The United Kingdom has previously developed and maintained a series of key strategic deterrents. The latest of these strategic deterrents is the Trident submarine based ballistic nuclear missile system that entered service in1994.
The United Kingdom as will be examined has not always had a nuclear strategic deterrent, which have only been in existence since 1945. The historical background of the United Kingdom’s military and naval past and how that contributed towards the maintenance and development of the British nuclear strategic deterrent and whether those fundamental military requirements will continue shall be discussed and analysed. The reasons for the maintaining and development of the United Kingdom’s nuclear and non-nuclear strategic deterrents will form the basis of the arguments outlined below. Although this work will mainly concentrate upon the military criteria for the United Kingdom to maintain and develop a key strategic deterrent that will eventually replace the Trident system not all the considerations are military ones.
However were relevant or apt other criteria such as political considerations, changes in the strategic situations and economic factors can impact on whether the United Kingdom finds a nuclear or non-nuclear replacement for the Trident system, if at all. The strategic and military situations as will be mentioned have changed radically since it was decided that Trident, after some delays eventually would replace the aged Polaris missile system. Considering that Trident took 14 years to enter service after it was first ordered and that it takes around five years to build each ballistic nuclear missile submarine the United Kingdom government will probably have to start considering a replacement system within the next five years.
That would be so that Trident is not outdated by the time its replacement is completed. The intentions of the United States towards replacing its Trident systems will also be discussed given the close links between the two countries with regard to the development and maintenance of nuclear weapons and their delivery systems.
Originally England and later the United Kingdom maintained and developed the ships of the Royal Navy as its key strategic deterrent. The Royal Navy protected the homeland whilst giving the United Kingdom the vital strategic, economic and naval flexibility to trade with or conquer almost any country in the world. The United Kingdom seemed to always emerge on the winning sides during the numerous wars of the 18th century, due to the strength of the Royal Navy. The loss of the American colonies was hastened by the French gaining control of the sea. The might of the Royal Navy meant that the United Kingdom did not have to have a large standing army with millions of men like France, Germany and Russia.
The United Kingdom did not have to become involved in any European wars unless it wanted to, just one in fact between 1815 and 1914 (the Crimean War of 1854-56). The Royal Navy allowed British governments the relative luxury of feeling safe at home and being able to match any power abroad. Britain’s isolation from firm diplomatic and military alliances reduced as the cost of maintaining the Royal Navy increased. For example the 1902 naval alliance with Japan showed the willingness to co-operate to avoid being over stretched. The most important links were those made with France and Russia over fears of German ambitions.
However there were limits to what the Royal Navy’s power could do as a key strategic deterrent or as an instrument of military and naval policy. If the United kingdom became involved in major European or world conflicts it had to find allies or expand its army, or possibly both. The Royal Navy allowed the British the option to fight on alone if need be; yet it could not guarantee victory by itself. For instance, Trafalgar may have been the Royal Navy’s greatest victory yet it still took another decade to finally defeat Napoleon at Waterloo. The British naval blockade was largely ineffective due to the continental system adopted by the French. Prior to the emergence of nuclear weapons no strategic deterrent was entirely effective because they lacked the power to completely destroy any potential enemy.
The potential threat of the Royal Navy did not deter the German military from its plans to invade France in 1914, instead they gambled on a quick victory in the West before the British and Russians could decisively intervene. The Royal Navy did manage to ferry the British Army across to France with surprising speed. The British Army bolstered French defences enough to stop a swift German victory. The gamble of the German generals failed and meant that Germany had to fight on two fronts as well as enduring the Royal Navy blockade which became increasingly effective as the First World War dragged on.
The United Kingdom had more strategic options when it controlled the seas yet it also had greater responsibilities. Whether at the start of the 20th century or at the start of the 21st century the United Kingdom has believed that the Royal Navy has the strike power to deter war and spare the burden of military conflict. Replacing the Trident system would be in the same mould as replacing old battleships a century ago, appearing to be strong to avoid major wars.
