Britain's other nuclear weapons

Behind the UK's nuclear-armed submarines are lesser known tactical warheads primed for battle.

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
22 March 2018

"Even the small Type 21 frigate, two of which were lost in the Falklands/Malvinas war in 1982, was nuclear-capable." HMS Antelope of the Royal Navy was one of those destroyed. Wikicommons/ Dmgerrard. Some rights reserved.Several recent columns in this series have discussed the risk of nuclear war. Four trends have pushed the issue up the international agenda: North Korea's tests, Trump’s nuclear posture review, Russia’s development of new weapons, and rising tensions in Nato-Russia relations. A recurrent theme in these columns is the widespread myth that nuclear weapons are solely about deterring attack through the threat of an overwhelming response.

This has been termed deterrence through “mutual assured destruction” (MAD, in the perhaps appropriate acronym). The notion seems very far removed from the practice of developing many kinds of nuclear weapons for small-scale use. Yet the latter, precisely, has been the international norm. And it has had an important consequence: the storage, transport and deployment of these diverse nuclear arsenals make for a greater risk of accidents. 

A column looking at Britain’s experience of nuclear accidents has drawn particular attention (see "Nuclear weapons: playing with fire", 9 March 2018). One somewhat unexpected reaction warrants further examination. This relates to its description of one of the worst accidents, in January 1987, when a nuclear-weapon transporter truck overturned onto its side of an icy road while carrying two WE177 tactical nuclear warheads from Portsmouth to the Royal Navy armaments depot at Dean Hill.

The article mentioned that the warheads had most likely come from the aircraft-carrier HMS Illustrious, berthed at the Portsmouth base. There appears to have been consternation in some circles that a British carrier would ever be deployed with nuclear weapons on board.

I suspect that such a view represents a much wider misunderstanding of what constituted British nuclear forces at that time. In that context it is worth summarising the situation in the mid-1980s. This can throw a bit more light on an often clouded issue of topical as well as historical interest. Almost thirty years after the cold war ended, Britain's nuclear arsenal is much more restricted than it was. But even now the state has retained the capacity to fight a limited nuclear war – one that might not involve the hugely powerful strategic weapons also under its command.

A nuclear array

In the tense decade of the 1980s, those strategic weapons comprised the Polaris submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM) deployed on four Resolution-class nuclear-powered submarines. One of these submarines was to be on patrol at any one time according to the doctrine of "continuous at-sea deterrence" (CASD). Each had sixteen vertical-launch missile tubes with a Polaris A3 missile carrying three thermonuclear warheads, each of these in turn having a reported destructive power of 200 kilotons (about sixteen times that of the Hiroshima bomb, dropped by the United States over this Japanese city on 6 August 1945).

Polaris was far from alone in Britain's nuclear arsenal. The Royal Air Force, the Royal Navy, and the army each had its own nuclear forces. In the RAF, three different aircraft types could deliver tactical nuclear free-fall bombs, variants of the WE-177 comparable with the ones in the Dean Hill accident. Their destructive power was reputed to be similar to, or rather more powerful than, Hiroshima. These nuclear-capable aircraft were the elderly but robust UK-based Buccaneer, potentially for low-level attacks against land and marine targets; the Anglo-French Jaguar single-seat aircraft; and the new Panavia Tornado, with up to 220 of the GR1 nuclear-capable version on order. In time the Tornado would replace the Buccaneer and Jaguar, and like the Jaguar be based both in the UK and West Germany.

In addition, the RAF deployed the Nimrod long-range maritime reconnaissance and anti-submarine strike-aircraft from St Mawgan in Cornwall and Kinloss in Scotland. The Nimrod could carry the US B57 nuclear depth-bomb, which was normally under US custody but could be made available for the RAF to use under a dual-control arrangement.

All the navy’s tactical nuclear weapons were of the British-developed WE-177 type, of two variants: either free-fall bombs for delivery against land targets by Sea Harrier jets operating from aircraft-carriers (HMS Illustrious, HMS Invincible, or HMS Ark Royal) or nuclear depth-bombs for delivery by Sea King or Lynx helicopters. 

