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The Future of Britain's Nuclear Deterrent

Author: Frank G. Klotz, Senior Fellow for Strategic Studies and Arms Control
July 24, 2013
National Interest


A perennial question faced by the major nuclear powers is how many and what kinds of nuclear forces are necessary to maintain an effective, credible deterrent. Contending assessments of security threats, as well as differing strategic concepts, have traditionally informed the debate. Yet, the tug-and-pull of domestic politics can also play a significant role in determining a nation's nuclear policy.

That's certainly the case in the United Kingdom today. A decision on the future of Britain's nuclear deterrent could depend as much on the dynamics of intracoalition and interparty politics—and a referendum on Scottish independence—as it does on strategic analysis.

Missiles and Submarines

The United Kingdom is one of the five nuclear-weapon states officially recognized by the 1968 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. At one time, it fielded a wide variety of nuclear-capable weapon systems. (According to Professor Sir Lawrence Freedman, these included longer-range bombers, fighter aircraft and maritime helicopters capable of delivering British-produced nuclear weapons; as well as short-range land-based missiles and artillery able to fire U.S. nuclear weapons under a dual-key arrangement.) But by the late 1990s, Britain had phased out all of its air-delivered and land-based nuclear-weapon systems as part of a post–Cold War adjustment that led to a substantial reduction in the total number of deployed nuclear weapons.

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