Using as an example the effect on Britain of a Trident sized force

The Use of Trident in War

By Paul Rogers, September 2000

Although there are few details of British nuclear targeting policy in the public domain, it is possible to indicate the effects of an attack by a Trident-sized nuclear force if it was conducted against a country such as Britain. By using Britain as an example, it is more easy to appreciate the effects of a nuclear force such as Trident.

Direct information on British nuclear targeting is available from some declassified sources and from occasional government statements. (1) There is more substantial information available on alliance nuclear targeting strategy (2), and there are indications of the manner in which Britain would be targeted by an opposing state stemming from civil defence exercises especially the ’Square Leg” exercises of the Cold War years (3).

Alliance targeting is known to have been made up of four groups of targets. Nuclear and related facilities comprised 5% of the total and conventional military targets, including naval and air bases, barracks and supply depots made up 50%. About 8% of targets concerned the political and military leadership including command bunkers and key communications and intelligence facilities. The remaining targets, rather more than a third of the total, comprised economic and industrial targets, including war-supporting industries such as munitions and weapons factories, transport and energy facilities and industries that might contribute to economic recovery after a nuclear war.

Because British independent nuclear targeting has placed a premium on being able to destroy the Greater Moscow region, there would be a concentration on the targeting of this centre, but this would form part of a wider targeting process analogous to the alliance targeting just described.

The British Trident fleet is theoretically capable of providing four boats each with 16 missiles each carrying three 100-kiloton warheads. In practice, government statements and data on missile orders from the United States indicates that there is provision for missiles sufficient to arm three boats. Some missiles might carry single ’sub-strategic” (tactical) warheads, but such a limitation could be countered by arming other missiles with more than three warheads. Assuming a Trident capability amounting to 144 warheads, each of 100 kilotons, is a reasonable indication of the power of the Trident force.

The September 1980 ’Square Leg” civil defence exercise was based on an attack on Britain involving 130 Soviet warheads. Knowledge from that exercise, from a Soviet map of UK military locations, and from material on alliance targeting makes it possible to indicate the range of targets that a nuclear force of the size of Trident fleet might attack, if applied to Britain. Nuclear Bases

The main targets would be the Trident base at Faslane and the nuclear armaments site at Coulport, both close to Glasgow. Supporting facilities at bases including Rosyth (near Edinburgh) and Devonport (near Plymouth) would also be attacked. US nuclear facilities at Lakenheath in Suffolk would be targeted, as would the support base and possible forward-operating base for B-2 nuclear bombers at Fairford in Gloucestershire. Communications facilities directly related to Trident, including the ELF transmitting station near Rugby, would be targeted, as would the Ballistic Missile Early Warning Station at Fylingdales near Scarborough. The nuclear weapons production centre at Aldermaston/Burghfield, close to Reading and west of London, would be a key target. Conventional Forces

A range of some scores of conventional military facilities would be targeted, with this including civilian facilities available to the military in time of war. Included in this would be RAF and RN Aviation bases throughout the UK, including RAF Leuchars, RNAS Lossiemouth, several RAF bases in the East Midlands and East Anglia and transport bases such as Brize Norton near Oxford and Lyneham in Wiltshire. In addition to Faslane, Rosyth and Devonport, Portsmouth would be a direct naval target, and ports available to the navy including Hull and Aberdeen would also be targeted.

Army bases throughout Britain, most notably the larger bases such as Aldershot and Catterick would be targeted, as would supply depots. Civil airports, especially those with substantial facilities and long runways, would be targeted,, including Heathrow, Stanstead, Gatwick, Birmingham, Manchester, Glasgow, Prestwick and Edinburgh. Most are necessarily close to large centres of population. Command and Control and Political and Military Leadership.

Major military command centres would include Northwood (Navy) and High Wycombe (RAF) near London, Dunfermline (Navy) near Edinburgh and Porstmouth (Navy). District army centres include London, Colchester, Brecon, York, Preston and Edinburgh. Intelligence centres include MI5, MI6 and Defence Intelligence Staff in Central London, GCHQ at Cheltenham and Menwith Hill near Leeds and Bradford. Political leadership is in London, Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast Economic and Industrial Targets

Commercial and industrial centres would include London, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Belfast, Cardiff, Swansea, Bristol, Birmingham, Coventry, Manchester, Leicester, Nottingham, Derby, Middlesborough, Newcastle, Dundee and Aberdeen.

Energy resources would be particularly significant and would include refineries and petrochemical complexes such as Grangemouth, Teeside, Stanlow/Ellesmere Port, Milford Haven, Fawley and the Thames Estuary. North Sea oil and gas facilities, especially those in Scotland, would be prime targets, as would the remaining large coal-field at Selby in North Yorkshire and major power stations such as Drax and Tilbury.

Transport concentrations would include the Severn, Forth and Dartford river crossings, major rail junctions and motorway interchanges, and communications facilities would include the more powerful radio and TV transmitters and microwave towers, many of them in or close to centres of population. Casualties

The targeting outlined above gives no more than a limited indication of the total target list if a Trident-sized force was targeted on Britain, but the Trident force itself would have a broadly similar targeting capability against another state. Total casualties are very difficult to estimate, but the “Hard Rock” and other civil defence exercises of the Cold War years presupposed many millions of immediate deaths with many more millions in the days and months afterwards.

The Hiroshima bomb was rated at about 13 kilotons and killed over 100,000 people. Each Trident warhead is about eight times as powerful. Many of the targets attacked would be in or adjacent to large centres of population and casualty figures would be of the order of those expected if Britain was similarly attacked, measured in many millions.


(1) RAF Nuclear Deterrent Forces, by Humphrey Wynn (HMSO 1994) was originally written as a classified account but was subsequently declassified and published. It includes an assessment of the independent use of British nuclear forces, for example a 1957 Chiefs of Staff Committee that “If the UK should be forced to take unilateral retaliation against the USSR, the target policy of bomber command should be to attack the Soviet centres of administration and population.’ An account of British nuclear targeting that singles out the perceived importance of targeting the Greater Moscow region is Lawrence Freedman’s ’British Nuclear Targeting”, a chapter in Strategic Nuclear Targeting, edited by Desmond Ball and Jeffrey Richelson (Cornell University Press, 1986).

(2) See, in particular: Desmond Ball, Targeting for Strategic Deterrence, Adelphi Paper No 185, International Institute of Strategic Studies, London, 1983.

(3) See, Paul Rogers, “Possible Nuclear Attack Scenarios on Britain”, Procedings of the Conference on Nuclear Deterrence, Implications and Policy Options for the 1980s, International Standing Conference on Conflict and Peace Studies, London, 1982.