Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
The United Kingdom and weapons of mass destruction
The United Kingdom has a nuclear arsenal but is generally believed not to have any chemical or biological weapons.
The United Kingdom has four Vanguard class submarines armed with nuclear-tipped Trident missiles. The principle of operation is based on maintaining deterrent effect by always having at least one submarine at sea, and was designed for the Cold War period. One submarine is normally undergoing maintenance and the remaining two in port or on training exercises. It has been suggested that British ballistic missile submarine patrols are coordinated with those of the French .
Each submarine carries 16 Trident II D-5 missiles, which can each carry up to twelve warheads. However, the British government announced in 1998 that each submarine would carry only 48 warheads (halving the limit specified by the previous government), which is an average of three per missile. However one or two missiles per submarine are probably armed with fewer warheads for "sub-strategic" use causing others to be armed with more.
The British-designed warheads are thought to be selectable between 0.3 kt, 5-10 kt and 100 kt; the yields obtained using either the unboosted primary, the boosted primary, or the entire "physics package". Although it owns the warheads, the United Kingdom does not actually own the missiles; instead it leased 58 missiles from the United States government and these are exchanged when requiring maintenance with missiles from the United States Navy's own pool.
Number of warheads
In the Strategic Defence Review published in July 1998, the British Government stated that once the Vanguard submarines became fully operational (the fourth and final one, Vengeance, entered service on 27 November 1999), it would "maintain a stockpile of fewer than 200 operationally available warheads" . The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute has estimated the figure as 185 .
At the same time, the British Government indicated that warheads "required to provide a necessary processing margin and for technical surveillance purposes" were not included in the "fewer than 200" figure  . Many estimates for the total number of warheads are around 200, for instance the Natural Resources Defense Council believes that this figure is accurate to within a few tens , although the World Almanac suggests a potentially much higher value of 200-300.
British nuclear weapons had their genesis in the Second World War when the United Kingdom worked on development of an atomic bomb, initially on their own under the cover name of tube alloys but later as a partner in the American Manhattan Project. The Manhattan Project resulted in the two nuclear weapons dropped on Japan which led to the country's surrender.
The United Kingdom started independently developing nuclear weapons again shortly after the war, Labour Prime Minister Clement Attlee setting up a cabinet sub-committee to examine the feasibility, GEN.75 (and known informally as the "Atomic Bomb Committee"), as early as 29 August 1945. A civilian nuclear program started in 1946 under Air Marshal Viscount Portal of Hungerford. It was based at two former airfields, Harwell in Berkshire (now in Oxfordshire) and Risley in Lancashire were taken over as sites for research and manfuacture respectively. The first nuclear pile, BEPO (Britain Experimental Pile Zero), went critical at Harwell on 3 July 1948.
William Penny , a physicist specialising in hydrodynamics was asked in October 1946 to prepare a report on the viability of building a British weapon. He had joined the Manhattan project in 1944, and had been in an observation plane that accompanied the Nagasaki bomber, and had also done damage assessment on the ground following Japan's surrender. He had subsequently participated in the American Operation Crossroads test at Bikini Atoll. As a result of his report, the decision to proceed was formally made on 8 January 1947 at a meeting of the GEN.163 committee of six cabinet members, including Prime Minister Clement Attlee with Penney appointed to take charge of the programme.
The project was hidden under the name Basic High Explosive Research or BHER (later just HER) and was based initially at Woolwich Arsenal but in 1950 moved to a new site at Aldermaston in Berkshire. A particular problem was the American McMahon Act of 1946 restricting access to nuclear technology. Although British scientists knew the areas of the Manhattan Project in which they had worked well, they only had the sketchiest details of those parts which they were not directly involved in. With the start of the Cold War there had been some warming of nuclear relations between the British and American governments, which led to hopes of American cooperation. However this was quickly dashed by the arrest in early 1950 of Klaus Fuchs, a Soviet spy working at Harwell.
Plutonium production reactors were based at Sellafield in Cumberland (now in Cumbria) and construction began in September 1947, leading to the first plutonium metal ready in March 1952. The first British weapon was detonated on HMS Plym anchored in the Monte Bello Islands on 2 October 1952. This led to the first deployed weapon, the Blue Danube free-fall bomb, in November 1953. It was very similar to the American Mark 4 weapon in having a 60 inch diameter, 32 lens implosion system with a levitated core suspended within a natural uranium tamper, and equipped the V Bomber force which had been developed to carry it. It remained in service until 1963, when it was replaced by the Blue Steel.
