NAPSNet Special Report

Recommended Citation

John Gower, "UNITED KINGDOM: NUCLEAR WEAPON COMMAND, CONTROL, AND COMMUNICATIONS", NAPSNet Special Reports, September 12, 2019, https://nautilus.org/napsnet/napsnet-special-reports/united-kingdom-nuclear-weapon-command-control-and-communications/


SEPTEMBER 12, 2019



In this essay, John Gower states that the UK Nuclear Weapon Command Control and Communications (UK NC3) architecture is designed and operated to support SSBN strategic nuclear deterrence in all foresee­able circumstances from peacetime to nuclear conflict.Through multiple paths and frequencies, fall-back and alternative systems and with dedicated and unique encryption and processes it delivers continuous availability for the Prime Minister should a decision to launch be made.”

A podcast with John Gower, Peter Hayes, and Philip Reiner on UK NC3 is found here.

Formerly commander of two submarines, Rear Admiral John Gower was Assistant Chief of Defence Staff (Nuclear & Chemical, Biological) in the UK Ministry of Defence.  He served as the senior MoD policy officer for the UK NC3 reporting its status to the Nuclear Deterrence Policy Committee, and the Cabinet Office for the Prime Minister.  He is now an independent consultant on global nuclear policy issues.

Acknowledgments: The workshop was funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

This report is published simultaneously here by Technology for Global Security and here by Nautilus Institute and is published under a 4.0 International Creative Commons License the terms of which are found here.

The views expressed in this report do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Nautilus Institute. Readers should note that Nautilus seeks a diversity of views and opinions on significant topics in order to identify common ground.

The views expressed in this report do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Nautilus Institute. Readers should note that Nautilus seeks a diversity of views and opinions on significant topics in order to identify common ground.

Banner image is by Lauren Hostetter of Heyhoss Design.



SEPTEMBER 12, 2019


The UK Nuclear Weapon Command Control and Communications (UK NC3) architecture is designed and operated to wholly support the single mission of SSBN strategic nuclear deterrence in all foresee­able circumstances from peacetime to nuclear conflict. It has evolved through 66 years of being a nuclear armed state, from aerial bombs alone to combinations of bombs and Submarine Launched Ballistic Missiles (SLBM) to SLBM alone. Through multiple paths and frequencies, fall-back and alternative systems and with dedicated and unique encryption and processes it delivers continuous availability for the Prime Minister should a decision to launch be made.


The United Kingdom formally became a nuclear weapon state in 1952, with operational systems from 1955. From then until 1968, the strategic element of its deterrent was borne principally by the Royal Air Force and, thereafter, by the Royal Navy. Although less than strategic weapons came and went over this period, they had permanently disappeared from the UK capability by 1994 and are extremely unlikely to return. This paper deals predominantly, therefore, with the NC3 brought into service and refined for the now sole submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) system; other systems are of historic interest only.

Nuclear weapon system information, particularly the detail of national command, control and associated communications systems and protocols, are among the most tightly guarded and classified secrets of any nation. The UK is no exception to this and until the decision to release some of the protocols and procedures as part of the Cabinet Office co-operation with a BBC Radio programme, “The Human Button”, first broadcast on 7 Dec 2008, every facet of current national arrangements was classified. The author of this paper was closely involved in the operation, policy and management of UK NC3 between 2008 and 2014 and desiring not to spend the remainder of his current post Royal Navy life detained at Her Majesty’s pleasure has restricted the use of his knowledge in compiling it to that information which is publicly available.

A Short History of the Pre-SSBN Era

Until the UK strategic nuclear deterrent became vested in the SSBN force in 1968, with continuous patrols established from 1969, command and control of the UK’s nuclear deterrent was complex and multi-layered, although initial authority to release has always remained with the Prime Minister (PM), nominated Ministerial Deputies or in extremis the Royal Air Force (RAF) Commander of the then RAF Strike Command. Indeed, the only wartime employment of nuclear weapons, against Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, required the parallel approval of the UK Prime Minister in accordance with the protocols of the 1943 Quebec agreement which saw the merger of the nascent UK and US nuclear weapons development programmes under the US-led Manhattan Project.

With the introduction of the WE177 gravity bomb in 1966 and its expansion to the Royal Navy strike aircraft and helicopters in 1971, command and control arrangements expanded to include the operational and tactical employment of nuclear weapons in conflict with the Warsaw Pact. Under NATO’s doctrine of flexible response, whilst initial allocation of the UK’s nuclear weapons to NATO remained a political decision owned by the Prime Minister, once the UK had acceded to such a request, some aspects of tactical nuclear release authority could be delegated to NATO operational commanders. Over this period therefore, NC3 was integrated with conventional C2 networks.

Throughout the period between 1954[1] and 2006, the UK also hosted US nuclear weapons, first by providing forward bases for USAF Strategic Air Command (SAC) nuclear bombers, then a forward base for US Polaris SSBN in Holy Loch in Scotland from March 1961. In addition, US THOR ballistic missiles were based in the UK, operated by the RAF under dual-key control from 1958 until 1963. Following the introduction into service of longer range nuclear bombers, capable of conducting missions from the continental US, and US-based InterContinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM), the last SAC aircraft left the UK in 1964. To meet late 1970s NATO nuclear doctrine, US Ground Launched Cruise Missiles (GLCM) were based in the UK from the early 1980s. As a result of the now near-moribund Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty in 1987 these GLCMs left the UK in 1991. The Holy Loch base closed in 1992 as the longer range of US Trident SLBM made a forward SSBN operating base redundant. US tactical nuclear bombs for USAF NATO Dual Capable Aircraft (DCA) remained in storage in USAF bases in the UK until 2006. Throughout this period, the UK Prime Minister had a role in authorising US nuclear strikes originating from UK bases and territory. The NC3, therefore, had additional layers of complexity with consultation links between the UK and the US at every level from the Prime Minister to the operational units involved. These consultation layers no longer form essential elements of the UK NC3.

Since the withdrawal of all US weapons from the UK, and the concentration of the UK deterrent (since 1994) in the SLBM system, the need for these additional complexities of the NC3 systems has evaporated and the current system is therefore designed and focused exclusively on the purely national need to exercise C2 over the SSBN force in all circumstances from peacetime to nuclear conflict.

Some of the history of the thought processes behind the upper echelons of NC3 in the UK is contained in the meticulously-researched and highly readable book by Peter (now Lord) Hennessey, “The Secret State”, the second edition of which was published in 2003. I commend it to interested readers. Within the historic data contained in this summary of official papers made available to the author and his researchers can be found the seeds, and first examples, of elements of the NC3 which are maintained today, from the first concept of the “last resort” to the complex and often strangely humorous and perhaps uniquely British solutions found to the need to connect the Prime Minister to the nuclear command and control under all circumstances in the pre-computer and pre-handheld mobile communications world.

UK NC3 in the SSBN Era

UK Documentation

The UK’s requirements for its nuclear deterrent systems and the integral NC3 are not laid out in detail in publicly available legislation or documentation. The authority for the UK to own, operate and manage its nuclear deterrent is held within the Prime Minister’s Nuclear Directive, which is supported by the UK Nuclear Deterrence Policy, owned by the Cabinet Office. From these key and highly classified documents are spawned a hierarchy of equally highly classified directives and requirements documents, operating procedures and protocols. None of these documents is currently or is ever likely to be made available to the public.

