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Overview Last updated: October, 2014

The British government has progressively reduced its nuclear weapons stockpile, with the latest reduction announced in the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR). [1] Though it once possessed biological and chemical warfare programs, the United Kingdom ended both programs in the mid to late 1950s. Its limited missile program is now composed entirely of sea-launched missiles.

Nuclear

The United Kingdom is a nuclear weapon state party to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), and a member of all of the major WMD nonproliferation treaties and international export control regimes. The United Kingdom ratified the NPT in November 1968 and the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) in June 1998. The United Kingdom's total nuclear stockpile consists of less than 225 strategic warheads that can be deployed on four Vanguard-class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBN). By the mid-2020s, the UK plans to reduce this number to around 180. [2] The July 1998 Strategic Defense Review precipitated major changes to the British nuclear weapons program, including the removal of air-delivered weapons from service and exclusive reliance on SSBNs for nuclear deterrence. [3] The Review also mandated that only one submarine be on patrol at a time, it reduced the number of warheads carried aboard to a maximum of forty-eight, and it required the missiles be de-targeted. [4] The 2010 Defense Review further reduced the maximum number of deployed warheads to forty per submarine as part of a plan to limit the UK's operational nuclear weapons to 120 by the mid-2020s. [5] According to former Defense Minister Liam Fox, at least one of the Vanguard submarines has already implemented this limitation. [6] A July 2011 interview with former Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett suggested that UK experts were examining the elimination of one Vanguard-class submarine and the suspension of the "continuous at-sea deterrence" policy. [7] However, since the 2011 interview, the United Kingdom's "continuous at-sea deterrence" policy and  the number of Vanguard-class submarines have remained unchanged.

Because the first two submarines of the existing Vanguard-class fleet are slated for retirement in 2024, in early 2007 British lawmakers supported the "initial gate" – a defense policy to develop a new class of replacement SSBNs. [8] However, due to an overstretched UK defense budget, the final decision on the configuration of the new delivery platform has been delayed. [9] Following the UK's 2016 general election, British lawmakers are expected to respond to a "main gate" decision regarding the Trident's delivery platform configuration. [10] In March 2012, the Royal Navy awarded a £350 million contract to UK defense firm Babcock International to refit the HMS Vengeance – a Vanguard-class SSBN. [11] The HMS Vengeance will be refitted with a new reactor and receive updated defense systems. [12] Commenting on the refit of the Vengeance, Defense Secretary Philip Hammond stated that, "As well as securing 2,000 U.K. jobs, this contract will ensure the nuclear deterrent submarine fleet can continue to operate safely and effectively to maintain a continuous at-sea deterrent." [13]

The referendum on Scottish independence that took place on 18 September 2014 could have had significant ramifications for the Trident program. The Scottish National Party (SNP) had made clear that in the event of secession, the United Kingdom's nuclear deterrent and related infrastructure would need to be removed from Scottish territory. [14] Scotland ultimately voted to remain part of the UK, averting a near-term decision on relocation. However, since the SNP's opposition to Trident is unlikely to wane and with prospect of Scottish independence still looming in the future, a long-term defense strategy that relies on the continued basing of the UK's nuclear deterrent on Scottish territory could be problematic.

Nuclear power provides approximately 20% of the United Kingdom's electricity, but the country's current plants are rapidly nearing the end of their commissioned service cycles. [15] In January 2008, private energy companies received formal approval to "initiate, fund, construct, and operate" a new generation of nuclear power plants. A March 2013 government report on the future of the United Kingdom's nuclear industry set a deadline of 2030 for construction of five nuclear power stations, and on 19 March 2013 the government authorized EDF Energy to construct a nuclear power station at Hinkley Point – the first such facility constructed in the United Kingdom since 1995. [16] [17] Nuclear power is a key component of the government's strategy to meet greenhouse gas emission targets outlined under the Kyoto Protocol. [18]

The United Kingdom participates in efforts to control the export of nuclear technology through its membership in the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) and the Zangger Committee (ZAC).

