Columbia International Affairs Online: Working Papers

CIAO DATE: 06/2008

Telos or Brick Wall? British Nuclear Posture and European Defence Integration

January 2002

Finnish Institute for International Affairs


Somewhere, at this very moment under one of the world's oceans, there is a Royal Navy 'Vanguard' class nuclear powered and armed submarine (SSBN) on patrol. Before it returns to port, another one of the four Vanguard class boats will head out into the deep ocean, meaning that no matter what occurs, Britain will always have an unreachable nuclear counter-strike facility. That one submarine, always out at sea and submerged, is now Britain’s whole nuclear deterrent; all other nuclear weapons that Britain held during the Cold War, both land based and air-launched, have been decommissioned and dismantled over the last decade. The UK has the smallest nuclear arsenal of all the five nuclear-armed permanent members of the UN Security Council (it is even believed that Israel – undeclared as a nuclear power – now actually possesses more warheads than the UK does). The number of warheads quoted by the Ministry of Defence is now “fewer than 200”, and estimated by independent sources as likely to be around 160.

In comparison to the huge numbers of nuclear weapons held by US and Russia, this small nuclear force that Britain maintains may seem insignificant. But two factors must be remembered; firstly the massive destructive power of those estimated 160 warheads (one SSBN carries armed missiles with the equivalent explosive power of 300 Hiroshima size bombs), and secondly, the vast political value of the weapons – both in terms of realpolitik considerations and in their identity value, keeping Britain amongst the select group of the ‘Great Powers’, as represented by the permanent members of the UN Security Council. France is in a very similar situation with its nuclear forces, and although this paper will focus more specifically on the UK, France is indeed crucial to much that follows.


Simply put, nuclear weapons make France and the UK special – be that for better or worse. Particularly within the European Union (EU) their nuclear status makes them exceptional. This paper will consider the apparent changes in British nuclear weapons policy; what this means and the technical, strategic and political reasons behind the change. The second purpose of the paper is to then consider how nuclear weapons in general, and British nuclear posture in particular, will have repercussions on the Common European Security and Defence Policy (CESDP) and possibly the Union more generally, ultimately considering whether a European nuclear force represents the telos of the EU – the logical endpoint of the integration process. Or rather could British nuclear weapons represent a ‘brick wall’ into which European integration will inevitably collide?