Launch Authority and Last Resort

Authority to launch the UK’s nuclear weapons rests solely with the Prime Minister, as the National Command Authority (NCA). In times of crisis, the PM may nominate formal Nuclear Deputies who can take nuclear release decisions upon the death of the Prime Minister, thus negating the intended paralysing effect of a decapitation strike or targeted assassination of the PM as part of an extreme crisis. The Prime Minister is advised by a small group of key ministers and officials. The UK is significantly different from all other nuclear weapon states in that the military has no formal role in the advice or decision upon whether to launch UK SLBM (save detailed expert advice on whether the options for consideration are capable of being executed as the political leadership might desire).

The UK is a relatively small nation, vulnerable to an overwhelming strike in the most extreme circumstances. Therefore, since the first adoption of the SLBM strategic deterrent, “last resort” protocols, made formally public only in 2008, have been an integral part of the deterrent. Each Prime Minister, shortly after taking office, receives an options briefing from Cabinet Office staff on the UK “last resort” protocols. Under these protocols, designed to provide additional deterrence by denying a potential adversary the option of seeking, through a devastating strike, to destroy not only the NCA (the PM and Deputies) but also enough of the NC3 infrastructure to place a firing order in doubt, the PM writes a dormant directive letter to each of the SSBN Commanding Officers. In that letter, the contents of which are known only to the sitting PM, is the final directive in the event of such a devastating strike. An adversary cannot discount that the PM has directed a retaliatory strike, whatever the PM has written. This possibility exerts UK nuclear deterrence against even the most extreme alternatives open to an adversary. That letter is only opened after a most complex and exhaustive process which the SSBN Commanding Officer must complete (taking a considerable time and involving many steps and stages) should he determine that such a devastating strike may have occurred whilst he is on patrol.

The UK Deterrent as it drives NC3

Before examining the detail of the NC3 and how it operates in peacetime and in crisis or conflict, it is necessary to understand the nature of the UK’s deterrent which has shaped it and binds future developments.

The UK operates a submarine based strategic deterrent through a force of four SSBN. These operate in such a way to retain a single SSBN at sea on strategic patrol in the deep ocean, relatively undetectable and invulnerable. This mission, now termed Operation RELENTLESS, has been maintained since 1968 and continuously since 1969. From the early Polaris SSBN days and until relatively recently, the SSBNs were held at high readiness to launch, requiring them to maintain the ability to receive communications from the UK continuously to meet that requirement.

Today, their Trident D5 SLBM are at several days’ notice to fire and, since 1994, are not targeted. If the strategic situation dictates, and at the direction of the Prime Minister, the missiles will be targeted from information onboard the SSBN, or from information signalled to the SSBN during its patrol. In addition, the SSBN can be ordered to operate at higher readiness to match the crisis. The ability to shorten or extend the SSBN response times to match the strategic circumstances without such action escalating a crisis is one of the significant strengths of a continuous patrolling sea-based deterrent and allows the UK, and NATO, to make appropriate deterrent messages from the strength of knowing the surety of the inferred or explicit response options within those messages. The robust and survivable NC3 architecture is therefore a significant contributor to the deterrent effect of the system in peacetime and crisis.

Owing to the nature of the UK’s “last resort” policy there are no Permissive Action Links (PALs) in the system, either physical or electronic. It can be deduced from the concept of last resort, therefore, that each SSBN sails with all the information onboard necessary to conduct a strategic missile launch, when so ordered, against a wide range of potential adversaries.

An SSBN operates passively. While this used to be the case for all submarine operations, the increasing integration of non-nuclear armed submarines in coordinated operations has increased the capability and practice of submarines transmitting whilst on operations. An SSBN, however, would only break transmission silence in circumstances where it could no longer be relied upon for its primary deterrent role. The SSBN’s greatest strength is its undetectability and therefore no system requiring a positive transmitted response from it could be tolerated within the NC3.

UK declaratory policy also makes it clear that the UK considers its nuclear deterrent to be capable of a range of responses dependent upon the strategic circumstances. From these statements can be inferred that the UK NC3 can transmit all the necessary elements of information and direction for a range of nuclear response options to an SSBN in a developing crisis.

Each submarine carries the Trident II D5 submarine-launched ballistic missile system that fields the UK’s nuclear deterrent. Developed and manufactured by Lockheed Martin in the United States, Trident entered service with the Royal Navy in 1994 with the Vanguard class, 14 years after it was selected as the replacement for the previous submarine-launched Polaris missile carried by the Resolution class SSBN. It was designed to be more sophisticated than its US predecessor, Trident I C4, and has a greater payload capacity.

The missile is 13 metres long, weighs 58.5 tonnes, has a range of 12,000 kilometres (7,500 mi), a top speed of over 21,600 km/h (13,400 mph – Mach 17.4) and a proven accuracy of warhead delivery to within “a few feet”. It navigates using an inertial guidance system combined with star-sighting and is not dependent on the American-run Global Positioning System (GPS). All three stages of the Trident II D-5 are made of graphite epoxy, which made the missile much lighter than its predecessor and increased both its range and accuracy.

Following the decisions in the SDSRs of 2010 and 2015, the UK now deploys 8 Trident missiles on each operational Vanguard-class submarine. The UK has title to 58 missile bodies within the US inventory, which are held in a communal pool at the Strategic Weapons Facility at the Kings Bay Submarine Base in Georgia, USA. Maintenance and in-service support of the missiles is undertaken at Kings Bay at periodic intervals.

Each Trident missile was originally designed to carry up to 12 nuclear warheads, but the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review imposed a limit of 40 warheads per operational submarine. The destructive power of each of the warheads is not made public but has been estimated at up to the equivalent of eight to ten Hiroshima weapons. All the UK’s warheads are built and maintained at the Atomic Weapons Establishment in Aldermaston and nearby Burghfield in Berkshire and transported when required by secure convoy to the armament depot at Coulport, adjacent to Faslane, for mating with the missiles aboard an operational SSBN. They will remain mated with the missiles for the duration of the submarine’s commission (around 10 years per commission).

UK NC3 in Peacetime, Crisis and Conflict

Submarines require a complex suite of communications to operate far from their base over a spectrum of activity, from fully integrated Joint Force Operations to solo patrols in support of national objectives. For Royal Navy submarines today, this requires global coverage and the capacity to handle both the shortest low data messages and very high data load demanded by modern internet protocol communications networks.

This complex requirement drives both national, bilateral and multinational allied and NATO capabilities across the radio spectrum using land- and space-based communications to transmit to, and receive from, globally deployed submarines.

SSBN usually operate at the solo deployed end of this spectrum, but they are fitted with a full suite of communications equipment. In peacetime, therefore, they will benefit from national use of the high-capacity bandwidth systems, many of them multinational, to manage the amount of data necessary for normal operations. For their primary role, however, the core UK NC3 exists to give an assured exclusively national data path under all foreseeable circumstances for the messages necessary to change their readiness, receive necessary targeting information and, most importantly, a correctly authenticated UK national firing control message from the NCA.

