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Future Nuclear Threats to the UK

Malcolm Chalmers and Cristina Varriale
Occasional Papers, 15 July 2016
Proliferation and Nuclear Policy, Defence Policy, Trident, UK Defence
This paper provides a systematic analysis of the nuclear threats that the UK faces and how these are likely to evolve in the coming decades

This paper assesses how nuclear threats to the UK might develop over the next 30 years.

Nuclear threats to the UK could emerge, during this time period, in the context of an armed conflict between the UK and a state that has the ability to threaten the UK with nuclear attack. Both of the most plausible scenarios for such a conflict relate to the UK’s projection of conventional military power. First, there are potential threats to the UK homeland and deployed forces that could emerge as a result of the fulfilment of its collective security obligations in defence of treaty allies. Second, nuclear threats could emerge as a result of military involvement in regional conflicts in defence of other UK and allied interests, for example in the Middle East or Northeast Asia.

In both cases, an opponent might seek to manipulate the possibility that it might launch a nuclear attack on the UK in order to deter or coerce it into changing its behaviour, for example by desisting from any conventional military action. Nuclear threats could include the possibility of attacks on UK deployed forces, seeking to weaken their operational effectiveness. However, the central strategic threat would be the possibility of an attack on the UK homeland itself. An opponent could also launch demonstration nuclear strikes in order to convince British leaders of the seriousness of its intent.

About the Authors

Professor Malcolm Chalmers is Deputy Director-General at RUSI. He was a member of the consultative panel for both the 2010 and 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Reviews (SDSR), and was a special adviser to Parliament’s Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy (2011–15). He is Honorary Visiting Professor at the University of Exeter and was Visiting Professor in the Department of War Studies, Kings College, London.

Cristina Varriale is a Research Analyst in the Proliferation and Nuclear Policy Team. She
specialises in non-proliferation, arms control and deterrence policy.

Author

Malcolm Chalmers
Deputy Director-General

Professor Malcolm Chalmers is Deputy Director-General of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI). His research is focused on UK... read more

Cristina Varriale
Research Analyst

Cristina Varriale is a Research Analyst with RUSI’s Proliferation and Nuclear Policy Team. Her research interests include extended... read more

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