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Last Updated: September 05 2007 21:49


I've recently been reading a little about the British nuclear deterrent, a subject that has always interested me, after all a fair slice of my taxes go to pay for it!

Since the last WE177 free fall nuclear bombs were retired from service in 1998 the UK's sole nuclear deterrent is the Trident 2 missile system installed on the 4 missile carrying submarines HMS Vanguard, Victorious, Vigilant and Vengeance. Each boat carries up to 16 Trident 2 missiles. Each missile can carry up to twelve independently targetable warheads of up to 475kt yield, though in the case of the UK's missiles this is reduced by treaty to a maximum of 48 warheads per boat, it is believed that the majority of the UK missiles are fitted with 3 warheads of 100 to 475kt yield for use in the 'strategic' role, a small number of missiles (perhaps 3) on each boat are equipped for a 'sub-strategic' role, with perhaps 1 to 3 warheads with yields from 0.5 to 100kt.
For reference the yield of the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was around 12 to 15kt.

The UK deploys Trident as a deterrent, the idea being that should the UK be subjected to a nuclear attack our attacker can be assured that he will suffer an unacceptable counterstrike. Even if the initial attack on the UK was to be 100% successful, completely destroying all traces of civilisation (it seems likely that in a small densely populated country like the UK this would be relatively easy to achieve) at least 1 of our missile carrying submarines would have been out on patrol, and would therefore be able to carry out a retaliatory strike of a magnitude that would be unacceptable to the aggressor, with that knowledge in mind any potential aggressor should be deterred sufficiently to prevent an attack in the first place.
Sort of a playground 'if you hit me I'll hit you back harder' argument on a very grand scale. To get an idea of what is meant by an 'unacceptable retaliatory strike' each 'strategic' Trident missile would be able to pretty much completely destroy a city the size of Birmingham - about 1 million people. A complete boatful of trident missiles then would be expected to cause at least 8 to 12 million immediate deaths, getting on for ¼ of the body count for World War 2 and probably a similar number would die from the prolonged effects over the year following the initial 'strike'. These 'prolonged effects' aren't just restricted to radioactive fallout, we are talking here about destruction on such a vast scale that things like starvation due to destruction of infrastructure become significant.

The 'sub strategic' missiles are carried as a deterrent against a limited attack from a so called rogue state. This may be an attack with nuclear, biological or chemical weapons, but since the UK maintains no biological or chemical 'unconventional' weapons we would in theory retaliate against such an attack with our nuclear weapons. To get an idea of the effects of a 'sub strategic' weapon with a yield of (say) 15kt a similar weapon dropped on Hiroshima (population 250,000) killed around 70,000. Such a limited attack is unlikely to result in total destruction of the submarine command and control systems, so a sub-strategic retaliation is likely to be something ordered by government after some consideration.

Obviously we have to be pretty careful about the procedures for launching any nuclear retaliation, strategic or otherwise. In theory any attack requires the personal authority of the Prime Minister. There are extensive secure communications systems in place to allow the PM to send his wishes to the submarine commanders, but these systems are likely to be the first things to be hit in any strategic attack on the UK. Suppose such an attack was to come without warning, a so called 'bolt from the blue' which may effectively 'decapitate' the deterrent by destroying the machinery of government or its means to communicate with the boat on patrol. The planners have of course thought about this possibility; consequently there are some elaborate procedures in place. If the boat on patrol is unable to communicate with the UK for several consecutive days (the final check being to listen for the 'Today' programme on BBC Radio 4) then the commander will open a safe which contains a hand-written letter. This letter was written by the serving PM usually soon after his return from visiting Her Majesty The Queen and agreeing to form a government following a general election. This letter contains the wishes of the PM, probably at this stage 'from beyond the grave'.
I find this whole idea rather fascinating - as a frequent listener to the 'Today' programme, I find the idea that its disappearance from the air would signal the end of civilisation rather amusing, but even more interesting are those letters. Normally they are individually hand-written by the new PM, sealed and delivered to the safe on each of the submarines. When the PM writes these letters he is the only person in the room, he seals them and they are (hopefully!) never opened, when the PM leaves office they are destroyed unread. No PM (or ex PM) has ever given a hint as to what his (or her) instructions were.

So here is your homework - write the letter and post it to me using the form below. I may publish any particularly imaginative letters on this page.
Think carefully about what you write, Prime Minister - you may be about to wipe out up to 25 million lives...

Here is my attempt.

Fortunately, this is not a letter I will ever have to write for real, but I'm interested to know the thoughts of g1sle.com visitors on this subject. There must be a fair range of ideas on this, all of which must have some validity.

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