Elements of UK NC3

For the UK NC3, in common with all strategic NC3, the requirements are designed to meet the four essential elements of such a system:

  • The correct, unambiguous and authenticated identification of the NCA, a correctly formatted and authenticated firing message, with authenticated verification of both elements at every human interaction within the communications chain between the NCA and the SSBN command;
  • A system architecture beneath the NCA which has no single point of failure, nor any possibility of a firing message being generated by any other than the NCA. Invulnerable and specific encryption of the necessary signals is an important element of this;
  • A system which has multiple possible, and preferably simultaneous, transmission paths across the radio spectrum. This multiplicity of paths and frequencies is sufficient to achieve transmission and reception in the presence of all foreseeable threats, physical and electronic. All elements of the system with the necessary physical and electronic protection appropriate to the strategic situation;
  • The NC3 must be capable of operating in the most hostile environment foreseeable. In order to deter, the system must be capable of achieving its mission after a major nuclear strike, with attendant electromagnetic pulse (EMP) and destructive effect.

The architecture of the resultant system, its locations and fall-back modes and the associated readiness levels are beyond the classification of this paper.

Operation of the NC3 from Decision to Detonation

As previously explained, the responsibility to order a launch of the UK’s nuclear deterrent rests solely with the Prime Minister. The UK’s nuclear policy makes it clear that such a launch would only be contemplated in extreme circumstances of self-defence, including the defence of our NATO Allies. UK nuclear weapons support the collective security of NATO, together with those of the US and France, and the North Atlantic Council can request that its three nuclear weapon state members launch weapons in support of that security. The decision whether to accede to that request and launch remains with the respective PM and Presidents.

While the SSBN on patrol is normally at several days’ notice to fire in peacetime with its missiles untargeted, in crisis the PM will undoubtedly wish to ensure that the SSBN is readied appropriately as part of the measures to deter nuclear weapon launch by an adversary. This could include reducing its notice to fire and passing appropriate additional target information to the patrolling submarine via the NC3. Any of these measures would be conducted in the utmost secrecy, the continuous nature of SSBN operations allowing the PM options without inflaming or escalating the crisis itself through precautionary activity.

Should the PM decide that it is necessary to consider launching missiles from the SSBN, he or she will receive detailed briefings depending upon the circumstances which took him/her to that decision. That briefing will explain the options available for employment of the deterrent, whether within a purely national or a NATO context. Should a decision be made to launch missiles then the target package decided upon will have unique designators which identify it to the weapon system onboard. These designators form the core of the Nuclear Firing Control Message which will be drafted for the PM, based on that decision. The message also contains the ordered date and time to launch as well as any other specific launch instructions or constraints.

In order to initiate the process, the PM communicates that decision to the MoD from one of several secure sites in and around London where the communications capability exists to pass the PM’s order to the SSBN.  The primary of these is the Nuclear Operations and Targeting Centre (NOTC) within the PINDAR complex deep beneath the Ministry of Defence Main Building in Whitehall. This complex, designed to survive all foreseeable means of attack for enough time to execute a response, is perhaps the most protected space in Whitehall. This starting point for a nuclear firing message lies deep underground and is secured against the electromagnetic effects of a nuclear attack on London.

The message is authenticated by the PM and encoded, and from the moment it leaves the PM’s hand it is handled at all stages by two nuclear-authenticated operators following strict protocols. The order is transmitted to the patrolling SSBN through several communication paths appropriate to the crisis; at least one of these can survive even a devastating nuclear attack upon the UK. On arrival onboard the SSBN, the message is authenticated by two officers (neither of whom is the Commanding Officer) and decoded using two separate cryptography sets (and matching the two sets of cryptography used by the original officers in the presence of the PM) and the submarine follows the instructions regarding the targeting of the missiles and ordered launch time, manoeuvring to remain undetected and secure to a position from which it can conduct the launch unmolested and undetected until the directed launch time.

Launch, Ballistic Flight and Detonation

Onboard the SSBN, the missiles are carried upright in vertical launch tubes in a missile compartment abaft the submarine fin. The submarine places itself at launch depth and prepares for the ordered launch time. The following sequence occurs for each missile which has been ordered by the PM to launch. Submarine inertial navigation systems pass a very accurate position to the missile guidance in the tube and the necessary countdown takes place. At launch, rapidly expanding gas is introduced into the tube, the pressure of which is used to eject the missile out of the submarine and out of the ocean surface where the missile senses it has cleared the water and ignites the solid fuel in the first of three stage motors, commencing the initial powered portion of the flight. At the same time, an aerospike designed to reduce drag by around 50% extends from the tip of the missile. The missile burns successively through its three stage motors to accelerate to the velocity required to leave the atmosphere and give enough speed to reach its target. Within approximately two minutes from launch the missile is travelling at over 20,000ft (6,100 metres) a second. On completion of each stage, like the original Apollo 3-stage rocket, the stages separate and fall to earth, the majority of which burns up in the atmosphere. Once the missile reaches space, its guidance system takes a navigation update from the stars to confirm the inertial guidance determination of the missile’s position and makes any adjustments necessary to the pre-programmed route to its target area. The forward section of the missile containing the warhead(s) then continues in a ballistic trajectory towards the predetermined points in space where it will release the warhead(s).

Once in the vicinity of its targets, the guidance system on the forward section takes another star reading to confirm its position to the required accuracy. Small thruster rockets then manoeuvre the section, so each warhead can be individually released in the right place in space to freefall through the atmosphere at very high speed to the individual aim points, where each will detonate according to one of several pre-set fuse options.

Unique Aspects of Ballistic Missiles

From an NC3 perspective, the most important fact is that, once the missile has launched, there is no facility to interact with it. It cannot be re-directed away from its target or destroyed from the ground. It will continue directly, reliably and accurately to its commanded aim point and detonate. It is upon this implacable surety of response under all conditions which rests the bulk of the deterrent effect of the continuously patrolling SSBN.

This also means that, unlike decisions involving air-breathing pilots, the PM would know that a decision to launch is a decision to detonate. Unless the launch time is a significant time after the firing message is received by the SSBN, there is no certainty of any message cancelling the strike being received before the then-irrevocable launch. The briefing officers would make certain the political advisers and the PM were aware of this fundamental nature of SSBN operations and invariably they would advise that if there is any decisional doubt, a firing message should be withheld until the last safe moment. The PM would be briefed that it is better to issue a last safe moment launch order than to issue one in advance and trust to a further message being transmitted and received if the circumstances or the PM’s mind were to change. The CRIMSON TIDE of Hollywood this would not be.

Exercise, Test, Analysis and Confidence

Essential to the credibility of a national nuclear deterrent are three central pillars: a PM who will make the decision to launch when considered necessary, a system which will deliver a warhead to the chosen target which detonates when ordered (and obviously doesn’t at any time unless ordered), and a NC3 capability which can connect the two with predictable precision and infallibility.

Clearly, the system is never exercised in its completion and against the most testing environment: after a nuclear attack from an adversary. Live missiles aren’t launched, and the PM doesn’t exercise the decision against live adversaries in peacetime. Therefore, two of the credibility pillars are constructed by the declaratory policies and public statements of the government (and the PM in particular) and by sub-system tests and regular and observable test missile firings. The fundamental enabling nature of the NC3 is so important, however, that the main elements of it are assessed and tested almost continuously. Fall-back elements of the architecture are exercised and tested sufficiently often to ensure proficiency and confidence in these.

