britain faced a decision last year about whether to go ahead with the design of new submarines to carry the Trident missiles. In a 409-161 decision, Parliament voted on March 14, 2007, to begin research and development for new submarines that could carry the British SLBMs.[2] Despite the fact that the United States’ analogous SSBN, the Ohio-class, has been in service since 1981 and is slated to be in service for forty years, the younger Vanguards are to be replaced because the British Ministry of Defense believes it would be overly difficult and expensive to extend their lifespan.[3] Very little is known about the new British submarine; the U.K. government estimates it would cost ?15-20 billion and take 17 years to build.[4]

During the course of the debate in 2006-07 over building new Trident submarines, then Prime Minister Tony Blair gave some ground to critics by saying he wanted to look at whether the number of SSBNs could be cut from four to three. He also intended to cut the number of nuclear warheads in the U.K.’s arsenal by 20 percent to below 160.[5] So far, it appears that Prime Minister Gordon Brown has reduced the arsenal to that level; it is unclear whether he intends to reduce the number of SSBNs.[6]

Strategic Nuclear Weapons: 180-200 (48 available on patrol at any given time)

Non-strategic Nuclear Weapons: 0

Total Nuclear Weapons: 180-200

Sources:

“The Future of the United Kingdom’s Nuclear Deterrent.” Presented to Parliament by the Secretary of State for Defence and the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs by Command of Her Majesty. December 2006. http://www.mod.uk/NR/rdonlyres/AC00DD79-76D6-4FE3-91A1-6A56B03C092F/0/DefenceWhitePaper2006_Cm6994.pdf.

British American Security Information Council. “Green Paper: Decisions Over the Future of British Nuclear Weapons.” Presented to Parliament, December 2006. http://www.basicint.org/nuclear/beyondtrident/greenpaper.pdf.

“Q&A: Trident Replacement,” BBC News Online, 14 March 2007, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/politics/4805768.stm.

Cowell, Allen. “Blair Wins Vote to Renew Atom Arsenal.” The New York Times. Mar. 15, 2007. http://www.nytimes.com/2007/03/15/world/europe/15britain.html.

Federation of American Scientists. “United Kingdom Nuclear Forces Guide.” http://www.fas.org/nuke/guide/uk/index.html (Accessed on May 2, 2008).

Hundman, Eric. 2007. “U.K. Trident Debate Energizes Opposition To Nuclear Weapons.” World Politics Watch, March 8, 2007. http://www.worldpoliticswatch.com/article.aspx?id=611.

International Relations and Security Network, “UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s Statement on the National Security Strategy,” http://se2.isn.ch/serviceengine/FileContent?serviceID=23, 19 March 2008.

Kristensen, Hans M., and Robert S. Norris. “British Nuclear Forces, 2005.” Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. November/December 2005. http://thebulletin.metapress.com/content/k52425n3320m8644/fulltext.pdf.

ENDNOTES

[1] Kristensen, Hans M., and Robert S. Norris. “British Nuclear Forces, 2005.” Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. Nov./Dec. 2005. http://thebulletin.metapress.com/content/k52425n3320m8644/fulltext.pdf.

[2] Wade Boese, “UK Nuclear Submarine Plan Wins Vote,” Arms Control Today, April 2007, http://www.armscontrol.org/act/2007_04/UKSubPlan.asp

[3] “Why do Trident Submarines Have to be Replaced?” BBC News.com, March 15, 2007, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/magazine/6454273.stm

[4] Michael Bilton, “Dive Bombers,” The Sunday Times, Jan. 20, 2008

[5] BBC, “Q&A: Trident Replacement,” BBC News, March 14, 2007, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/politics/4805768.stm.

[6] International Relations and Security Network, “UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s Statement on the National Security Strategy,” http://se2.isn.ch/serviceengine/FileContent?serviceID=23, March 19, 2008.

Author(s): Elliott Becker , Eric Hundman, CDI.

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