The three aircraft-carriers all carried both types. But many smaller ships, both destroyers and frigates, were also nuclear-capable, and could use their on-board helicopters for delivery of the weapons. The Sea King helicopter had weapon stations for four nuclear weapons, and the smaller Lynx could deploy with two. In 1985, the Royal Navy possessed the three aircraft-carriers plus fifteen destroyers and forty-two frigates. Even the small Type 21 frigate, two of which were lost in the Falklands/Malvinas war in 1982, was nuclear-capable.

In addition, the army had perhaps the most surprising part of Britain’s nuclear forces, the Lance battlefield ballistic-missile and two self-propelled howitzers. All of these, like the RAF’s Nimrod B57s, utilised US nuclear warheads for use under a dual-control system. The army also possessed a regiment of four batteries of Lance missiles, comprising twelve launchers, part of a reported total of around sixty missiles. The Lance had a range of up to 75 miles (120 kms), and apart from conventional munitions could carry the W70 nuclear warhead. This was known colloquially as a “dial-a-yield” weapon, as it could be pre-programmed to deliver any of three explosive forces of up to 100 kilotons (twelve times more powerful than Hiroshima).

The army could boast too large numbers of self-propelled artillery pieces, such as the M109 and M110 howitzers, both of which are capable of firing nuclear as well as conventional shells. These so-called artillery-fired atomic projectiles (AFAP) were United States munitions, available for use under a dual-control agreement (similar to the Lance warhead). The M109, categorised as the W48 AFAP, had a destructive power of up to 2 kilotons; the M110, or W33 AFAP, rated at up to 10 kilotons.

This list gives some idea of the wide range of nuclear weapons deployed by the UK at the height of the cold war. To it could be added several different types of missile and aircraft on US bases such as Upper Heyford and Holy Loch (see Paul Rogers, Over Here: The US Military Presence in Britain, Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, 1988). France also had several types of nuclear weapons, while the US and Soviet Union had far more.

Also relevant here is that in many cases these weapons were of enormous destructive capacity, widely dispersed, and often physically small – yet the armed forces regarded them as potentially usable in a conflict. The Type-21 Amazon-class frigate had a displacement of only 2,750 tons, but its Lynx helicopter could deliver the WE177 nuclear depth-bomb. I remember debating British nuclear policy at a local high school in the early 1980s with a young naval weapons officer serving on a Type-21, and he was quite open about the job.

To illustrate the nexus of size and power, the W33 shell for the M110 howitzer had a diameter of only 8 inches (20.37 centimetres) and a length of three feet (91.44 cm), yet it carried a nuclear warhead with a destructive power close to the Hiroshima bomb. Even so, this was large compared with the US army’s notorious nuclear-armed Davy Crockett recoilless rifle, whose range of just 1.25 miles (2 kilometres) meant it was commonly reckoned to be as dangerous for its three-person launch crew as for the enemy.

A low threshold

All this may seem like distant history, given that the great majority of Nato tactical nuclear weapons (including all the UK tactical systems) were withdrawn after the end of the cold war. But there are two reasons to see the issue as quite topical. The first is that Trump’s new nuclear-posture review highlights the need to place more emphasis on fighting limited nuclear wars. Putin’s Russia shows strong indications of having a similar outlook, not least because his conventional forces are so weak compared to the glory years of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact.

The second reason comes back to the UK. Since the WE177 has long departed, and the army and navy no longer have access to US tactical weapons, it might be thought that the UK's nuclear-weapons are confined to the Trident submarine-launched strategic missiles intended only for deterrence through MAD. In fact, in the mid-1990s the ministry of defence quietly introduced a tactical variant of the UK-manufactured Trident warhead, in some respects broadly similar in power to the old tactical WE177. A reliable source describes it thus: “The Trident warheads also offer multiple yields – probably 0.3 kt, 5-10 kt and 100 kt – by choosing to fire the unboosted primary, the boosted primary, or the entire 'physics package'".

If such details are put together with Britain’s refusal to adopt a “no first use” nuclear posture, it is clear that cold-war thinking has survived intact. If Trump now puts more emphasis on nuclear war-fighting, he can rest assured that the faithful ally across the Atlantic is with him.


WE177. "A decommissioned training example of Britain's last free-fall nuclear bomb, re-painted in its 'live' green colour scheme, on display at the Imperial War Museum North, in Manchester, England, 2015." Wikicommons/Mike Peel. Some rights reserved.

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