As the main components of the NC3 also bear routine communications during each patrol, a significant amount of data is collated to assess its reliability and effectiveness in all the geographic areas of a patrol. In peacetime the Commanding Officer will be encouraged to patrol widely to maintain confidence that there are no patrol areas where the reliable receipt is diminished. In addition to this routine assessment of the various radio bearers and equipment which make up the NC3, each SSBN patrol will be exercised relatively frequently with firing drills initiated from the UK. In these, which use entirely separate encryption and specific dummy information to ensure they can never be confused with a genuine PM firing message, the entire firing chain and NC3 architecture is tested under realistic conditions. Some of these require the SSBN to take the process all the way to simulated missile launch; some complete when the dummy firing message is received and authenticated. Finally, while the SSBNs are, as previously indicated, at several days’ notice to fire, each patrolling submarine will be ordered for a portion of the patrol to assume very high readiness and to practice continuous reception of the communications broadcast. This both allows more detailed analysis of reception data and ensures crew proficiency in this most demanding of operational disciplines for an SSBN.

Every SSBN patrol is subject to detailed analysis by an independent (of the command and responsibility chain) organisation in the MoD. Records are kept from every patrol from the first in 1968 to the latest this year. The percentage availability of NC3 onboard the SSBN and at the transmitting stations is recorded and analysed.


The UK NC3 architecture which exists today is much leaner and focused than at the height of the Cold War where there was a greater variety in, and missions for, the UK’s nuclear weapons. Designed and operated specifically to support the posture of SLBM Continuous At Sea Deterrence with one of four SSBN always at sea, it is capable of supporting that mission in peacetime, in crisis and in nuclear conflict with assurance and predictability. It delivers an availability and surety that would be the envy of every other government output, if privy to its detail. Over the 50 plus years that UK SSBNs have been patrolling the waters of the North Atlantic and contiguous oceans, it has never failed to deliver a test firing message to the SSBN when demanded and has provided very high levels of percentage availability of the various bearers which collectively, considering redundancy, delivers effective 100% availability to the PM. Whilst all who have and will design, maintain, protect and operate the multiple component systems of the UK NC3 hope fervently it will only ever be required to transmit dummy test firing messages, the surety which it delivers is one of the strongest pillars of the UK’s strategic nuclear deterrent.


[1] Although the SAC bombers themselves first deployed in 1949, and the bomb assemblies from 1950, the weapons cores were not authorised for deployment to the UK until April 1954.


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  1. A Response to Admiral Gower’s assertion that UK Trident will only be used as a ‘Last Resort’ and that the Military are not involved in a decision to carry out an attack

    I am a former Royal Navy (RN) submarine officer who commanded conventional and nuclear submarines, served in the Polaris Force as 2nd in command and in command and was Commanding Officer of the rigorous UK submarine captain’s training course known as ‘The Perisher’. In recent years, alarmed by the effect that the cost of Trident and its replacement are having on the RN in both financial and operational terms, I have studied Government (HMG) policy closely to identify the rationale for retention of the ‘Deterrent’ so long after the Cold War ended, with the consequences that UK Trident missiles have not been targeted since 1994, and for over 20 years have been at “several days’ notice to fire”. In the process I have found that the Government and MoD are being less than straightforward in their response to any who question continuing with Trident for a further 40 years at a lifetime cost in excess of £150Bn. This is exhibited by an article published by Admiral John Gower (formerly Mod Nuclear Policy Department) on the Nautilus Institute website. His article gives a re-assuring air of good management and control and states, inter alia, that “…the military has no formal role in the advice or decision upon whether to launch UK SLBM.” – an assertion I challenge.

    Admiral Gower refers to the use of Trident as a ‘Last Resort’: a phrase HMG also uses frequently in almost every debate on or in reference to Trident. However, the meaning of ‘Last Resort’ is not defined anywhere and so the public, many MPs and the media take it to mean what it did in my Polaris days: that is, if the Soviets launched a nuclear attack on UK or NATO, then the UK would have retaliated with – in the Last Resort – a counter (second) strike of such magnitude that it would deter the Soviets from attacking in the first place – the aptly named policy of MAD – Mutually Assured Destruction. We knew our missiles were targeted to take out Moscow – the so called ‘Moscow Criterion’ – and that this would cause appallingly disproportionate and indiscriminate deaths to millions of the civilian population by blast and fire immediately and, for decades to come, through radiation. No other use for Polaris was envisaged. This meant that, when a Polaris submarine deployed on patrol, the CO and his 2nd in command knew exactly what they might be called upon to do: namely, to turn the Captain’s key and authorise the launch of their missiles. There was no need for a ‘Letter of Last Resort’, which came in in later years. We knew that a Second Strike like this would be well outside any accepted international humanitarian law but, if it prevented the end of the world as we knew it, then we had to be prepared to fire. Incidentally, we also agreed that we would not fire unless we had positive indications that UK was under attack. We would not carry out a First Strike. Neither of us wanted the responsibility of being instigators of Armageddon.

    I left the Navy in 1981 to work in industry and, like many people, continued to believe that this remained the meaning of Last Resort. However, when I began my search for facts in 2015 prior to the Main Gate decision to build the ‘Successor’ to the Vanguard class, I was seriously disturbed by what I found. HMG policy had unobtrusively changed (no press release or public statement that I could find) to one which one might describe as non-strategic within the existing policy of flexible response – which I term NSFR. This now included an option to launch a pre-emptive strike with a single missile with a single low yield (under 10Kt) nuclear war head into a Foreign State which was threatening UK troops in the field with chemical or biological weapons , should all other conventional measures had failed. This was a big shift in policy which remains in place today. There now seems to be a perverse circle of logic: retain Trident to protect the homeland against nuclear attack; however, as the cost of retaining it is so high that we cannot sustain adequate conventional forces to protect our homeland or our forces overseas, change the rules to use nuclear weapons to offset the lack of conventional forces. In this way the nuclear threshold bar of Last Resort becomes Next Resort.

    This policy places the CO of a Trident submarine in an impossible position. Admiral Gower states it is the Prime Minister (PM) who makes the final decision to fire and “…the military has no formal role in the advice or decision upon whether to launch UK SLBM” i.e. the CO merely has to authenticate that the order has emanated from the PM; but he is wrong to say that. Nuremberg Principle IV states “The fact that a person acted pursuant to order of his Government or of a superior does not relieve him from responsibility under international law…” i.e. unquestioning obedience to a superior’s order is not enough. The UK Joint Service Manual of the Law of Armed Conflict on Military Law (JSP383) itself states that military commanders “… have a responsibility to cancel or suspend the attack if it turns out that the object to be attacked is going to be such that the proportionality rule would be breached.”. So it is the CO himself who must make a considered and informed decision as to whether he should obey the order. The process of authenticating that the order to fire genuinely comes from the Prime Minister is undoubtedly as important as Admiral Gower states, but an even more important question for the CO is whether he is in a position to make that judgement? On patrol he has no opportunity to discuss and ask relevant questions about the justification for a First Strike on targets – the details of which he may be unaware of – or know whether his nuclear warhead(s) will have a disproportionate effect on civilian populations.
    In a presumed attempt to relieve the CO of legal responsibility, the same military law manual states “…the rules do not have any effect on and do not regulate or prohibit the use of nuclear weapons.”(1)

    I questioned the MoD as to how they could justify this statement. In a letter to myself dated 3 October 2018 the MoD responded that the Conference at which AP1 was negotiated did not proscribe nuclear weapons. This is correct because AP1 focuses on the rules, not what might breach them, but this does not mean the Conference agreed they were exempt.

