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In a recent submission to a UK parliamentary committee the former chief of the navy (Lord West) was talking about a policy change which surprised me, that "recently" (some point in the last 10-20 years) the UK have changed policy such that a nuclear attack with a single trident SLBM might be ordered (rather than trident being maintained on a purely strategic basis as part of a global nuclear war).

Lord West was concerned with establishing the legal standing of the submarine commander in such a launch (the commander not being aware of the target) but I'm curious about the broader issues.

  • Who changed his policy and when?
  • Why did they do it?
  • What were some of the scenarios they envisaged where this would be helpful?
  • Is the intention that trident in this way be used tactically or to establish strategic deterrence (through blackmail, MAD, etc) on a more regional scale?
  • Is this precedented among other nuclear-armed nations?
  • Was there significant reaction from major players?

I've tried a little searching and googling but have found little. But not being an expert in this area maybe I just don't know the sweet terms.

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    I don't have Lord West's submission to hand, as I watched the live committee stream. Presumably it made it into Hansard (it was some time in spring). I can dig it out if the [citation required] guys turn up but it's considerable work. – Dannie Aug 24 '19 at 21:02
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    @F1Krazy it's basically asking: what are the circumstances under which the UK's nuclear policy was changed? The bullet points seem much like pointers to me with the scope being sufficiently narrow to have it in one question rather than spread out over multiple context-lacking questions. – JJ for Transparency and Monica Aug 24 '19 at 21:46
  • @F1Krazy, I think this is a nice question. Splitting it into six would just confuse things. – o.m. Aug 25 '19 at 11:44
  • @Dannie, finding an official record would be helpful. – o.m. Aug 25 '19 at 11:45
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    The UK is prepared to launch a nuclear first strike against small rogue states in response to a chemical or biological threat. That wouldn't take a lot of missiles. Is that the kind of thing he's referring to? I'll have a go at answering this, but if you check out the UKs statements on how it would react to these small regional threats, it fits the timeline – Nathan Cooper Aug 25 '19 at 17:51
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With the withdrawal from service of the other parts of Britain's nuclear triad (air launched and ground based weapons, the latter AFAIK not having existed for a long time) the Trident force is now (and has been for some time) the sole nuclear deterrent in the UK arsenal.

As such, it has had to take over the limited strike capability previously guaranteed by the nuclear free fall bombs carried by Tornado aircraft (and prior to those Jaguars and Buccaneers for example).

This required the change in policy and status of the Trident fleet submarines indicated in your question.

So this change came about due to Her Majesty's government's decision to retire the nuclear weapons carried by RAF strike aircraft. This happened in 1998.

At the same time all Trident missiles had their pre-selected targets removed, and targeting would hence be performed by the submarine crew prior to launch.

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