The United Kingdom started the 20th century at the zenith of its imperial power, maintaining its vast Empire through its trading links and the awesome might of the Royal Navy. That is what put Britain foremost amongst the Great Powers despite the small size of the peacetime British Army. The grave financial, military and naval costs of the First World War removed the United Kingdom from its previous position as the foremost world power although it remained without doubt a Great Power. The British had been on the winning side yet that victory was an expensive one. Aside from the bloody stalemate of the Western Front, the First World War witnessed technological advances that would alter the nature of warfare and offer alternative strategic deterrents. These were the tank and although not entirely new submarines and aircraft. The Germans had carried out bombing raids on London, which had caused widespread outrage if not damage.
An almost immediate consequence was the separation of British fighters and bombers from the army and the Royal Navy into the Royal Air Force and the realisation that air power was strategically vital as a deterrent as well as for defensive and offensive means. The United Kingdom’s geographical location has not changed yet more advanced weaponry has made it more vulnerable to attack. Upgrading or replacing Trident would be a continuation of previous modernisation programmes aimed at keeping the United Kingdom free of major conflict and providing as much protection from any attacks as possible.
In the Inter-war period the Royal Navy remained the key strategic deterrent of the United Kingdom although the emergence of air power as a means to bomb any enemy into submission was considered as a deterrent as well. Despite losing its naval primacy to the United States Navy, the Royal Navy still seemed impressive especially in the shape of the battlecruiser HMS Hood that flew the flag on numerous tours. In reality all three services were starved of cash and new equipment until the re-emergence of the German threat after the Nazis took power in the 1930s. In a similar way the Trident submarines and any replacement ballistic submarines are or will be symbolic of British power, although the Royal Navy is less willing to show them off in public.
Ironically enough given his previous role in building up the Royal Navy’s battleship strength during the Anglo-German naval arms race, it was Winston Churchill that was responsible for some of the biggest defence cuts as Chancellor of the Exchequer. The Inter-war period brought economic down turns and reduced trade whilst the skills and factories needed to develop, maintain and produce the weapons that could form key strategic deterrents was curtailed. However the United Kingdom simply could not afford to be involved in the naval arms race that began to emerge in the immediate aftermath of the war’s finish between Japan and the United States. Order your dissertation on aty topic at PhDify.com.
Fears that such a naval build up would be as unsettling and destabilising as the Anglo-German naval arms race led to the Washington Naval Treaty. That treaty placed restrictions on battleship numbers and their size. These restrictions led the Royal Navy, the United States Navy and the Japanese Navy further developing the aircraft carrier, developments in which the British performed a key role. Aircraft carriers gave navies an extra dimension in forming viable fighting forces and strategic deterrents.
The peace treaties at the end of the First World War had given the United Kingdom more territories in the guise of the League of Nations protectorates in Iraq and Palestine. Such gains were better in theory than in practice and further drained the military and naval resources of the United Kingdom. The United Kingdom did not at this point further develop key strategic deterrents and merely spread the military and naval forces it had ever more sparsely across its empire. At least the British had gained from the peace treaties, the Germans in particular lost territory and had strict limits placed on their military and navy forces.
They were banned outright from having tanks, submarines and military aircraft. If the Germans had been forced to stay effectively disarmed then perhaps further conflict could have been avoided. However the real winners of the First World War were the United States and Japan that had done comparatively little fighting for their gains. The United Kingdom and France would be left to police world affairs in the Inter-war period due to the isolationism of the United States whilst the future Axis powers of Germany, Italy and Germany were unhappy with their lot after the First World War. As already mentioned Germany had been stripped of all military power by the Versailles settlement yet co-operated with the Soviet Union to test and develop weapons in secret.
Assuming that Germany would remain unarmed allowed the British Treasury to instigate the ten-year rule and curtail the maintenance and development of effective key strategic deterrents. The ten-year rule maintained that the United Kingdom would remain free from major conflicts for a decade. In July 1928 Winston Churchill the rule for another ten years whilst continuing his efforts to cut military spending. The military and political validity of the ten-year rule would be undermined and eventually reversed because of Hitler’s foreign and military policies.
Sometimes conflicts are easily predictable and sometimes they appear to occur out of the blue, yet armed forces that maintain effective modern equipment with highly skilled personnel are more likely to deter or win victory in such conflicts. An important lesson from military history is that is better to deter conflict from a position of strength than it is from a position of weakness. The British government will probably find the money and resources to replace the Trident system. No government would wish to appear that it would have to appease any other state in a crisis or be held to ransom by any terrorist groups that obtained nuclear weapons.
Whilst it was unlikely that Hitler would have been deterred by the British use of strategic deterrents such deterrents may have stopped the aggression of Italy and Japan. The United Kingdom did nothing to stop the Japanese attacks against China even though there were British colonies in the area. The Royal Navy could have denied the Italians access to the Suez Canal and enforced the League of Nations sanctions after they invaded Abyssinia. The Italians would have been no matches for the Royal Navy. British forces during the Second World War easily outfought them even when the Italians had superior forces.
The policy of appeasement had been adopted mainly to delay war long enough to allow the United Kingdom to rearm. Appeasement was also a result of the French being unwilling to act aggression without British support. The United Kingdom’s military weaknesses were there for Germany and Japan to take notice of. The Germans knew that the British Army and the RAF were weak whilst the Japanese noticed that the Royal Navy was too stretched to cover or protect all British interests across the globe. For the Japanese the only power that could realistically deter them was the United States as it would take Royal navy around two months to reinforce the British presence in the Pacific region.
The lack of military and naval power available was bad enough yet it was the lack of assertiveness from British and French politicians that undermined peace and nullified the strengths of their respective strategic deterrents the Royal Navy and the French Army. The British government believing that the French Army could look after itself and that the Japanese would refrain from further conquest in the Far East needed to be rearmed first. It was hoped that its fighters could deal with any German bombers whilst the threat of British bombing raids would deter the Germans. The British government’s hopes that rearmament would deter the Germans and prevent another war were unfulfilled.
However rearmament was a slow and expensive process. . However the best way of averting the Second World War would have avoided the need for costly rearmament, that would have been the British and French stopping Hitler’s remilitarization of the Rhineland in 1936. The lessons learnt from the 1930s are that strategic deterrents need updating on a regular basis and that other countries have to believe they are effective and that the British government will not give in to unacceptable demands. Deterrence is only possible from positions of strength and when it is backed up by military and political determination not to give in.
The Second World War would prove even more costly and destructive than the First World War. Not only was the scale of the military conflict much greater, the military, political and strategic consequences were far more profound. The death toll was far higher due to the ideological undertones of the conflict, the deliberate targeting of civilians and the technological advance of weaponry. For the United Kingdom most of the period between 1939 and 1942 was a series of one defeat after another. British forces were not able to prevent the rapid defeat of Poland, Norway, the Low Countries and most spectacularly of all France. The failure to defend Norway could have cost Winston Churchill his job at the Admiralty yet instead it cost Neville Chamberlain his job, replaced by the more dynamic Churchill. The one positive to come out of the Norwegian campaign was the heavy losses of the German Navy.
The fall of France was remarkably swift being due as much too superior tactics and strategy of the Germans as much as the quality of their weapons. Had the Germans managed to stop the evacuation from Dunkirk and gained control of the French Navy the United Kingdom’s fate could have been sealed. The British were left to fight on alone knowing that the Germans had gained the strategic advantages of being able to launch air and naval attacks from French and Norwegian bases. British survival in the Battle of Britain lifted the immediate threat of invasion although the RAF could not stop the heavy bombing of London and other cities.
The RAF had survived due to the use of radar, the quality of its fighters and the bravery of its pilots. In the Middle East and Mediterranean the British had taken Tripoli on land and badly damaged the Italian fleet with the daring air raid against Taranto. Yet the prospects of victory looked bleak until the entries of the Soviet Union and the United States into the war during 1941. However the Royal Navy found it a great strain to send supplies to the Soviet Union via its Arctic convoys as well as facing U-boat attacks in the Atlantic.
Japan’s entry into the war brought further heavy losses, that of Hong Kong, Singapore and Burma coupled with the sinking of the Prince of Wales and Repulse. The fall of Singapore was Britain’s worst single defeat ever whilst the loss of the Prince of Wales and Repulse clearly showed the need for air cover in any military and naval operation. . The British would make a great contribution towards the total victory of the Allies particularly Western Europe, the Middle East and in the Far East. They would have made a greater contribution to the victory against Japan had the American use of atomic bombs not shortened the war.
Through a great deal of effort and the sacrifice of millions of lives (especially Soviet ones) the Allies overcame their disastrous starts to the Second World War. In the end their superior numbers, greater firepower and industrial capacities paved the way for eventual victory. The RAF’s Bomber Command had argued that a strategic bombing campaign against Germany would shorten the war. The bombing campaign disrupted German arms production and devastated cities like Berlin and Dresden. In defeat the Germans had developed or further refined weapons that would play an important part in the development of nuclear strategic deterrents.
These were the ballistic missile in the shape of the V2 rockets used against London plus the improvements to diesel electric submarines with a much greater range than previously seen. If such submarines had been available at the start of the war then perhaps the Germans would have succeeded in severing British supply routes. Once submarines became nuclear powered they offered the stealthiest means of launching nuclear missiles. In a strategic and territorial sense the world altered considerably as a result of the Second World War, alterations that affected the United Kingdom’s position and status thus influencing changes in the military’s and government’s concepts with regard to key strategic deterrents. The United States and the Soviet Union were now the world’s strongest countries. They were so much stronger than all the other powers, that the term superpower was first used in the immediate post-war period.
As a consequence of its titanic struggle against Nazi Germany the Soviet Union had gained control over much of Central and Eastern Europe whilst the Big Four (the United States, the Soviet Union, Britain plus France) split control of Germany and Austria between them. The actual damage sustained by Britain and much of Western Europe was greater than during the First World War. The scale of devastation in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe was even greater. The cost of post-war reconstruction would far be very high and perhaps a sharp curtailment of military expenditure would be the best means to fund that reconstruction. The new government of Clement Atlee was therefore faced with many problems such as starting the process of de-colonisation and it intended to reduce defence spending to pay for its social reform programmes.
Demobilisation could not have been as widespread as it had been after 1918, as the United Kingdom had to retain its forces in its zone of occupied Germany. Such was the devastation in the British zone that the British Army had to feed the German population to avert starvation. The United Kingdom’s financial position was already precarious and was worsened once the Americans end the Lend – Lease scheme that had give the British much of the material and resources to finish the war. However aside from the men that remained in Germany the British Army was still involved in fighting or attempting peacekeeping in Greece, India, Malaya and Palestine.
The growing tension between the Soviet Union and the United States developed into the Cold War which meant that the United Kingdom had to consider the development and maintenance of a key strategic deterrent rather than disarming to the levels of the Inter-war period. Conversely the end of the Cold War has given the British government the option to scale down or discard the nuclear deterrent after Trident is withdrawn from service.
So far the biggest change caused by the Second World War that had the greatest impact on the United Kingdom’s post-war maintenance and development of a key strategic deterrent has only been alluded to, that was the emergence of the atomic bomb. Winston Churchill had known about the United States’ development of the atomic bomb. Churchill fearing that the Germans might develop one first had allowed British scientists to work on the Manhattan Project. During the early phase of the war British scientists’ research level was on a par with the Americans. The idea to carry out the project in the United States was due to the greater test facilities available and from the point of view that it was out of the range of German bombs.
Whilst President Franklin Roosevelt had a strong relationship with Churchill, that closeness did not develop between Churchill and Truman or indeed when Atlee replaced Churchill. Perhaps Truman understood the military and strategic consequences of using atomic bombs. He was therefore unwilling to share nuclear technology with any other nation, even the British that had made a telling contribution to its initial development were excluded. Aside from developing the atomic bomb on their own British scientists failed to match their American and Soviet counterparts. That failure has meant there is a tendency to rely on the Americans for the maintenance and development of nuclear deterrents that has persisted for more than 50 years and will continue should Trident be replaced.
The use of the atomic bombs against Japan in August 1945 had certainly hastened the end of the Second World War as it had been intended to do. Truman had wished to save the lives of American forces and the earlier end of the war also had the advantage of preventing Soviet forces entering the Asia Pacific region to attack Japan. The United States ended the war as the world’s sole nuclear power, which gave it an immediate military and strategic advantage over every country in the world, especially the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom and France. The Soviet Union felt insecure that it did not have its own atomic bombs.
Stalin was determined that the Soviet Union would be the next nuclear power thus contributing to worsening relations with the West and the onset of the Cold War. To start with only the Americans had the resources and the knowledge to build atomic bombs, resources that the Soviets, British and French would find more difficult to require, although they managed to find the knowledge to make atomic weapons with less difficulty. The Americans became even less willing to co-operate with the British to let them maintain and develop nuclear weapons as a key strategic deterrent. That reluctance was especially strong when the Americans believed British scientists and security services were giving the Soviet Union nuclear secrets that accelerated the Soviet production of nuclear weapons.
There were certainly good strategic and military reasons for the Atlee government to launch the United Kingdom’s nuclear weapons programme as far as it was considered, even if there are mainly financial based reasons for not doing so. Firstly the Atlee government wished to maintain the United Kingdom’s position as a Great Power without having to keep the British Empire in tact. Having the atomic bomb it was argued would be the most obvious symbol of that Great Power status continuing when other more established symbols of that status such as the Indian Raj were quickly vanishing into the past.
In a way the maintenance and development of nuclear weapons was a pragmatic means to maintain British air, military and naval firepower without having to have wartime levels of conventional weapons and recruitment of military personnel. Although the government managed to demobilise most of the wartime service personnel relatively quickly it was unable to finish national service, as British commitments did not as quickly as intended. When the RAF could drop nuclear weapons more powerful than all the bombs dropped on a 1000 bomber raid there was no longer the need to have a 1000 bombers to wipe out targets when a single bomber could achieve the same results.
However, the United Kingdom did not have the basic infrastructure to produce nuclear weapons and it was expensive to build reprocessing plants as well as obtaining uranium and plutonium. All that took a considerable amount of effort for a nation stretched to breaking point by the cost of the Second World War. It also happened under a Labour government that was committed to extensive domestic social reform and de-colonisation abroad. The United Kingdom would succeed in building its own nuclear weapons yet it was a definite strain on a weak economy. There were certainly those in the British military and government that believed the United Kingdom should have its own nuclear weapons as a key strategic deterrent to deter the Soviet Union yet also to have some independence of action from the Americans. The United Kingdom reached its military and economic limits in 1947 when it could no longer support the Greek government during the Greek civil war.
The United States responded by introducing the Marshall Plan to aid Western economic recovery and through the formation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, Nato. Added to the cost of developing nuclear weapons was the cost of developing and deploying bombers capable of reaching their targets, ensuring that the RAF had fighters capable of stopping Soviet bombers and protection for RAF airbases. The United Kingdom could increase the range of its nuclear weapons by giving the Royal Navy aircraft capable of dropping such weapons for its aircraft carriers. Launching nuclear strikes from aircraft carriers had the advantage that the fleet could keep moving and would be harder to target than airbases. Thus the RAF and Royal Navy needed to obtain the best bombers to be able to drop the bomb. However, as aircraft, ships and submarines become more advanced they become more expensive.