    HMG lawyers are therefore relying upon a very contentious interpretation which flies in the face of the spirit of the Protocol. Nor does the military law manual mention the 1996 Advisory Opinion given by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) that the threat or use of nuclear weapons in any circumstances other than an existential nuclear threat to the homeland (not troops overseas) would generally be unlawful. Even then the International Court of Justice (ICJ) emphasised in its 1996 Advisory Opinion on the Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons, all States are bound by the rules in AP1 which are merely the expression of pre-existing customary law.

    That brings me to my final point. As previously referred to in the opening paragraph, Trident has not been targeted and has been at several days’ notice to fire for over 20 years. For all this time Trident submarines have been on patrol 24/7 ready to react to a ‘bolt from the blue attack’. Yet they are not well placed to do this if they are stood down. It also begs the question as to whether Parliament should be consulted if it is ever decided to re-target Trident missiles. It is now the convention, learned from mistakes in the lead-up to the 2003 US-UK Iraq invasion, to seek prior authorisation from the House of Commons before taking military action, subject to certain exceptions where public debate before military action would not be possible or appropriate. While the threat of use of Trident to deter nuclear attack may be political, the use of Trident to support troops deployed overseas – or in a range of other first use scenarios in which low yield war heads might be used – would be military warfighting.

    In summary, there are many aspects of UK possession of the Trident nuclear weapon system that are a cause for concern; nearly all of which stem from a policy which includes First Use. This is not clearly understood by the British public, media or even within Parliament. Clear answers to these questions are needed beyond re-assurance that the process of checking the authority of the PM’s order is reliable. Specifically, in light of the UK’s Non-Strategic Flexible Response policy, HMG needs to define what is meant by ‘Last Resort’.

    More importantly for the RN Submarine Service, current UK nuclear weapon policy which includes First Use could place the command team of the deployed Trident submarine in legal jeopardy if ordered to launch their missiles. This requires urgent review by the UK Government and MoD.

    1. Additional Protocol 1 to the Geneva Conventions contains specific provisions for protection of civilians from disproportionate and indiscriminate attacks. Articles 51, 54 & 57 are relevant.


  2. I enjoyed reading Rear Admiral John Gower’s paper on the UK’s NC’s3. Thank you. I am a private citizen and I am not aligned to any organisation. As a baby of the cold war (1963) I am have been studying the impact of ‘several days to launch’. The change in posture needs to saluted and celebrated. I have submitted several papers to UK Parliament on legal processes needed when any notion of re-targeting of Trident begins. This is one of five such papers.http://data.parliament.uk/writtenevidence/committeeevidence.svc/evidencedocument/public-administration-and-constitutional-affairs-committee/the-role-of-parliament-in-the-uk-constitution-authorising-the-use-of-military-force/written/96857.pdf The Committee did take evidence on the matter but then decided not to comment on the matter in the final report.
    Rear Admiral John Gower made reference to targeting data being carried on board Trident. He stated some form of programmable mission trajectories are stored on board the SSBN, even though all missiles have been de-targeted since 1994. While for test purposes I would understand a mission trajectory is needed with some sea-borne target in international waters, I do not understand conceptually how any targets could be carried on board. There is no Tier 1 threat, so on what basis can targets be selected and mission trajectories created? If the UK deterrent is controlled by civilians, then the target selection and any targets carried on board should also be under civilian control. Rear Admiral Gower’s outline suggests the targets manifest somehow. Pre- 1994 I assumed they were a product of US/NATO planning. Post 1994, there should not be any as there is no NATO operational role for Trident. So what targets? Who is our enemy? With whom are we currently inviting to join us on a mutual suicide pact and on whose legal authority?
    I do not think this matter has been properly studied since the decision to select a number of Japanese cities for obliteration in 1945 and the subsequent selection of Soviet cities from 1948 onwards. Has the Royal Navy got the necessary legal cover for the targeting of thermonuclear weapons in a post cold war environment? If a paratrooper (soldier F) can be prosecuted for some alleged wrong doing in Norther Ireland in the early 1970’s, then what legal protections is there for MOD personnel generating targets for thermonuclear weapons presumably for a war which ended in 1991? They need to tool down. If there is anything other that a test target for the open sea, I should imagine those MOD personnel are vulnerable to a claim that they are planning acts of aggression if not planning acts of excess civilian loss which is a war crime. The UK deterrent is a domestic political weapon. The targeting of what is a doomsday machine is also a political decision and something the MOD/RN can have no legally ambiguous involvement. If the firing of Trident is a political decision, then any target selection must also be under civilian control. Why should the MOD excuse their civilian masters of this responsibility? It is then up to Parliament to force accountability into the business of planning what will be a mass suicide pact.
    I hope some discussion can occur on this point. The Royal Navy and MOD personnel need a very clear legal environment rather than assuming cold war planning assumptions are somehow sufficient for a post Chilcott world. I would imagine if any Russian or Chinese targeting data is on board any UK SSBN without the written approval of the Attorney General then it needs to removed and verifiably deleted as quickly as possible.
    I can understand the Navy’s pride in Operation Relentless, but 25 years of patrolling without targeted missiles where there is no Tier 1 threat suggests the Navy need to bring their boys home and request this doomsday machine gets some legal cover for the post Cold War era.
    Kind regards
    Mike Kiely

    I feel it necessary to use this opportunity to respond to some of Cdr Forsyth’s points, even though they do not relate directly to the paper I wrote on a specific subject, which he acknowledges. This is not the first time I have responded to his particular view if UK nuclear deterrence, and I doubt it is the last. As a fellow submariner with a similar seagoing career I have respect for Cdr Forsyth’s service, excluding his admission in these comments that he conspired with either his Captain, or his 2nd in command (he is not clear which – it may have been both) to disobey his explicit orders at the heart of his patrols. I find this of concern, since if this was true, and we must take his word that this is not an example or retrospective opinion, it was a clear breach of their orders and the trust placed in them specifically by the Prime Minister for the security of the UK, following a clear – the clearest – policy decided by a democratically elected government.
    This insubordination left a gaping hole in UK and NATO security for the periods of his contribution to continuous patrols at the height of the cold war in the late 1970s and 1980s, and blatantly disregarded the honourable principle in the UK armed forces over generations – that military leaders do not subvert their democratic political leadership. He and his co-conspirator also broke the trust of his ship’s company who were taken from their families and friends for long periods of isolation and risk, which they were content to do in support of the essential national security task which their immediate leaders had privately suborned. Had it been made public at the time, it would have seriously undermined UK and NATO deterrence. Finally, other contemporary officers, with clear anti-nuclear weapon convictions that Cdr Forsyth now attests he had then, honourably resigned rather than serve with the weapons. Not to follow their example is less honourable, in my judgement.
    I’ll deal with some of the more misleading elements of his opinions and comments; if I do not comment, it should not be inferred that I agree with what he says.
    Last Resort and Ambiguity. For as long as the UK has been a nuclear -armed state it has maintained a policy, in common with its allies in NATO, of deliberate ambiguity on the circumstances in which it might employ a nuclear weapon. Throughout the period of history now known as the Cold War it was assessed by successive governments and iterations of NATO leadership that this ambiguity was beneficial to deterrence as it complicated (and thus raised the threshold) the nuclear decision process of an adversary. While I am on the record in 2018 as advocating, after continuing analysis of the newly multipolar nuclear world with increasing deployment of dual-capable weapons, that this policy would merit review, neither NATO nor the UK has yet made any move to change this policy. Phrases like “Last Resort”, therefore, are those used to describe the extremity of circumstances in which a UK PM would consider nuclear weapon launch. Whilst the policy of ambiguity exists, these will not be defined in advance.
    Application of International Humanitarian Law (IHL). Cdr Forsyht asserts that “we knew such a strike would be well outside any accepted International Humanitarian Law”. This is factually wrong. Although the ICRC made statements in 1945 and 1950 on the consequences of atomic weapon use, these were not legal judgments. While there was strong body of opinion that nuclear weapons were inhumane and illegal, no IHL judgement on the employment of nuclear weapons was made until the 1996 International Court of Justice Advisory Opinion. This was long after Cdr Forsyth left the service in 1981 and Polaris’ last patrol was the year the judgement was delivered.
    In any case, the 1996 International Court of Justice Advisory Opinion did not conclude that the threat or use of nuclear weapons would be necessarily unlawful in an extreme circumstance of self-defence in which a State’s very survival would be at stake. The International Court of Justice concluded that legality can only be determined in the light of the specific circumstances applying when such use is being contemplated and the application of the general rules of international law, including those regulating the use of force and the conduct of hostilities. Cdr Forsyth is well aware of this position as it was made clear in correspondence between him and the MoD in 2017 and 2018 (long after I had left the MoD) which he has made public.

