Ambiguity and Deterrence: British Nuclear Strategy, 1945-1964

By John Baylis | Go to book overview
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Technological Change and Strategic
Uncertainty 1959-1962

The time has come to consider giving up the concept of
independent control of the British nuclear weapons and
their delivery systems and that we should negotiate the
best terms possible with the Americans in return for hand-
ing over control to them.
(Sir Robert Scott (Permanent Secretary
of the MOD and Chairman of the British
Nuclear Deterrent Study Group), July 1961)

ALTHOUGH Sir Robert Scott's advice to the Defence Minister, Harold Watkinson, was not accepted, it reflected the deep uncertainty which existed at the highest level of defence planning in the early 1960s about the future of the British deterrent. Suggestions had been made in the late 1940s by Sir Henry Tizard and the mid-1950s by Reginald Maudling that Britain should rely on the United States to provide the nuclear deterrent but they had been rejected on the grounds that an 'independent' nuclear force was of vital importance to influence American policy, to contribute to the western deterrent, and to provide 'a last resort' capability in case the US guarantee proved ineffective. By the late 1950s, however, there were major disagreements in political and military circles about how independent Britain's nuclear force needed to be and the utility of deterrence in a period of nuclear stalemate. With the very rapid progress that was being made in weapons technology, the requirements of deterrence were changing. Sputnik had ushered in the missile age in a spectacular way, making Britain's V-bomber force vulnerable to destruction and creating new demands on a government wishing to make cuts in defence spending rather than to have to compete in a technological arms race with the superpowers. Scott's advice reflected


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