Category Archives: UK

Nuclear Status Anxiety

Thanks to the leader of the Liberal Democratic Party,* suddenly there’s a debate in Britain about “whether to retain nuclear weapons”:, in the form of a follow-on strategic submarine program. (The “PONI blog”: has the story covered.)

Making the “case against disarmament”: in _The Times_ is one Sash Tusa, whose case, while illogical, is interesting:

bq. The five permanent members of the UN Security Council (the US, Russia, China, Britain and France) achieved their positions by being the victors of the Second World War. But they now retain those seats only thanks to their possession of credible nuclear deterrents. It’s not about GDP, hospitals, improvements in child poverty or school league tables: abandon the deterrent and, sooner or later, Britain loses its seat.

Now, how exactly does that work? Does the IAEA come along take the Security Council seat away? The Tooth Fairy, maybe?

The Security Council is not the S&P 500. Those contestants with veto power cannot be voted off the island.

But the factual truth pales before the psychological truth, whose implications go well beyond Britain. In this realm, nukes = status. It’s the “Alpha Dog”: principle. If I can thrash you at will, then you have to be nice to me at all times, whereas I’m under no such compulsion. This makes me Somebody and you Nobody.

It would be understandably tough for any country to bow its head before fiscal, political, or other realities that might impinge on maintaining this sacred symbol of national manhood. The _psychological_ realities are just so powerful that it’s remarkable that the thing has ever been done. Unilateral disarmament is tantamount to national self-abasement. That it has taken place in the context of “regime capitulation”: is perhaps not so surprising.

There’s something almost childish about this, but mass politics does have a lot to do with emotions. Disarmament is the _other_ nuclear taboo.

*Britain’s perennial third party, out of power since 1922.


From FAS Secrecy News:

“Restricted Data Declassification Decisions, 1946-2002”:

The Department of Energy this week released its most recent compilation of all decisions to declassify nuclear weapons-related information.

The “new release”: (pdf), dated 2002, is the eighth and the last in what had been an annual series of such compilations. Unlike the others, however, it was marked “Official Use Only” and was not made publicly available. But DoE released it in response to a Freedom of Information Act request from the Federation of American Scientists.

See “”Restricted Data Declassification Decisions, 1946 to the Present (RDD-8),””: U.S. Department of Energy, January 1, 2002, 169 pages.

One of the latest declassification decisions, approved in 2001 and disclosed in the new compilation, acknowledges the previously classified “fact that gas centrifuge rotors are fabricated on mandrels.” A mandrel is a spindle or metal shaft around which other parts rotate.

It’s also full of great little snippets like this one:

bq. 9. “Palm” which was replaced by “Birch” which was replaced by “Brandy” which is the material nickname for Neptunium (Np 237). The association of any of these nicknames with either of the others is also unclassified. (96-2)

Or this one:

27. The fact that approximately 6 kgs of plutonium were involved in the Thule, Greenland accident. (68-4)

a. Best estimate of the amount of plutonium removed from the site. (68-4)

Or this one:

33. Special nuclear materials masses: That about 6 kg plutonium is enough hypothetically to make one nuclear explosive device. (93-2)

a. Hypothetically, a mass of 4 kilograms of plutonium or uranium-233 is sufficient for one nuclear explosive device. (94-1)

NOTE: The average masses of special nuclear materials in the U.S. nuclear weapons or special nuclear materials masses in any specific weapon type remain classified.

