Nuclear Education Trust

The British Bomb and NATO

New study finds role of UK's nuclear contribution to NATO is 'exaggerated'

A new report on the contribution that Britain's nuclear weapons make to the NATO alliance concludes that their political significance ‘may be exaggerated’ and their role in relationships with NATO partners is ‘hotly contested’.

The report, published 1st December 2015 by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) and the UK-based Nuclear Education Trust (NET), shows that UK strategic nuclear weapons have been a constant ‘contribution’ to NATO nuclear doctrine since the late 1950s but that ‘the exact nature of that contribution has become increasingly obscure since the end of the Cold War’.

The report, ‘The British bomb and NATO: Six decades of ‘contributing’ to NATO’s strategic nuclear deterrent’, reviews the NATO political and military structures that influence the UK's nuclear weapons policy, how the UK's contribution to NATO's nuclear forces is valued by NATO allies, and the implications for NATO-UK relations of a decision not to replace Trident.

The analysis is particularly topical in the light of the current UK Strategic Defence and Security Review and the imminent 'Main Gate' decision on Trident replacement. Strategic arguments for Britain retaining nuclear weapons have tended to fall into three broad categories: use in the last resort to deter a nuclear attack or nuclear blackmail; to provide reassurance in a potential future with many nuclear powers; and that an independent UK nuclear weapon system is necessary for Britain’s role in NATO.

The report is also topical given that NATO is re-evaluating the role of nuclear scenarios and the use of nuclear weapons in its crisis-management exercises. According to a recently declassified US intelligence review, a nuclear weapons command exercise by NATO in November 1983, known as Able Archer, almost led to an inadvertent nuclear war.

SIPRI's Ian Davis, who authored the report, said: “Despite Russian nuclear sabre rattling, it was only two years ago that Moscow had a seat at the NATO table. Is it really appropriate for the alliance to be returning to such a dangerous practice?

“Instead, the alliance ought to be focusing on how to modernise the rules for reducing tensions, incidents or accidents that create misunderstandings – both conventional and nuclear – to minimise the risk of them spiralling out of control’, he added.

”Given the importance of nuclear weapons in both UK national security and NATO collective security thinking, both the UK Government and NATO ought to be willing to set out in some detail how they see the UK’s nuclear weapons contributing to the alliance’s continuing effectiveness and deterrent capability”

Madeline Held MBE, Chair of the Nuclear Education Trust, said: "This study is extremely timely given the current debate over renewing the UK's Trident nuclear weapons and the government's wish to join other nations taking military action in Syria. The role that the UK plays in NATO is not given enough scrutiny and it is important to understand that we have a range of alternatives and choices in how we can contribute constructively as a nation to the alliance."

The report was launched Tuesday 1st December 2015, Betty Boothroyd Room, Portcullis House, London, chaired by Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb. Read the full press release here.

Author Ian Davis

Dr Ian Davis joined SIPRI in November 2014. As Director of the SIPRI Editorial, Publications and Library Department he is responsible for supervising SIPRI's team of editors and managing the departmental budget and work flow. He is also responsible for all aspects of producing the flagship SIPRI publication, the SIPRI Yearbook, as Executive Editor. Prior to joining SIPRI he held several senior positions and worked as an independent human security and arms-control consultant. He has a long record of research and publication on international and regional security issues, is a trustee of Maternal & Childhealth Advocacy International (MCAI) and blogs on NATO-related issues at