The United Kingdom justified its maintenance and development of nuclear weapons as the key strategic deterrent as being made necessary due to the Cold War and to help the Americans maintain parity or a lead over the Soviet Union in the total numbers of nuclear weapons each side had. The high cost of having nuclear weapons was to be compared to the higher cost of allowing the Soviet Union to gain control of Western Europe or to blackmail the United Kingdom into doing what Moscow wanted. In other words having nuclear weapons that the United Kingdom would remain a powerful nation that would not have to appease any other nation due to its own weaknesses. To some extent the United Kingdom reduced its commitments in its attempts to reduce its weaknesses. The withdrawals from India, Palestine and Greece were sensible as they stopped the United Kingdom from going bankrupt.
The Cold War developed in such a way as to make governments on either side of the divide doubt the other’s intentions and to suspect the worst. Communism seemed to be an increasingly dangerous threat to the United States and Western Europe. The communist threat and the Cold War provided the rationale for British governments to consider the maintenance and development of nuclear weapons as the country’s key strategic deterrent. The Berlin blockade, the Greek civil war, and the emergence of communist guerrilla forces in Malaya and Indo-China. The communist take-overs in China and North Korea led to fears of a domino effect in Asia.
The North Koreans would heat up the Cold War considerably by invading South Korea. The United Kingdom joined the United Nation forces that rallied to the aid of South Korea. The Korean War escalated when China joined in on the North Korean side. Involvement in the Korean War pushed up British defence expenditure yet it provided incentives to ensure that the forces kept their weapons up to date and as powerful as possible. The Korean War also made the United States happier to aid the United Kingdom in its maintenance and development of a nuclear based key strategic deterrent as part of the West’s containment of communism policy which the Americans termed the ‘Truman Doctrine’.
The Atlee government established the main pillars of post-war foreign and defence policies; the strengthening of the Atlantic alliance and a nuclear based key strategic deterrent. It also started the trend of always being able to find enough money to maintain and develop nuclear weapons no matter whatever other spending plans had to be dropped or delayed.
Although the Atlee government had contemplated the maintenance and development of a nuclear based key strategic deterrent when it came into office, the final decision for the United Kingdom to go nuclear was not made until 1947. This momentous decision concerning the United Kingdom’s foreign and defence policies, was made behind closed doors by the Cabinet. The decision was made behind closed doors to avoid opposition from the traditionally pacifist and anti-nuclear left-wing members of the Labour Party. It was also hoped that secrecy would not alert other countries of British intentions.
In his famous Fulton, Missouri speech of 1946 that used the term ‘Iron Curtain’ for the time, Winston Churchill had also urged the Americans (and by inference the British) to impress the Soviet Union with a strong nuclear force as its main strategic deterrent. By this point Churchill was the Leader of the Opposition and had a greater degree of freedom to express views that he could not have done as Prime Minister. It also shows that the United Kingdom would still have maintained and developed nuclear weapons as the key strategic deterrent if the Conservatives had won the 1945 general election. The only difference may have been the length of time it would have taken to decide to build the atomic bomb.
To make the British atomic bomb reality rather than just a pipe dream the Atlee government turned to the eminent British scientist William Penney. Penney as a veteran of the Manhattan Project had the experience and the knowledge to develop nuclear weapons as the United Kingdom’s key strategic deterrent. Penney and his research team would eventually be based at Aldermaston, which would become a focus point for anti-nuclear protesters from the 1950s onwards. Whilst Penney and his team of researchers had the knowledge and developed the expertise to produce atomic bombs relatively quickly it was the lack of weapons grade plutonium and other essential materials that delayed progress towards the United Kingdom becoming the world’s third nuclear power.
Indeed the United Kingdom’s first nuclear power station and processing plant at Windscale had only started to produce weapons grade plutonium during 1951, barely in time for the first British nuclear test at the end of 1952. The United States refused to let the British