Here’s something new I didn’t know about:

bq. 48. The total forecast or actual quantity of plutonium transferred in either direction under “the loan.” (The mere fact of an arrangement under the 1958 Mutual Defense Agreement, which provided for the loan of plutonium to the United Kingdom during the period 1980-1985, and the fact that there was a plutonium loan arrangement between the United States and the United Kingdom referred to as “the loan.”) (01-1)

“The loan” is not to be confused with the “barter” agreements:

47. As part of the 1958 United States – United Kingdom Mutual Defense Agreement, there have been three barter agreements. The United States received plutonium totaling 5,366 kilograms from the United Kingdom under the Barter A, B, and C Agreements during the period 1960 – 1979. The United States gave the United Kingdom 6.7 kilograms of tritium and 7,500 kilograms of highly enriched uranium for the plutonium. (94-15)

a. During the period of 1960-1979, the following materials were exchanged: (97-3)

Barter A: 480 kg UK plutonium for 6 kg of U.S. tritium
Barter B: 4,073 kg UK plutonium for 7,500 kg of U.S. HEU
Barter C: 813 kg UK plutonium for 0.7 kg of U.S. tritium

There’s got to be a story there.

The UK and Article VI

In case you missed it, the text of UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s speech on the 2010 NPT RevCon, Article VI obligations, nuclear energy, nonproliferation, and Iran is “here”: It covers much ground, so let me focus your attention on just a couple of highlights:

We will also host a Recognised Nuclear Weapon State Conference on nuclear disarmament issues and on confidence building measures, including the verification of disarmament.

For in the same way as we have tried to lead in challenging old orthodoxies by eliminating conventional weapons which caused harm to civilians, such as cluster munitions, I want to pledge that Britain will be at the forefront of the international campaign to prevent nuclear proliferation and to accelerate multilateral nuclear disarmament.


If no single nuclear weapon state can be expected to disarm unilaterally, neither should it, but step by step we have to transform the discussion of nuclear disarmament from one of platitudes to one of hard commitment. We have also to help create a new international system to ensure non-nuclear states acquire the new sources of energy that they want to have.


And let me be clear, we are not asking non-nuclear weapon states to refrain from proliferation while nuclear weapon states amass new weapons; we are asking them not to proliferate while nuclear weapon states take the steps to reduce their own arsenals in line with the Non-Proliferation Treaty’s requirements.

Now, you may be wondering, given the small scale of its own arsenal, what kind of steps short of complete nuclear disarmament could the UK take, if it is to be “at the forefront” of multilateral disarmament? Said Brown:

bq. Now Britain has cut the number of its nuclear warheads by 50% since 1997 and we are committed to retaining the minimum force necessary to maintain effective deterrence. For future submarines our latest assessment is that we can meet this requirement with 12 – not 16 – missile tubes as are on current submarines. In Britain our operationally available warheads now number fewer than 160 and the government keeps this number under constant review. If it is possible to reduce the number of UK warheads further, consistent with our national deterrence and with the progress of multilateral discussions, Britain will be ready to do so.

This struck “at least some observers”: as underwhelming. Indeed, there’s something of “Achilles and the tortoise”: about it. Given their overwhelmingly great share of warheads, the U.S. and Russia are the obvious candidates for further incremental arms reductions.

So might the UK (or for that matter, France) contemplate “reduction to zero”:, perhaps in the context of Brown’s Recognized NWS Conference?

In that vein, now comes a “different, more exciting version”:, courtesy of Rachel Sylvester in the _Times_ of London. She even gets somebody on the record:

Although the official line remains that Britain will retain its nuclear capability, the language in Whitehall has changed. One minister says that Trident is more useful as a “tool for global disarmament than for UK defence”. This means that even if the Government did want to abandon it eventually, it would be wrong, tactically, to announce such a plan yet. “The when and how of playing the card matters,” the minister explains. “Just dumping it gets you nothing. You do it when it will spur maximum disarmament by others.”

According to Baroness Williams of Crosby, the Liberal Democrat peer who advises the Prime Minister on nuclear proliferation, and was praised by him last week, Britain could use its nuclear weapons as a bargaining tool in the runup to the Non-Proliferation Treaty Review conference next spring. “Trident could be a crucial factor in reaching a serious international agreement,” she told me. “But to announce it now would be to chuck your queen away when you’ve only just started the chess game.”