A gaseous diffusion plant was built at Capenhurst , near Chester and started production in 1953. By 1957 it was capable of annually producing 125 kg of highly enriched uranium. Additional plutonium production was later provided by two electricity generating Magnox reactors at Calder Hall.
The availability of highly enriched uranium allowed the British to develop a thermonuclear bomb in the 1950s, first detonating a prototype in 1957 but only a few were eventually deployed. Instead, having demonstrated their thermonuclear capability, and with a general thawing again of nuclear relations between the two countries, the British were given access to the design of the smaller American Mk 28 warhead and were able to manufacture copies.
The British also developed an air-launched cruise missile to carry the weapons, Blue Steel, entering service in 1963 and phased out in 1969. It was to have been replaced by Skybolt air-launched ballistic missiles purchased from the United States, and the British consequently cancelled their Blue Steel extended range upgrade and troubled Blue Streak ballistic missile projects. To British consternation, the American government cancelled Skybolt at the end of 1962. Consequently the British purchased Polaris missiles for use in British-built ballistic missile submarines. The British developed an upgrade to system, called Chevaline, to compensate for Soviet ABM system in the 1970s which later generated huge controversy once it became public in 1980 as it had been kept secret whilst costs rocketed. By the time it entered service in 1982 it had cost over a billion pounds.
The UK also retained air-dropped free-fall WE 177 bombs manufactured in the 1970s until August 1998 when the last was dismantled leaving the four Vanguard class submarines, which replaced the Polaris ones in the early 1990s, as the United Kingdom's only nuclear weapons platform. It has been estimated by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists that the United Kingdom has built around 1,200 warheads since the first Hurricane device of 1952. In terms of number of warheads, the British arsenal was at its maximum size of about 350 in the 1970s.
As well as the establishment at Aldemaston, the UK nuclear weapons programme also has a factory at Burghfield nearby which assembled the weapons and is responsible for their maintenance, and had another in Cardiff which built non-fissile components and a 2000 acre (8 km²) test range at Foulness. Since 1993 the sites have been managed by private consortia. The Foulness and Cardiff facilities closed in October 1996 and February 1997 respectively.
The UK was a signatory of the Hague Conventions (1899 and 1907) which outlawed the use of poison gas shells, but omitted deployment from cylinders probably because it hadn't been considered.
Nevertheless it used poison gas widely during the First World War, initially from gas cylinders and shortly afterwards in artillery shells. It first developed its capability in retaliation against the use of chlorine by Germany against British troops from April 1915 onwards. The British deployed chlorine themselves for the first time during the Battle of Loos on 25 September, 1915. By the end of the war poison gas use had become widespread on both sides and by 1918 a quarter of artillery shells were filled with gas and the British had produced around 25,400 tonnes of toxic chemicals.
The British used a range of poison gases, originally chlorine and later phosgene, diphosgene and mustard gas. They also used relatively small amounts of the irritant gases chloromethyl chloroformate, chloropicrin , bromacetone and ethyl iodoacetate . Gases were frequently mixed, for example white star was the name given to a mixture of equal volumes of chlorine and phosgene, the chlorine helping to spread the denser but more toxic phosgene. Despite the technical developments, chemical weapons suffered from diminishing effectiveness as the war progressed because of the protective equipment and training which the use engendered on both sides. See Use of poison gas in World War I.
After the war, the Royal Air Force dropped mustard gas on Bolshevik troops in 1919, and Winston Churchill, secretary of state for war and air, suggested that the RAF use it in Iraq in 1920 during a major revolt there. In the event, the British Army used mustard gas shells in Iraq but the RAF dropped only conventional explosive bombs in punitive raids.
During World War II there was an expectation that Germany would use chemical weapons, and all civilians were issued with gas masks. The British had themselves started manufacturing mustard gas again in 1938. Churchill himself planned to counter a German invasion in 1940 with mustard gas and extensive preparations were made including equipping otherwise militarily useless training aircraft with dispensers. By the end of the war they had as much as 60,000 tonnes of chemical weapons, including 7,000 tonnes of captured German weapons. The British were unaware of the existence of nerve agents until they captured German stocks late in the war. The wartime chemical stockpile was greatly reduced by the end of the 1940s, mainly by sea dumping.
