A Brief History
On October 3, 1952, (October 2 local date), the British became the third country to boast the possession of atomic weapons when Operation Hurricane resulted in a successful nuclear blast in the Monte Bello Islands of Western Australia. The United States had first achieved nuclear fission in bomb form on July 16, 1945, in a famous/infamous blast called the Trinity test in the desert of New Mexico, the culmination of a joint Allied effort to design and field an atomic bomb, an effort that the United Kingdom had contributed to. So why was the UK not included in the nuclear club right off the bat?
Before we address that question, we note that on August 29, 1949, the Soviet Union conducted their first successful nuclear explosion test, over 3 years before the UK joined the nuclear club. Why would a country involved in the very first nuclear bomb not the co-initial nuclear club member, or at least the second?
During World War II, while the Allies, led by the United States and the United Kingdom fought for the survival of the democratic world , the decision was made for the nuclear bomb programs of both nations be combined in the American Manhattan Project, with British scientists and research from the “Tube Alloys” project given over to the American project. The Manhattan Project employed scientists from other European countries as well as the US and UK, in the relative safety and operational security of the American mainland. Conducting research and testing in Britain would conversely leave the scientists and their work vulnerable to possible attack by Germany.
After successfully developing both the implosion type and the “gun” type of nuclear bombs, and dropping one of each type on Japan (August 6 and August 9, 1945), the United States jealously guarded their status as the only nuclear armed nation in the world. The American Atomic Energy Act of 1946 (McMahon Act) precluded the US from sharing atomic bomb technology with any other country, including the UK! Considering the UK provided as much assistance as possible in the initial development of nukes, the British were not surprisingly put off by American intransigence. The British reasonably believed the invention of nuclear weapons had been a “joint” effort along with the United States and were somewhat taken aback by the US monopoly on the technology. Especially after the Soviet successful nuclear detonation, the decision to make Britain a nuclear power was deemed necessary by British leadership if Britain were to remain one of the “Great Powers” of the world.
British efforts to develop nuclear weapons went at a much slower pace than had the Manhattan Project, and even after the initial successful nuclear test in 1952 the UK struggled to produce viable nuclear bombs in numbers needed to provide a credible deterrent. Later British success and development of fusion type “thermonuclear” or “Hydrogen” weapons led to an American reassessment of the nuclear arms situation and the McMahon Act was amended in 1958 and the US–UK Mutual Defence Agreement was signed to make the US and UK partners in nuclear deterrence of the Soviet nuclear threat. Since 1958, the US and UK have once again shared nuclear technology and also weapons delivery systems, allowing Britain to field nuclear armed ballistic missile submarines as a result.
The military of the United Kingdom now fields a nuclear arsenal of about 215 warheads, less than half the number deployed during the Cold War. Only about 120 of those warheads are in ready to deliver status, the others being part of a stockpile. Delivery means include a variety of airplanes as well as missile armed submarines. The close alliance between the US and the UK means Britain is also defended by the much more substantial American nuclear arsenal, consisting of over 6000 nuclear warheads, although only about 3800 are considered operational. American delivery systems are far more varied and numerous than British delivery systems.
Question for students (and subscribers): Should Britain maintain their own nuclear arsenal? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Baker, David. Nuclear Weapons: 1945 Onwards (Strategic and Tactical Delivery Systems). Haynes Publishing UK, 2017.
Bird, Peter. Operation Hurricane: A Personal Account of the British Nuclear Test at Monte Bello, 1952. Square One Publications, 1989.
The featured image in this article, a photograph of the mud-laden cauliflower explosion, is Crown Copyright, because it is owned by the Australian Government or that of the states or territories, and is in the public domain, because it was created or published prior to 1969 and the copyright has therefore expired. The government of Australia has declared that the expiration of Crown Copyrights applies worldwide. This image is available from the Collection Database of the Australian War Memorial under the ID Number: P00444.045