Britain's Strategic Nuclear Deterrent: From before the V-Bomber to beyond Trident

By Rearden, Steven L. | Air & Space Power Journal, Summer 1998 | Go to article overview

Britain's Strategic Nuclear Deterrent: From before the V-Bomber to beyond Trident


Rearden, Steven L., Air & Space Power Journal


Britain's Strategic Nuclear Deterrent: From before the V-Bomber to beyond Trident by Robert H. Paterson. Frank Cass and Company, Ltd., Newbury House, 900 Eastern Avenue, Ilford, Essex IG27HH, England, 1997, $45.00 (cloth), S24.SO (paper). With so much attention devoted during the cold war to the US-Soviet arms race, it becomes easy to forget that there were other countries with nuclear weapons-the medium-sized nuclear powers possessing relatively small, but nonetheless important, nuclear arsenals. Following in the footsteps of the United States and the Soviet Union, Britain became the third member of the nuclear club when in 1952 it demonstrated a nuclear capability and soon began acquiring a limited delivery system organized around "V' bombers specifically designed for such purposes. Later, as its planes became obsolete and as Soviet air defenses improved, Britain moved to what it considered a less vulnerable and more costeffective, sea-based deterrent relying on US-designed Polaris nuclear submarines.

The broad outlines of Britain's nuclear program have been well known for years, and this book, written almost exclusively from secondary sources, adds few new details. An analytical account, it gives meticulous attention to the policy-making process from a variety of standpoints-political, economic, and military. But it does so in a wholly bloodless fashion that either overlooks or downplays the many heated, internal debates that drove the British government's decisions over the years to become and remain a nuclear power. Ignored entirely, for example, is the bureaucratic infighting that accompanied the decision in the 1960s to disband Bomber Command and to shift to a sea-based deterrent. Perhaps the author's reticence on this and similar matters stems from his experiences and perspective. A retired British army officer, he has an innate regard for the strictures of British military discipline, a healthy respect for the Official Secrets Act, and, last but not least, an apparent abhorrence for telling tales out of school.

Still, what the author has to say is generally worth reading. More than half the book deals with historic background-the decision after World War II to acquire a nuclear capability, despite the enormous cost; the development of a basic strategy similar to the American concept of "massive retaliation"; the transition from an airborne deterrent to a sea-based one; and the decision in 1980 to replace Polaris with Trident.

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