Biological

Beginning in 1934, the United Kingdom weaponized anthrax and conducted research on botulinum toxin and the pathogens that cause plague and typhoid fever. [19] By the late 1950s, the United Kingdom no longer had an offensive biological weapons program, although its defensive biological program remains strong today. [20] London ratified the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) in March 1975, and is a member of the Australia Group (AG), an export control mechanism for chemical and biological weapons. On 28 March 2005, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Russia issued a joint statement affirming their support for the BTWC and called on all remaining countries not party to the BTWC to implement and comply with the convention. [21]

Chemical

The United Kingdom's World War II stockpile of weaponized chemical agents included phosgene, mustard gas, and lewisite. [22] However, the country renounced its chemical weapons (CW) program in 1957 and subsequently destroyed its chemical stockpiles. [23] London ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) in May 1996 and participates in the Australia Group (AG).

Missile

The United Kingdom has a highly developed missile program with maritime, air, and land capabilities. The UK is currently updating its missile defense system. This new FLAADS (Future Low Altitude Air Defense System) program includes the Common Anti-air Modular Missile (CAMM), the land-based version of which is currently being tested. [24] Additionally, the UK is working with France on a new supersonic cruise missile, the CVS401 Perseus, which should be ready by 2030. [25]

The United Kingdom's nuclear deterrent resides on four Vanguard-class submarines, each outfitted to carry 16 U.S.-supplied Trident II (D-5) sea-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM) and up to 48 warheads. [26] The UK shares a pool of missiles with the United States at the Strategic Weapons Facility Atlantic, Kings Bay Submarine Base, Georgia. The Royal Navy retrieves missiles from the U.S. storage area and equips them with warheads at the Royal Naval Armaments Depot at Coulport in Scotland. Although the United Kingdom has title to 58 SLBMs, it technically does not own them, and the United States handles missile servicing. [27] 

The United Kingdom is a member of the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), an informal mechanism that aims to restrict the proliferation of unmanned delivery systems capable of delivering weapons of mass destruction, and subscribes to the Hague Code of Conduct Against Ballistic Missile Proliferation (HCOC), designed to supplement and bolster the MTCR.

Sources:
[1] "Securing Britain in an Age of Uncertainty: The Strategic Defence and Security Review," Her Majesty's Government, October 2010, www.number10.gov.uk, p. 37.
[2] "Securing Britain in an Age of Uncertainty: The Strategic Defence and Security Review," Her Majesty's Government, October 2010, www.number10.gov.uk, p. 37.
[3] House of Commons, "Strategic Defense Review White Paper," October 15, 1998.
[4] House of Commons, "Strategic Defense Review White Paper," October 15, 1998.
[5] Preparatory Committee for the 2015 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, "Report submitted by the UK under actions 5, 20, and 21 of the Final Document of the 2010 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons," 28 April-9 May 2014, www.un.org.
[6] "U.K. Starts Nuclear Development Cuts," Global Security Newswire, 30 June 2011, www.globalsecuritynewswire.org; Edwards, Rob, "UK's nuclear weapons being dismantled under disarmament obligations," The Guardian, 11 August 2013.
[7] "Former Top Diplomat Says U.K. Might be Able to Cut Trident Sub," Global Security Newswire, 8 July 2011, www.globalsecuritynewswire.org.
[8] Rebecca Johnson, "UK Vote on Trident Renewal," The Acronym Institute, 14 March 2007, www.acronym.org.uk.; "Trident the Initial Gate Decision," Briefings on Nuclear Security, 14 March 2007, www.british pugwash.org.
[9] "Securing Britain in an Age of Uncertainty: The Strategic Defence and Security Review," Her Majesty's Government, October 2010, www.number10.gov.uk, p. 37; "Trident the Initial Gate Decision," Briefings on Nuclear Security, 14 March 2007, www.britishpugwash.org.
[10] "Trident placements orders under way," Defence Management, 18 February 2011, www.defencemanagement.com.
[11] Tim Sharp,"Babcock shares lifted by a strong order book," The Herald (Glasgow) 28 March 2012, Edition 1, www.heraldscotland.com; "Nuclear sub's 350m refit will safeguard 2,000 jobs," The Daily Telegraph, 26 March 2012, Edition I, www.telegraph.co.uk.
[12] Andrew Chuter,"F-35 Uncertainty Overshadows U.K. Nuke Sub News," DefenseNews, 26 March 2012, www.defensenews.com.
[13] Svenja O'Donnell, "U.K. to Sign Contract to Refit Royal Navy Nuclear Submarine," Bloomberg, 25 March 2012, www.bloomberg.com.
[14] "Scottish Independence May Impact U.S. Trident Missile Program," Global Security Newswire, 3 April 2012, www.nti.org/gsn; The Scottish Government, "Your Scotland, Your Voice: A National Conversation," 30 November, 2009, www.scotland.gov.uk.
[15] "Nuclear Power in the United Kingdom," World Nuclear Association, 30 March 2012. www.world-nuclear.org.
[16] Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and Department of Energy and Climate Change with the Nuclear Industry Association, "The UK's Nuclear Future," Issued 26 March 2013, p. 8.
[17] Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and Department of Energy and Climate Change with the Nuclear Industry Association, "The UK's Nuclear Future," Issued 26 March 2013, p. 8.
[18] Economist Intelligence Unit, "Economic Policy: Government approves nuclear power expansion," The Economist, 10 January 2008, www.eiu.com.
[19] Milton Leitenberg, "Biological Weapons in the Twentieth Century: A Review and Analysis," 7th International Symposium on Protection against Chemical and Biological Warfare, Stockholm, Sweden, June 2001, www.fas.org; Joseph Cirincione, Jon B. Wolfsthal, and Miriam Rajkumar, Deadly Arsenals: Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical Threats, Second ed. (Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2005), p. 198.
[20] Milton Leitenberg, "Biological Weapons in the Twentieth Century: A Review and Analysis," 7th International Symposium on Protection against Chemical and Biological Warfare, Stockholm, Sweden, June 2001, www.fas.org; Joseph Cirincione, Jon B. Wolfsthal, and Miriam Rajkumar, Deadly Arsenals: Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical Threats, Second ed. (Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2005), p. 198.
[21] U.S. Department of State, "U.S., U.K., Russia Reaffirm Support for Biological Weapons Pact," U.S. Department of State International Information Programs, 28 March 2005, www.iwar.org.uk.
[22] Julian Perry Robinson, Carl-Göran Hedén and Hans von Schreeb,"The Problem of Chemical and Biological Warfare," CB Weapons Today 2, p. 127; Edward M. Spiers, Chemical and Biological Weapons: A Study of Proliferation (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1994), pp. 11, 162.
[23] Joseph Cirincione, Jon B. Wolfsthal, and Miriam Rajkumar, Deadly Arsenals: Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical Threats, Second ed. (Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2005), p. 97.
[23] Robert S. Norris and Hans M. Kristensen, "British Nuclear Forces, 2005," Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 61, no. 6, p. 78.
[24] Chuter, Andrew, "Assessment Phase Work to Begin for New UK Army Air Defense System," Defense News, April 2014.
[25] Harding, Thomas, "New British missile three times as fast as current weapons," Telegraph, June 2011.
[26] Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, SIPRI Yearbook 2013: Armaments, Disarmament and International Security, 44th ed, Oxford University Press, 2013.
[27] Joseph Cirincione, Jon B. Wolfsthal, and Miriam Rajkumar, Deadly Arsenals: Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical Threats, Second ed. (Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2005), p. 197.


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This material is produced independently for NTI by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of and has not been independently verified by NTI or its directors, officers, employees, or agents.

Get the Facts on United Kingdom

  • Relies exclusively on four SSBNs for its nuclear deterrent
  • Removed U.S. tactical nuclear weapons from its territory in 2008
  • Renounced offensive biological weapons program in the 1950s