Chuck your queen, indeed. It would be quite a statement if Britain were to disarm before, let’s say, “India”:

Over to you, “Siddharth Varadrajan”:…

Courtship Rituals of French SSBNs

Various accounts have described the damage to Le Triomphant as the result of a low-speed collision — a glancing blow — that nevertheless crushed the French submarine’s sonar dome, which goes on the nose of the boat. By contrast, scrapes and dents on HMS Vanguard were allegedly visible to observers (meaning they were somewhere on its top half) as it proceeded homeward up the Firth of Clyde. It follows that the French boat was trying to nuzzle its British cousin.

[Update: Judging by “this video”:, there was no visible damage to the top half of the Vanguard.]

But really, I’m not here to talk to you about the private lives of mechanical whales of mass destruction. “Old news”: already. What’s of more interest is how the two organizations have reacted.

First, a bit of background. According to Stephen Saunders, a retired senior officer of the Royal Navy, the longstanding absence of France from the NATO military command structure raises questions about whether the French Navy participates in the alliance’s “waterspace management”: arrangements.

Judging by “the comments of French Defense Minister Herve Morin”: to the French radio station Canal Plus, it doesn’t, but would like to:

“There’s no story to this — the British aren’t hunting French submarines, and the French submarines don’t hunt British submarines,” Morin told Canal+ radio.

“We face an extremely simple technological problem, which is that these submarines are not detectable. They make less noise than a shrimp.”

He said the submarines’ mission was to sit at the bottom of the sea and act as a nuclear deterrent.

“Between France and Britain, there are things we can do together….one of the solutions would be to think about the patrol zones,” Morin said.

As it was undersea, so it is on land: the French taking initiative, the British displaying reticence. UK officials seem to have little to say about the matter. In fact, the only statements I can find online are couched grudgingly, as “reactions to”: “tabloid newspaper articles”:

The French are almost chatty by comparison. Not only did they publicize the collision “before they even knew what it involved”: (“probablement un conteneur” — can’t you hear the Gallic shrug?), but they declared the “collision entre sous-marins”: without fuss, and even threw in an “official communiqué”: And then there’s M. Morin’s modest proposal.

In fairness, I should mention that just last month, three retired senior UK military men called for “scrapping the nuclear deterrent outright”: Reticent, that is not. But their stand does not seem to be winning the day.

A final note: the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence reports an “uptick in Russian SSBN patrols during 2008”: All that’s cold is warm again. Or the other way around.

And with that, what you were waiting for: the “musical bonus”:

Chinese and UK Nuclear Weapons Numbers

I was recently doing some research on China’s nuclear arsenal and realized that “this 2004 Chinese MFA statement”: is frequently cited as a guide to how large Beijing’s arsenal may be.

The relevant portion reads:

bq. Among the nuclear-weapon states, China has performed the least number of nuclear tests and possesses the smallest nuclear arsenal.

Obviously, more data has emerged on the Chinese arsenal since 2004, but I think one factoid warrants a bit of attention: the United Kingdom claimed in its “December 2006 Defence White Paper”: that it had

bq. the smallest stockpile of nuclear warheads amongst the nuclear weapon States recognised under the NPT…

At that time, London possessed about 200 operationally available nuclear warheads and also had a stockpile of warheads. The UK still has such a stockpile, the number of which is kept secret..

In any case, this data may no longer be _that_ relevant, given that (based on the Chinese Military Power reports from the last few years) Beijing appears to be increasing its arsenal while London has been “implementing reductions.”:

UK Nukes Hit New Low

Well, this past November they did.

In December 2006, London “announced”: that it would reduce its “operationally available stockpile” of nuclear weapons (the ones on their SLBMs) from “less than 200” to “less than 160.”

It appears that the UK did this in less than a year. This past 15 November, Secretary of State for Defence Des Browne, responding to a question from Parliament, “stated”: that

bq. I can confirm that we have now reduced the number of operationally available warheads from fewer than 200 to fewer than 160.

For a good resource on the UK and things nuclear, take a look at the Acronym Institute’s “Proliferation in Parliament.”: