Going Nuclear: Britain's bomb in the South Atlantic

IssueJune 2007
Comment by Paul Rogers

Twenty-five years ago the Falklands/Malvinas War was controversial in Britain for three main reasons.

One was a widespread belief that the war was fought by Margaret Thatcher's government to cover up their failure to anticipate an Argentine invasion. They were prepared to fight a war that would cost the lives of nearly a thousand soldiers, not so much to safeguard the lifestyles of less than 2,000 islanders as to prevent an electoral disaster.

Related to this was the bitter controversy over the sinking of the Argentine cruiser General Belgrano by the nuclear-powered submarine HMS Conqueror, when the obsolete cruiser was actually sailing away from the British Task Force.

Tactical and strategic

The third issue was less prominent at the time but has never gone away -- the question of whether the Task Force warships were carrying tactical nuclear weapons when they went south and whether Mrs Thatcher was even prepared to threaten the use of the Polaris strategic nuclear system if things went wrong for the Task Force.

Tam Dalyell was given information on both of these issues from several sources at the time of the war, and one of Britain's most experienced defence correspondents at the time, Andrew Wilson of The Observer, was told flatly by one frigate commander that he would not sail his ship into a war zone unless he had nuclear weapons on board.

After the war, other people talked to Dalyell, including a retired senior civil servant from the Ministry of Defence and a retired officer from the Polaris fleet. Even so, successive governments steadfastly denied any such deployments.

The official line

Then, last year, Professor Lawrence Freedman published his official history of the war. He says he found no evidence to support the Polaris claim, even though Dalyell's sources were insistent, but he did get confirmation that tactical nuclear weapons were deployed from Britain on two frigates as well as the two aircraft carriers.

That this happened in a war against a non-nuclear power may seem astonishing, but it is little more than an accurate indication of British nuclear policy for fifty years.

Governments have repeatedly tried to give the impression that nuclear weapons were solely for deterring an all-out nuclear attack on Britain, but this is far from true.

“Out of area”

Britain was fully committed to NATO's Cold War policy of “flexible response” that included a willingness to use nuclear weapons first, and there is a long history of Britain deploying nuclear weapons to the Middle East and South East Asia alongside a belief that it was possible to fight “small nuclear wars in far-off places”.

Furthermore, the policy continues to this day although the current government is doing its level best to avoid any debate on the issue.

Usable nukes

Britain's tactical nuclear bombs were withdrawn in the 1990s but they were replaced by a version of the Trident strategic missile that could be fitted with a much smaller nuclear warhead, similar in size to those that had been seen as useable in nuclear wars that fell short of all-out catastrophe.

Since such nuclear war-fighting was not something one should worry ordinary people about, the term “tactical” was banished, to be replaced by the anodyne “sub-strategic”. Now, even that word is banned from the lexicon, even though the Defence White Paper on the Trident replacement does admit that first use remains an option, and a small warhead will be available in the new system.

Just as in the Falklands/Malvinas War, a quarter of a century ago, Britain was prepared to consider “going nuclear”, so that will continue to be part of the defence posture for the next half century.

It is just that you really shouldn't talk about such things in polite company.