    In his comments on the legal position of the CO of a UK SSBN, he makes several assertions. These assertions are Cdr Forsyth’s lay opinions and interpretations and he is absolutely entitled to hold them, but to aid transparency for his readers he should make it clear they are his opinions not facts. Successive Attorneys General, supported by a succession of qualified and specialist lawyers, over decades of continual assessment and challenge since the ICJ 1996 judgement, have maintained confidence in their judgement that in the extreme circumstances where the employment of the nuclear weapons might be justified, they can be so employed in ways consistent with IHL.
    Policy makers and drafters, as I was, continue to rely on these expert judgements rather than formulating their own lay opinions. In addition, as I lay out in the paper, that the SSBN command has no knowledge of the targets which the PM has ordered selected absolves them of the Nuremburg Principles, which are based on the simple fact that a subordinate subject to them has knowledge of the specifics of the order and discretion in carrying them out. Continued legal advice supports this. Cdr Forsyth may disagree with the august collection of lawyers who have formed these judgements over the years, but that doesn’t make him right.
    He introduces a concept of “Sub-Strategic Flexible Response”. Sub Strategic Trident was a brief concept between the end of the Cold War and 1994; it most certainly does not exist today. While certain commentators, including a former First Sea Lord, still refer to it they are incorrect. It was, in any case, never a flexible response – a concept alive in NATO in the 1970s but well dead by 1994. The remainder of Cdr Forsyth’s description of SST is fiction. It was never a first strike concept nor as a response to specific attacks, merely an option for a smaller response matched to limited nuclear use of an adversary. It was an attempt to replace the deterrent role of the air-launched weapons which were being phased out by 1994. Swiftly it was seen to be a fallacious concept as the SLBM deterred all NW use and was dropped.
    The “several days’ notice to fire” status is a measure of political signalling of restraint. There is no physical restriction preventing moving to a firing posture in a shorter period. Such a move would also be a political decision to the PM and could occur as part of deterrence signalling in crisis. The SSBN is maintained at CASD for all the reasons I have outlined in other papers I have written, including one in Warship World of which I know Cdr Forsyth is particularly aware. No doubt I will draft others. While the threats they deter include the currently extremely unlikely “bolt from the blue” attack that is by no means the sole purpose.
    In response to Mr Kiely’s comments
    Regarding target data held on the submarine, Mr Kiely should read carefully the whole paper, in which I make this clear. The missiles are de-targeted until a properly authenticated targeting and/or firing message is received from the Prime Minister.
    The remainder of his first paragraph mixes so many misconceptions; I have insufficient energy to unpick them beyond that which I made clear in the paper. Regarding his second two paragraphs, Mr Kiely can, but I judge most likely won’t, draw assurance from the detailed response I have already given in the paper and to Cdr Forsyth above.

  4. Thank you or the response and I will re-read and I will guess at the mis-conceptions you mention, but the current planning activity such as it is assumes everything is beyond the reach of the laws arising from Nuremberg. You may be right but that position is going against the trends identifiable in the war manuals and the working of national constitutions.

    The selection and preparation of targets for annihilation when there is no Tier 1 threat and the placing of such targets in a safe, does not appear an act of self-defence but an unnecessary threat of war. A demarcation point is needed between planning contingencies and the beginning of an operation. It is certainly worth finding a Parliamentary means to challenge current practice, not unlike Congress demanding any plan against the DRK to be approved by it. Whatever these post cold-war targets are they need proper oversight and there is nothing to suggest such oversight is occurring.

    If ‘several days’ notice is just ‘a measure of political signalling of restraint’ then who are we sending this signal too? Russia, China? What is that trying to achieve? It would make sense if this was the beginning of a formally defined and verifiable post cold-war posture.

    The ‘several days’ has been 25 years and counting. There is room to propose the next step backwards. The ‘several days’ offers hope for something more substantive, where politicians are forced to take more direct responsibility. It would be good if the UK showed leadership on this matter.

    Thank you.

  5. I was minded not to respond to Rear Admiral Gower’s reply to my comments on his article because they were so off the mark as to be difficult to comprehend. He has neither accurately read what I actually wrote, nor has he really addressed the points I made – in particular the one that prompted me to respond in the first case: namely his claim that the military are not involved in a decision to fire. However, after further careful thought and consultation, I have decided I should take the time to respond again, if only because non-military readers of this website may otherwise be mis-led. I will also expand on some (but not all) of my earlier points.

    I would first point out that my comments were directed towards his published article, so why assert ‘…even though they do not relate directly to the paper I wrote…’? I also clearly stated I was the second in command conferring with my Commanding Officer (CO), so why is he ‘not clear which’?

    Words such as ‘conspiring’, ‘disobey’ and ‘insubordination’ are ill-chosen and intemperate, and not an appropriate way for a former submariner – now a civilian – to address another former submariner who is also a civilian. We are not on a Quarterdeck (or should one say in a Control Room) now. I was not ‘conspiring’ to do anything. Nor was I being ‘insubordinate’. Quite the opposite. My CO was correctly discussing with me all aspects of the pre-patrol brief and our patrol orders because I had been appointed as qualified to take over command – I had just completed two years as a CO myself – should he be unable to continue for any reason (as happened in practice. Critical to both of us was to be quite clear as to the immensity of our joint responsibility and the circumstances in which we might be ordered to fire. We needed to be in total agreement as to how we would both react to a variety of circumstances. One of them was the possibility of receiving an order that varied from our clear understanding that we would only be ordered to fire if deterrence had failed, i.e. the UK had been attacked and we were responding in accordance with the policy of Mutually Assured Destruction, with a strike back (‘second strike’) – and we were not carrying out a pre-emptive First Strike.

