US submarines carry nuclear weapons

The British tested their first nuclear weapon in 1952. In the next 25 years the UK produced approximately 1,250 nuclear warheads of nine different types. Between 1974 and 1981 the country had the most nuclear weapons with around 500 pieces, which had a total explosive force of around 140 MT (megatons). According to SIPRI, the number of nuclear weapons is around 200 today.

Since 1998 Great Britain has had only one nuclear weapons system: a fleet of four nuclear-powered submarines of the “Vanguard” class, each of which can be equipped with 16 sea-based Trident II D5 missiles.


Britain and the United States have a very intertwined relationship when it comes to nuclear weapons. Although the UK government has repeatedly asserted that UK nuclear weapons are an “independent deterrent”, neither history nor the situation today reflects that statement. The British nuclear weapons test program was carried out from 1962 to 1991 at the nuclear weapons test site in Nevada, USA. The British armed forces have been armed with US nuclear weapons for over 30 years. The US kept some key bases and its own nuclear weapons and delivery systems in Britain during the Cold War, including the Thor missile.

The USAF / RAF bases Greenham Common and Molesworth were best known in the 1980s because of the high profile protests against the stationing of cruise missiles under NATO's double resolution. USAF bases Lakenheath and Upper Heyford were the main locations for US fighter-bombers with free-flying atomic bombs until 1991.

The UK-US relationship is unique for their collaboration on research and development of nuclear warheads. The Trident missiles are also leased from the US. Although the submarines were built in the UK, many components and targeting systems also come from the USA. The warheads themselves were built by Aldermaston in Great Britain according to US design. However, some important parts of the warheads are designed and manufactured directly in the United States.


British nuclear weapons policy was referred to in the 2006 White Paper as "The future of the UK’s nuclear deterrent" and was supplemented by the Strategic Defense and Security Review (SDSR) in the 2010 and 2015 White Paper. According to the government's paper on nuclear weapons policy from 2010 to 2015, although the threat has changed since the end of the Cold War and Great Britain and the vital interests of the country are not directly threatened, the global situation with large nuclear arsenals and the danger allow continued to exist, not complete disarmament. The purpose of nuclear weapons is only to have a deterrent effect, to prevent an attack. This deterrent should be kept to a "minimum". Nuclear weapons are "political" weapons that can only be used under extreme conditions of self-defense (including the defense of allies) and never in violation of international law. Great Britain assures that it will never use nuclear weapons against a state or threaten to do so if the state concerned has no nuclear weapons and is a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. However, only as long as he adheres to the obligations of the contract. A new white paper will be published in 2020.

Armed forces

Great Britain has four nuclear submarines, baptized by martial names: Vanguard (top), Victorious (winner), Vigilance (vigilance) and Vengeance (retaliation). A submarine is on patrol at all times. Each submarine can carry 16 DII missiles, the patrolling submarine is now allowed to carry a maximum of eight. A DII missile can carry up to 12 warheads, meanwhile only 40 warheads are allowed on each submarine. As a result, there are a total of four missiles on the submarines, each carrying 10 warheads. Each of these warheads has an explosive force of 100 kilotons and is a British replica of the US W76 warhead.

In 1998 the total number of warheads for each submarine was 48, i.e. a total of 192 were distributed among the four submarines. In this context, one speaks of operational warheads, as they are considered ready for action on the submarine. All other warheads are considered reserves. In October 2010 the British government announced a reduction with the publication of the new nuclear doctrine. By the middle of the next decade, this demanded that the four submarines be equipped with fewer nuclear warheads, i.e. for a submarine 40 instead of 48, which are carried by eight missiles. That would make 160 warheads operational and 65 would be in reserve with a total arsenal of 225. The long-term goal should be to limit the total arsenal to 180 by 2025. In the SDSR from 2015, the number of operational nuclear warheads has already been reduced to 120, with 95 remaining in reserve. According to SIPRI (2019), there are currently only 80 warheads in reserve and thus the total arsenal comprises 200 nuclear warheads.

