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While final authority in the United Kingdom rests in the Parliament, in practice the Prime Minister, advised by the Cabinet, is entrusted with responsibility for directing the defense of the state. According to the British Government, “The final decision about their [nuclear weapons] use rests solely with the British Prime Minister." If the question of use arose, the extent of the Prime Minister's consultations with the Cabinet and the Sovereign would depend on the circumstances, particularly the time available.

It has not been possible to ascertain from the public record whether secret contingency plans exist which would, in extreme circumstances, allow military commanders to initiate the use of nuclear weapons. Circumstances suggest the desirability of minimum delegation beyond the office of the Prime Ministek, but it is conceivable, for instance, that certain British military commanders might have prior authorization to use nuclear weapons in extreme cases, such as the total disruption of established command and control procedures in an ongoing military crisis or conflict.

A significant part of the British tactical nuclear arsenal can be employed only with the consent of the U.S. Government because the warheads were supplied by the United States and, as required by U.S. law, remain under U.S. control. In addition, the question of use of nuclear weapons by British forces assigned to NATO in wartime would be subject to NATO consultation procedures, time and circumstances permitting.


The British nuclear capability-both warheads and delivery systems—has been developed through extensive cooperation with and dependence on the United States. The British strategic nuclear force consists of 4 Polaris submarines, each with 16 ballistic missile launch tubes. The submarines, launchers, and missiles are spinoffs of the U.S. strategic program. The British Government, through its Embassy in Washington, has told CRS that "Polaris remains committed to NATO except in circumstances where NATO ceases to be effective.” The warheads, however, are under British control. Great Britain does not need U.S. approval to launch a nuclear weapon from its Polaris force.

Great Britain also possesses atomic bombs and an array of tactical nuclear weapons. As one author has pointed out, "by the early sixties the tactical nuclear capability in British hands in Europe was im

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* Prepared by Stanley R. Sloan, Analyst in European Affairs, Foreign Affairs Division, Sept. 29, 1975. i Groom, A. J. R."British Thinking About Nuclear Weapons.” London, Frances Pinter, 1974. P. 595. 2 Brown, Neville. “Arms Without Empire.” Baltimore, Penguin Books, 1967. P. 100.

pressive.* * * The actual hardware which formed this capability was of U.S. origin and subject to U.S. control.* * * Only with bomber command did the British have the independent ability to nuclearize a situation in Central Europe--a capability not without significance." 3 In 1967, another author suggested that nuclear weapons carried in Royal Air Force aircraft were "wholly under British control."' 4 Whether this is the case or not, it is apparently true that at least some of the nuclear weapons available for use by British aircraft are free of the U.S. veto. The British capability, as evaluated by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, includes the following systems capable of a tactical nuclear role:

Systems whose warheads are under U.S. custody and control:
Honest John unguided rocket (being replaced by U.S. Lance rocket).
M-110 8-inch self-propelled and towed howitzers.

Systems whose warheads are under either United States or United Kingdom control:

Vulcan medium range bomber
F-4, Buccanneer, and Jaguar strike aircraft.



While final authority in the United Kingdom rests in the Parliament, in practice the Prime Minister, advised by the Cabinet, is entrusted with responsibility for directing the defense of the state. The Official British Handbook for 1975 says: "Supreme responsibility for national defense rests with the Prime Minister and the Cabinet, who are responsible to Parliament. Defense problems and their relationship with foreign and economic policy are dealt with on the Cabinet's behalf by the Committee on Defense and Overseas Policy, under the chairmanship of the Prime Minister." 6

In response to a CRS query, the British Government through its Embassy in Washington made the following statement about authority in Great Britain over the use of nuclear weapons: "The Secretary of State for Defense said in Parliament in July 1974 that the whole of the United Kingdom's nuclear capability is committed to NATO and that our weapons remain subject to political control through alliance consultations procedures and could in no circumstances be used without the consent of British ministers. The statement applies to the British Polaris force and to U.S. weapons stored in the United Kingdom for United Kingdom use. The final decision about their use rests solely with the British Prime Minister.7