    Though omitted from my original response, as Rear Admiral Gower knows, and as Lord Peter Hennessy recounts in his book The Silent Deep, listening to the BBC was intrinsic to cross-checking if the UK was actually under nuclear attack. If there was no sign of this – which we wryly suggested would be indicated by The Archers broadcasting as normal – we agreed we would not fire immediately, but pause for thought and might even break radio silence and phone home, lest we launched our forty-eight 200kt warheads in what would amount to a first strike for all the wrong reasons. In 1983 a relatively junior Soviet officer, Lt Col Stanislav Petrov, prevented a full-scale nuclear missile launch in reaction to a false warning of a US strategic missile launch. This is just one of 13 such incidents termed ‘Too Close for Comfort’ documented by Chatham House.

    Rear Admiral Gower states that ‘other contemporary officers …honourably resigned’ and I should have done likewise. He is wrong on two counts. As far as I am aware, no one resigned their commission, but several requested not to serve in SSBNs. Their subsequent careers varied; some prospered, some did not and eventually take voluntary retirement from the Navy. The common factor was that they were not prepared to fire at all. We, on the other hand, were prepared to fire if the circumstances were in accord with our pre-patrol brief.

    Rear Admiral Gower suggests that the COs of SSBNs are absolved of any responsibility because they do not have knowledge of the targets or other specifics of the attack nor have any discretion in carrying out the order. However, there is no reference to such words in the Nuremberg Principles. On the contrary, Principle IV states: “The fact that a person acted pursuant to order of his Government or of a superior does not relieve him from responsibility under international law, provided a moral choice was in fact possible to him.” The CO needs to know the facts to make a moral choice; moreover, he has discretion by virtue of his Captain’s Key which must be turned to give his permission to fire. This is at the very root of my opposition to the present policy in which there are so many variables. The CO could well be placed in involuntary legal jeopardy if he obeys without question not knowing the facts.

    Furthermore, Nuremberg Principle IV needs to be read in the light of Article 33 of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court which became effective in 2002:

    ‘Superior orders and prescription of law
    1. The fact that a crime within the jurisdiction of the Court has been committed by a person pursuant to an order of a Government or of a superior, whether military or civilian, shall not relieve that person of criminal responsibility unless:
    (a) The person was under a legal obligation to obey orders of the Government or the superior in question;
    (b) The person did not know that the order was unlawful; and
    (c) The order was not manifestly unlawful.

    2. For the purposes of this article, orders to commit genocide or crimes against humanity are manifestly unlawful’

    It is paragraph 2 that puts the CO directly in potential legal jeopardy. Rear Admiral Gower states that he is prepared to put his faith in the Attorney General’s infallibility, and that a Trident CO can similarly assume that any order to fire will be fully compliant with International Humanitarian Law (IHL). He suggests that as a ‘lay’ person I should not question the Government’s legally obtained position. To which I say, what about Iraq 2003 and the Chilcot Inquiry?

    As a relevant aside on his comment on my being a lay person, I have taken legal advice throughout my extensive research from a distinguished UK lawyer well known in professional circles for his deep knowledge of International Law, and also from a US lawyer who specialises in UN treaties and IHL.

    Rear Admiral Gower’s responses are the standard Ministry of Defence (MoD) replies to anyone who questions Government nuclear policy. After the exchange of several letters to which he refers between MoD’s Nuclear Policy department and myself during 2018, I realised that I would not get any real answers but only off the shelf replies. I therefore see no point in trying to debate them here again and so this is my final statement in this exchange.

    For the avoidance of doubt:
    • I respect others’ opinions on the efficacy of nuclear deterrence. My personal view with the benefit of hindsight and research, is that if it ever worked – and there are strong arguments it was never needed – then it has definitely had its day; like battleships, Trident has become obsolete.
    • The cost of maintaining Trident makes the UK militarily weaker now, not stronger. A Navy that cannot man all of its ships and only has as many escorts as the same number of all types of ships sunk or battle-damaged during the Falklands War speaks for itself. Field Marshal Bramall (sadly recently deceased) agreed with me.
    • I strongly disagree with First Use for all the reasons outlined above. Not only is it morally wrong but indisputably unlawful. There are several senior US Officers who also seriously question it. I reserve the right in a democracy to continue to do so and welcome open and measured debate on the subject.
    • I am concerned at the lack of real progress towards multilateral nuclear disarmament that all parties to the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) are committed to, and the fact that the five permanent UN Security Council members are all modernising their arsenals. On which score, I was alarmed to note recently that the US has announced that it is planning to deploy its Trident missiles into the 2080s. Not much commitment to disarmament there! History relates that where the US goes on nuclear matters the UK is right behind.
    • I gather that Rear Admiral Gower, with his strong views and unquestioning faith in the value of nuclear weapons and the UK Government’s legal advisers, plays a leading role in formulating UK Government policy in the 5-yearly NPT review conferences, with the next one due in May 2020. If his approach is similar to the manner in which he addressed my response to his article, then there is not a lot of hope for substantial UK steps being taken towards a nuclear weapon free world. Would it not be better if the negotiators at UN conferences had a more constructive approach to nuclear disarmament?

    Further reading: For those who would like to read and understand my position better, I am publishing a series of articles on my website http://www.whytrident.uk

    Parts 1 and 2 are published; Part 3, which is very relevant to the discussion above, will follow in the New Year. My aim is to place fully researched and source-referenced information in the public domain that gives a somewhat different picture to the one the Government portrays. Each person must make up their own mind on nuclear weapons – but access to facts is a pre-requisite. I make no claim to total knowledge, but I do have an insight not available to everyone which at least allows me to broaden the debate; and I feel I should share my several years of careful research.

    I will close with words by my son: “Dad, who in their right minds can even contemplate another Hiroshima as a deliberate act? It was wrong then and is wrong now.”