The Trident missiles have a range of 7,400 kilometers and can therefore reach Russia or the Middle East. One submarine patrols the Atlantic continuously while another is being serviced and the other two remain in port or are scheduled for military exercises. According to Gordon Brown (2009), one of these last two submarines will be eliminated in the future. However, he did not give a date for this and his successor Liam Fox retracted his testimony in 2011 when he said that Great Britain needed all four submarines.

The patrolling submarine is kept on reduced alert, i.e. no target codes are programmed in the missiles. It should only be possible to fire the nuclear weapons after a few days. During the Cold War it was only minutes.

The Trident II missile is the first to have the ability to destroy heavily armored targets. It can, for example, destroy underground targets - a wish of military strategists who fear an increased threat from so-called rogue states. The US plans to modernize missiles in 2020.


The British government wants to keep nuclear weapons for at least the next 50 years. Nevertheless, the Trident II system, which went into operation in 1994, will expire around 2025. According to reports, the submarines are in great need of renovation. On May 17, 2015, the Scottish Sunday Herald reported that an engineer on the nuclear submarine HMS Victorious had reported serious problems with the British nuclear weapons system. In his 18-page report, he describes conditions on the submarines that would amount to a "preprogrammed disaster".

Under Gordon Brown's government, the decision to modernize the submarines for the British “Trident” nuclear weapon system had already been made, because in March 2007 the British Parliament decided to renew the “Trident” nuclear weapons carrier. 409 MPs voted in favor, 161 against, including 95 MPs from the ruling Labor Party. In the previous months there had been heated debates in Britain over the future of the country's nuclear arsenal.

After the 2010 election, the Trident debate reignited: the total spending on modernization, up to £ 97 billion, was called into question again, mainly due to the financial crisis in the UK. Prime Minister David Cameron said in September 2010 that it was appropriate to check that the Trident system was renewed for value for money. The decision was postponed to 2015.

In 2014, the UK government made a deal with the US and decided to buy new launchers for a dozen Trident missiles. This caused irritation because the deal was reached a year before the British Parliament was due to deal with the issue of renewal. Since then, opinions about modernizing Trident have continued to differ.

On November 1, 2015, the Scottish Labor Party voted against nuclear armament with a majority of 70 percent. In doing so, she supported the position of party chairman Jeremy Corbyn, who is firmly against nuclear weapons. Corbyn explained that he would not be ready to press the "red button" in an emergency. His ability to govern was therefore publicly questioned by General Nicholas Houghton, Chief of Staff of the British Army.

The UK government finally announced in 2015 that it intended to replace the four current Vanguard-class nuclear submarines with similar modern dreadnought submarines. The submarines would also carry Trident II D5 missiles, but would only have eight missile launch tubes. The replacement program would maintain Continuous At-sea deterrence (CASD), with one of the four submarines constantly on patrol. The 2015 white paper estimates the procurement costs at 31 billion pounds (around 35 billion euros) and provides a quota of 10 billion pounds for possible overhead costs. It was also announced that the new submarines could not be commissioned until 2030 at the earliest.

On July 18, 2016, the UK Parliament passed a motion supporting the government's commitment to the Trident successor program by 472 votes to 117. While the motion recognized that nuclear deterrence will remain essential to UK safety, it did not give final approval to the new program.


Especially in Scotland, where the nuclear weapons are stationed at the Faslane base on the River Clyde, there is vocal protest. There has been a peace camp there since 1982; In 2006 there was a one-year blockade. The issue of nuclear weapons was important in the Scottish independence debate in 2014, when the Scottish National Party (Pàrtaidh Nàiseanta na h-Alba) declared that an independent Scotland should become nuclear-free.

There are also regular protests in front of the Burghfield nuclear weapons facility (near Aldermaston) in Berkshire. On June 6, 2016, a month-long campaign of civil disobedience began in front of the complex.

Processing status: April 2020 | xh, pkc

(Sources: Nuclear Notebook, SIPRI 2018, SIPRI 2019)