It seems reasonable to assume that the Prime Minister, !efore ordering the use of nuclear weapons, would attempt t, hold consultations within his government before issuing such an order. In a crisis situation, the extent of consultations undertaken by the Prime Minister before authorizing the use of nuclear weapons would presumably depend on the circumstances, particularly the time available. The practice of collegial decisions is more a part of the British parliamentary cabinet than of the U.S. Presidential system. In certain cir

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3 Groom. op. cit., p. 513. 4 Brown. op. cit., p. 115. 6 International Institute for Strategic Studies. “The Military Balance 1974–75.” London, 1974. Pp. 76–77. 6 Her Majesty's Stationery Office. Britain, Official Handbook, 1975. London, 1974. P. 112. 7 Italic supplied.


cumstances, however, a Prime Minister might not be able to hold Cabinet consultations. In the case of an enemy attack requiring retaliation by the United Kingdom's strategic force, the time could be severely limited. In other cases, however, some warning and possibly a period of conventional hostilities might precede such a decision, allowing a somewhat longer time for consultations. The Prime Minister might in any case feel obligated to discuss the recommended course of action with the Queen (or King) in the sovereign's role as head of state.

While the British Government has stated (see above) that the final decision about the use of nuclear weapons rests solely with the British Prime Minister, the question remains whether secret contingency plans exist which would, in extreme circumstances, allow military commanders to initiate the use of nuclear weapons. During the 1950's, when the West had clear nuclear superiority over the Soviet Union, it was argued both in Washington and London that field commanders should be given some flexibility, granted in contingency or ers, to determine whether or not defense of their units required the use of nuclear weapons. The British perception of the inability of their own conventional forces, even in concert with other NATO forces, to mount a credible conventional defense against a Soviet attack in Europe also argued for some flexibility for field commanders. According to A. J. R. Groom, "some recognition of the latter problem [of conventional weakness) was made in an Anglo-American proposal to the NATO meeting in Athens in May 1962 that NATO commanders in the field should be in a position to prescribe the use of tactical nuclear weapons under certain circumstances by authority delegated a short while in advance. Thus the view of the United States appeared to be approaching that of British action policy in virtually dispensing with the conventional pause, given that few commanders were likely to risk being

But with the emergence of rough nuclear parity between East and West, the initiation of nuclear combat, even at the tactical level, took on new meaning. The doctrine of flexible response, adopted as NATO strategy in 1967 after nearly 5 years of prodding by the United States, called (among other things) for the strengthening of conventional forces with the aim of confining the level of conflict to the use of conventional arms or of lengthening the period of time before NATO would be compelled to resort to tactical nuclear weapons. Flexible response in this respect puts a high premium on the management of the level of conflict. It makes imperative a tight system of control over battlefield tactics and assurance that any escalation to nuclear weapons will be deferred as long as possible.10 In this connec

overrun." 9

p. 17.

8 U.S. Congress. Senate. Nuclear weapons and foreign policy. Hearings before the Subcommittee on U.S. Security Agreements and Commitments Abroad and the Subcommittee on Armed Control, International Law and Organization. Statement of Dr. Morton H. Halperin,

9 Groom, op. cit., p. 517 (italic supplied). 10 As one expert has put it: ".

it is doubtful whether in a military conflict in which both sides are using nuclear weapons, the required political and military control of these weapons could be guaranteed. ... A political control of the use of TNW sufficiently flexible to take into account the actual military situation seems far from assured if one considers the time likely to be needed for the conveyance of detailed military information and for the process of political consultations in NATO. Time could only really be saved by delegating the release authority to the military commander, but the delegation of political responsibility, or even the predefinition of binding rules to apply in the event for political consultation seem for the present to be politically unattainable." Heisenberg, Wolfgang. The Alliance International Institute for Strategic Studies, Adelphi Papers, 1973, p. 16. and Europe ; Part 1: Crisis Stability in Europe and Theatre Nuclear Weapons. London,

tion, Britain is acutely aware that by itself it has relatively limited means of conducting nuclear war.