  6. Cdr Forsyth has chosen to respond, and in detail once more. He deserves my reply, particularly to his implied or explicit questions. In the interests of brevity, I will only concern myself with the more important of his points.
    His second response questions why I should have questioned whether his first comments were against the issues in the article. He now asserts they were, but his original response clearly stated:
    “Admiral Gower has focused solely on the nuclear weapon C3 process and given a re-assuring air of good management and control. My response concerns the overarching current HMG policy for the use of Trident.”
    Almost all our subsequent discourse (including my rejoinders below) has been on matters unrelated to my original NC3 paper per se. He further questions why I am in doubt about when the discussion between CO and XO about the orders to launch took place. I am grateful to him for clarifying that it was in his time as SSBN XO for his first response left that in doubt, as any re-read of the words he used clearly shows.
    He castigates me as “ill-chosen” and “intemperate” in the language I used (disobey, insubordinate, conspiracy) to describe his account of the agreement he states he reached as XO with his CO to impose a further, and unauthorised, test on the validity (or legality) of an authenticated launch order. My language is simply factual. The fact that neither of us remain serving does not alter the accuracy of their use in referring to his time as XO of that SSBN; if we were both still serving, this would be taking a quite different path.
    The agreement he states he reached with his CO to act outside the crystal-clear orders in the SSBN directions was not sanctioned, nor even informed to higher authority. If they felt that they needed these extra steps, they should have (to protect from charges including the language I used) discussed them with the next higher authority and so on up the chain. That they concealed their decision from their Captain SM, the Flag Officer Submarines and on up the chain to the Prime Minister meant not only was my characterisation correct, but also that their SSBN crew was different from the other five crews conducting patrols and – critically – separate from delivering the intended action of the political leadership of the country at the time of greatest crisis.
    Cdr Forsyth repeats that he and his CO decided that they needed, for themselves, to be sure that the UK had been attacked. Setting aside that this was outside their orders, it would have been irrelevant. There are far more factors in play than an SSBN command team on patrol would ever know. Even with today’s high data rate communications that remains the case, and the SSBNs of the 1970s did not enjoy such a weight of situational material. The key issue, however, is that then, as now, with UK’s nuclear weapons assigned to NATO defence, a launch order could be entirely possible and legitimate even if no attack had taken place on the UK. A NATO response to a nuclear attack on the Alliance might have included UK weapons, even if the UK itself had not been attacked. There was then, and there is now, no latitude for a CO (or XO) to delay or refuse a launch order on any basis, including a self-determined need to be assured that the UK had been attacked.
    Cdr Forsyth then introduces the anecdotal concept of “listening to the BBC” as a means of further checking whether they would choose to obey the launch order or not. In this, Cdr Forsyth is either being confusing or is mis-remembering. Such “checking” arose only in the event of the CO believing that proceeding to the Last Resort procedure was necessary. The Last Resort, when introduced, was commenced only if it was deemed by the SSBN CO that there was a possibility that the UK had suffered a devastating nuclear attack and was incapable of transmitting a launch order. A first sign might have been a failure to receive his regular signals broadcast. As he should recall, this possibility of “listening to the BBC” was anecdotally just one of the factors in instructions by his Commander-in-Chief to an SSBN CO in a dormant letter. As I detailed in my NC3 paper, this letter was opened if the CO believed Last Resort was appropriate. Only after all the exhaustive activity detailed in this first envelope had been completed was the CO authorised to open the Prime Minister’s sealed letter and act upon it. (Both letters were, and remain, highly classified and the PM’s letter is seen only by the PM writing it, so any documents or books purporting to state what would have been or is in them are pure constructive fiction).
    Thus, only in circumstances where the UK was incapable of transmitting a launch order was this ever to be invoked. At no time in the history of UK SSBNs has “listening to the BBC” or any other confirmatory activity been part of the response of a CO to a correctly authenticated received launch order.
    The penultimate main issue of contention remains the perceived individual liability of the SSBN CO in executing a launch. I made clear in my first response what the position of successive UK governments has been and my agreement with this has not changed in the years since I left service. I will not repeat my previous points. However, in amplification of a point made above, it has long been recognised that the SSBN CO on distant patrol cannot under any circumstances have access to the range of factors necessary in determining either the necessity or the legality of a launch of his missiles. That the decision to launch is taken by the highest political leadership, with the advice of the broad church of political and legal bodies fully cognisant of their legal responsibilities has removed, uniquely in military commands, this responsibility from his shoulders. Those who seek unilateral disarmament of the UK, having failed to convince governments to reverse their policy in the critical reviews leading up to the 2016 decision to renew the SSBN, have begun to use this personal threat against the CO as a means of undermining the moral component of the deterrent; that does not increase the veracity of the opinions one iota.
    Cdr Forsyth makes several points of opinion which I respect, as he says he does mine.
    We disagree fundamentally on the efficacy and need for strategic nuclear deterrence; I respect he holds opposing views.
    We disagree on the cost being a dominant factor once the need for deterrence is decided by the government. I respect his opinion. In any case, and as I have written separately in response to his writings, there is no guarantee any residual savings from scrapping the programme would accrue to conventional arms; indeed the Treasury made it clear when it passed the ring-fenced elements of deterrence money into the MoD in 2010 that should the decisions be made to make such savings they could not assume that that money would belong to MoD.
    He states his objection to nuclear First Use. I agree with this objection, but I also recognise that not all states with nuclear weapons feel this way. He has previously stated that the UK has a First Use policy. Not only do I disagree with this assertion, but I know it to be wrong. As a member of NATO, the UK aligns its declaratory policy with the alliance, which considers ambiguity a powerful deterrent. It therefore neither asserts First Use nor No First Use.
    I have written on two issues concerning First Use: ambiguity and caveats in the Negative Security Assurances. I judge both these 20th century tenets of nuclear policy need to be questioned in the light of a very different 21st century dynamic. I don’t believe the added deterrence value of ambiguity outweighs the increased risk of miscalculation and I characterise as “strategic laziness” the recent US decision in its 2018 Nuclear Posture Review to increase the range of significant non-nuclear attacks which could merit a nuclear response (i.e. First nuclear Use). I advocate strongly for moves towards Sole Purpose (that is nuclear weapons exist only to counter other nuclear weapons). I do so, however, on an omnilateral basis for all nuclear armed states. Unilateralism in this, as in disarmament, would serve no purpose and risk more than it could gain.
    The remainder of his points on the challenges facing the tenets of the NPT are largely agreed. If he, and others, were to take the time to read the papers I have written since retiring he would find that to be the case. I have written on the need for action in the disarmament pillar and most recently a paper presented to the UN in New York on a code of responsibility for nuclear armed states as a basis for reversing the current trends of increasing risk and decreasing stability and provide a platform for the trust necessary to repopulate the currently morbid field of arms control. All these papers are available on my website http://www.mimirconsulting.co.uk
    Finally, however, I must take issue with a false assertion and accusation Cdr Forsyth makes against me personally. He states:
    “I gather that Rear Admiral Gower, with his strong views and unquestioning faith in the value of nuclear weapons and the UK Government’s legal advisers, plays a leading role in formulating UK Government policy in the 5-yearly NPT review conferences…”
    As anyone who reads my papers, with their clear and strong advocacy of change in elements of the UK’s, NATO’s and allies’ nuclear postures and polices, will realise I am far from unquestioning of anyone’s position on nuclear policy, particularly the UK. I spend all my time evaluating and questioning and this is reflected in my work and my advocacy. My positions on the necessity of strategic nuclear deterrence and the legal position of the SSBN CO continue to reflect that questioning and scrutiny.
    I am not sure how Cdr Forsyth gathers the assertion he makes. As a retired officer I have, rightly, zero role in formulating policy; I can only advocate. UK policy on the NPT (as with all treaties to which the UK is a state party) rests with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
    Over the past few years I have occasionally been invited, by both the FCO and some NGOs separately and in partnership with the FCO, including the European Leadership Network, King’s College London and BASIC, to workshops where officials listened to a range of ideas from all who attended, but to say that any non-governmental attendees have any, let alone leading, roles in formulating policy is frankly ridiculous. These included several meetings in the UN and elsewhere in New York where national disarmament ambassadors and representatives to the NPT have listened to me, amongst many other advocates and each other.
    I have also articulated my ideas in these regards (almost all of which include calling for alterations in the UK status quo) in papers written personally by me and by my acknowledged contributions to work by BASIC, the Nuclear Threat Initiative and other NGOs and think tanks, including Carnegie and the IISS.
    Any conversations with attendant FCO and other HMG officials at these gatherings would quickly show that my positions and contributions are challenging and sometimes extremely so for those officials. I think perhaps that’s why the officials might, and the NGOs will continue to invite me.
    I am happy to continue to argue these points, and others, in any other and relevant forum. I will not be responding to any further comments in this place not directly related to the points I made in the informational paper on UK NC3 published at the request of the Nautilus Organisation.

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