United Kingdom and weapons of mass destruction

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Weapons of
mass destruction
By Type
Biological weapons
Chemical weapons
Nuclear weapons
Radiological weapons
By Country
China (PRC)
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United Kingdom
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Nuclear weapon history
Nuclear weapon design
Nuclear explosion
Nuclear testing
See also
Dirty bomb
Radiological warfare
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The United Kingdom has a nuclear arsenal but is generally believed not to have any chemical or biological weapons.


Nuclear weapons

Missing image
Vanguard Class Submarine

Main article: Nuclear weapons and the United Kingdom

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 [1] (http://www.thebulletin.org/article_nn.php?art_ofn=nd01norris).

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.

The United Kingdom is one of the five "Nuclear Weapons States" (NWS) under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which the UK ratified in 1968. The United Kingdom has not run an independent development program since the failure of Blue Streak missile in the 1960s, buying American delivery systems and fitting British warheads instead (Polaris Sales Agreement).

Chemical weapons

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.

The UK ratified the Geneva Protocol on April 9, 1930.

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.

The UK signed the Chemical Weapons Convention on January 13, 1993 and ratified it on May 13, 1996.

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".

Biological weapons

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 program was cancelled in 1956 when the UK government renounced the use of biological and chemical weapons. It ratified the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention in March 1975.

The defensive biological programme remains strong, for example with 32 million pounds allocated in 2002 for the acquisition of 20 million smallpox vaccination doses.

See also

External links


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