These circumstances suggest the desirability of minimum delegation of authority to use nuclear weapons beyond the office of the Prime Minister and in any case of very strictly defining any such authority that is delegated. It is conceivable, for instance, that certain British military commanders might have prior authorization to use nuclear weapons in extreme cases, such as the total disruption of established command and control procedures in an ongoing military crisis or conflict. Tending to constrain delegation of authority, however, are certain political considerations such as the reluctance of a Labor government, because of the traditional antimilitaristic views of its left wing, to expand the authority of British military officers.


As mentioned earlier, the United Kingdom has a number of warheads under exclusive British control, including the Polaris weapons, which a British Government could use to initiate nuclear warfare without external approval or consultations, should it so desire. The maintenance of an independent nuclear capability remains important to Great Britain in terms of national prestige. But British defense policy is founded on a close bilateral relationship with the United States and multilateral ties with the United States and the other allies in NATO. Only in extreme cases, including that of an imminent nuclear attack on the British Isles, would Great Britain be likely to use nuclear weapons without advance consultation with the United States and other allies.

Most of the warheads for the British tactical nuclear force are of U.S. origin and under U.S. control. They can be used only with the approval of the U.S. Government. Furthermore, the British forces using them are earmarked for assignment to NATO. In the NATO framework, the use of nuclear weapons by British forces assigned to the Supreme Allied Commander, Europe (SACEUR) requires a specific order from him. SACEUR must obtain permission from political authorities—the NATO Council and member governments." Although Britain would have the option of not assigning its forces to SACEUR, the chances that the United Kingdom would hold back its forces earmarked for NATO in the case of a war in the NATO area seem slim indeed.12

The NATO allies, meeting in Athens in 1962, agreed on a set of rules governing allied consultations on the use of nuclear weaponsthe "Athens Guidelines.” The guidelines, which are classified, have been elaborated in the intervening years. U.S. Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger described the guidelines in the following terms in testimony before subcommittees of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1974:


** * in 1962 the Alliance established what has become known as the Athens Guidelines, which deal with the question of consultation in a variety of situations involving aggression against NATO. Subsequent elaborations of the Guidelines

11 Hansard; House of Commons, vol. 629, cols. 34-5x, 8. xi 60, Joseph Godber, Joint Under Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs.

12 Most NATO forces remain under national command "earmarked” for NATO unless and until member countries decide to "assign” them to the NATO command, as would be expected in time of war.

provided that special weight be accorded the views of those NATO countries on or from whose territory nuclear weapons would be employed, countries providing the nuclear warheads, or the countries providing or manning nuclear delivery systems. The necessity of avoiding inflexible or overly elaborate procedures which might inhibit action or endanger the credibility of the deterrent also was recognized.

In accord with these principles, procedures and channels were established through which national capitals could be consulted and would be able to transmit their views through the North Atlantic Council or the NATO Defense Planning Committee (DPC) to the nuclear powers, or directly capital to capital. Requests for use of nuclear weapons in defense of NATO by a member government or major NATO commander, or a proposal to use weapons by a nuclear power, would be communicated directly to NATO governments and to the Council/DPC, where interest likely would center on the political and military objectives and consequences of the proposed use and nonuse. The views of countries expressed there would be communicated to the nuclear power or powers concerned by the fastest means available.

Two additional points should be made: First, it is well understood that the agreed consultation procedures would be exercised, time and circumstances permitting. Secondly, the nuclear power or powers have the responsibility for making the decision on whether or not nuclear weapons will be used.13

Thus, the members of the NATO Defense Planning Committee, including Great Britain, have agreed to certain "consultation procedures' concerning the use of nuclear weapons in the case of aggiession against NATO unless time and circumstances do not allow such consultations to take place. But the ultimate decision rests with the nuclear powers, in this case the United Kingdom.

13 U.S. Congress. Senate. op. cit., p. 157.

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