Nevertheless UK started developing its own nerve agent weapons after the war, recruiting several German scientists to help them. The British invented a new agent, VX in 1949, but never manufactured it (although the United States did), preferring to stay with sarin. Development of weapons and countermeasures was centred on the research establishment at Porton Down. In 1950 the Ministry of Supply acquired a Royal Air Force base, RAF Portreath, in Cornwall to be developed into its manufacturing facility. It was deliberately sited in a relatively remote part of the UK, well away from population centres to limit the casualties should a serious accident occur. Renamed Chemical Defence Establishment (CDE) Nancekuke, it was the site of a pilot production factory for sarin. The factory produced about 20 tonnes of the agent during its two years of operation.
The UK government renounced chemical and biological weapons in 1956 and destroyed most of its stocks of these weapons, and closed the pilot plant. It nevertheless continued to manufacture small quantities of a variety of chemical agents for use in its defensive program (e.g. testing suits, medical countermeasures etc). CDE Nancekuke also manufactured (non-WMD) irritant gases, and nerve gas simulants for training, until the 1970s. In 1976 the government announced the closure of the site, and over the next four years the work and stocks of agents were transferred to Porton Down. It was returned to the RAF in September 1980.
Many ex-servicemen have complained about suffering long term illnesses after taking part in tests on nerve agents. It was alleged that before volunteering they were not provided with adequate information about the experiments and the risk, in breach of the Nuremberg Code of 1947. Alleged abuses at Porton Down became the subject of a lengthy police investigation called Operation Antler, which covered the use of volunteers in testing a variety of chemical weapons and countermeasures from 1939 until 1989. An inquest was opened on 5 May 2004 into the death on 6 May 1953 of a serviceman, Ronald Maddison, during an experiment using sarin. His death had earlier been found by a private MoD inquest to have been as a result of "misadventure" but this was quashed by the High Court in 2002. The 2004 hearing closed on 15 November, after a jury found that the cause of Maddison's death was "application of a nerve agent in a non-therapeutic experiment".
Historically, the United Kingdom used biological weapons in Canada in the eighteenth century. During the Pontiac rebellion in 1763, the army commander Sir Jeffrey Amherst arranged for smallpox contaminated blankets to be distributed amongst the hostile Native American tribes, which had a devastating effect since they had no natural immunity.
They may have also used smallpox during the American Revolutionary War. Following the capture of Montreal by the rebels, the British commander in Quebec reportedly had civilians in the town immunised against the disease and attempted to infect American revolutionary troops. A smallpox epidemic broke out amongst them, affecting around half of the 10,000 troops.
During World War II, British scientists studied the use of biological weapons, including a test using anthrax on the Scottish island of Gruinard which left it contaminated and fenced off for nearly fifty years, until an intensive four-year program to eradicate the spores was completed in 1990. They also manufactured five million linseed-oil cattle cakes with a hole bored into them for addition of anthrax spores between 1942 and mid-1943. They were to be dropped on Germany using specially designed containers each holding 400 cakes, in a project known as Operation Vegetarian . It was intended that the disease would destroy the German beef and dairy herds and possibly spread to the human population. Preparations were not complete until early 1944. It was essential that the weapon only be deployed during the summer months when the cattle were on the pastures. By then Allied troops had landed in Europe and it was clear that the war would be won by conventional means and the whole scheme was abandoned.
Offensive weapons development continued after the war into the 1950s with tests of plague, brucellosis, tularemia and later equine encephalomyelitis and vaccinia viruses (the latter as a relatively safe simulant for smallpox).
In particular five sets of trials took place at sea using aerosol clouds and animals. These were:
- Operation Harness off Antigua in 1948-1949
- Operation Cauldron off Stornoway in 1952. The trawler Carella accidently sailed through the a cloud of plague bacillus during this trial. It was apparently kept under covert observation until the incubation period had elapsed, with a naval medical team ready, but none of the crew fell ill.
- Operation Hesperus off Stornoway in 1953
- Operation Ozone off Nassau in 1954
- Operation Negation off Nassau in 1954-1955
The defensive biological programme remains strong, for example with 32 million pounds allocated in 2002 for the acquisition of 20 million smallpox vaccination doses.
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