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The Prime Minister's Dead Hand

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I try to make history readable and interesting, warts and all. We must look to the past to understand the present and confront the future.

British Nuclear Submarine

A British Vanguard-class submarine leaving its base on the Clyde. Aboard is the Prime Minister's Letter of Last Resort.

A British Vanguard-class submarine leaving its base on the Clyde. Aboard is the Prime Minister's Letter of Last Resort.

Letters of Last Resort

Mutually Assured Destruction, the Doomsday Clock, the Dead Hand: dramatic terms-- perhaps even melodramatic-- which refer to the horrors and inevitable mutual destruction wrought by an exchange of nuclear weapons. The British, in their typically understated and emotionally restrained manner, have Letters of Last Resort.

The Letters of Last Resort are a mechanism which ensures that, should the United Kingdom be destroyed in a nuclear strike and the British Prime Minister and a “second person” designated by the Prime Minister are both dead, at least one British ballistic missile submarine on duty-- and there is always one somewhere in the ocean-- is under orders to carry out the dead Prime Minister's last order. In a safe inside a safe inside the submarine is the Prime Minister's Letter of Last Resort. Depending on those orders, the submarines' captains have the authority and the duty to launch their Trident ballistic missiles as the final act of the British state.

Scottish Submarine Base

Faslane Naval Base, HMNB Clyde, Scotland. Home of the Vanguard class submarines which carry the UK's current nuclear arsenal.

Faslane Naval Base, HMNB Clyde, Scotland. Home of the Vanguard class submarines which carry the UK's current nuclear arsenal.

Nuclear Deterrent

One of a Prime Minister's first acts is to write his or her Letter of Last Resort. It is a sobering experience, deciding to launch missiles when your country no longer exists-- or to not launch them, or anything in between. What is crucial is that every potential nuclear enemy knows that such letters exist, otherwise Britain's nuclear arsenal serves no purpose as a deterrent to a first strike against the country. Besides the Prime Minister, no one knows what the letter contains. When a Prime Minister leaves office, the letters are destroyed without opening them.

In the days when British nuclear weapons were carried by RAF bombers, one Prime Minister, James Callaghan (PM from 1976-1979), stated after leaving office that he would have ordered nuclear retaliation. Until 2016, all other Prime Ministers have remained mum on the contents of their Letter of Last Resort. In a complete break with the past, however, Prime Minister Theresa May, in office only two weeks, was asked if she was prepared to “authorize a nuclear strike that could kill 100,000 innocent men, women and children”. She replied unequivocally, “Yes”.

Submarine Launched Missile

Trident ballistic missile underwater launch.

Trident ballistic missile underwater launch.

Incoming Warhead

Artist's conception of an incoming independently-targetted ballistic warhead.

Artist's conception of an incoming independently-targetted ballistic warhead.

Four Letters, Four Subs

Four identical letters are made; one for each Vanguard class ballistic missile submarine in the Royal Navy. Britain has no land-based missiles or nuclear bombs anymore. The huge subs, nearly 500 feet long and displacing 16,000 tons, are enough of a deterrence. Each of them, HMS Vanguard, HMS Victorious, HMS Vigilant and HMS Vengeance, can carry 16 ballistic missiles having a range of 7,000 miles. With each missile containing up to 12 independently-targeted warheads, a single sub could deliver 192 warheads. Official policy states, however, that only 48 warheads are on board each sub.

HMS Vanguard

A port quarter view of the British nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine HMS Vanguard (SSBN-50) arriving in PORT CANAVERAL, FLORIDA.

A port quarter view of the British nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine HMS Vanguard (SSBN-50) arriving in PORT CANAVERAL, FLORIDA.

Location(s) Unknown

Up to three of the subs may be in port or dry-dock, but one or more is always on patrol. While on patrol, the submarines' locations are unknown. Not even the Navy knows exactly where they are, nor do most of their crews. During a patrol, which may be three months or more, the submarine's 160-person crew may not communicate with anyone, including their families.

Ministry of Defence Building

The Prime Minister's command bunker is located beneath the Ministry of Defence in Whitehall, London.

The Prime Minister's command bunker is located beneath the Ministry of Defence in Whitehall, London.

Should BBC Radio 4 Ever Go Off the Air...

Should the worst happen and the Prime Minister and the “second person” die, the captain of each patrolling submarine runs through a check list of procedures to determine if the government is still functioning. BBC Radio 4, which broadcasts racing tips, cricket test matches and soap operas among other programs, happens to broadcast on a frequency that can be picked up by all four submarines. One of the checks the subs perform to see if civilization has ended is whether they can still receive radio broadcasts from Radio 4. If the checks indicate the UK has ceased to function, the captains open their safes and the safe inside them. They take out the Letter of Last Resort and execute the dead Prime Minister's instructions, which will unleash a punishing retribution from their dead country. Or not.

© 2012 David Hunt

Comments

Edward Lane from Wichita Falls, Texas on April 12, 2020:

I love the last letters understatement of the British. It is fascinating that the captain of a ship may launch a nuclear weapon after his country no longer exists. Thanks for sharing this, David.

Alan R Lancaster from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire) on June 21, 2017:

David, this is something else that bypassed me in the course of time. We have another threat shared with the US: North Korea in the person of Kim Wrong-un, sorry Kim Jong-un.

The dictators of the world must be watching from the sidelines in case Mrs May gets eased out of the hot seat, to be replaced by Comrade Corbyn and his ex-CP sidekick McDonnell. So whilst Comrade Diane Abbott makes all our coppers redundant, Corbyn stands down the army and navy and hangs out the white sheets in the garden at No.10. How much of that is horror fiction?

David Hunt (author) from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on July 23, 2015:

Thanks, stereomike83. May electrical power to the BBC 4 studio never fail.

Mike Hey from UK on July 23, 2015:

Great hub on a really interesting subject. Having read a great book of Britain during the Cuban Missile Crisis (that I have written about here on HP) it showed how tough making those decisions could be during the height of imminent destruction so I cannot imagine how difficult it would be straight after the euphoria of an election win.

David Hunt (author) from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on January 30, 2015:

Thanks, peachpurple. Pop culture screams "DEAD HAND!", "DOOMSDAY CLOCK!"... I love the British understatement: "Letters of Last Resort". Please pass the biscuits. Thank you so much.

peachy from Home Sweet Home on January 29, 2015:

wow awesome story, gave me more knowledge that our country history never taught us.

David Hunt (author) from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on December 03, 2012:

Thanks, Chris. Glad you enjoyed it.

carolina muscle from Charlotte, North Carolina on December 03, 2012:

this is fascinating ! thank you for an interesting read.

David Hunt (author) from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on November 01, 2012:

Thanks for commenting, aethelthryth. Yes, fail-deadly fits. Also, dead man's switch. The Russian's system is called the "Dead Hand". Don't know what America's is called off-hand. But I love the the term "Letters of Last Resort". It's so... British... and proper.

aethelthryth from American Southwest on November 01, 2012:

I have written a lot of safety instructions and was very familiar with the concept of "fail-safe". It was only recently I discovered there is also "fail-deadly". It seems the term was coined mainly for situations such as are explained in your article.

David Hunt (author) from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on October 31, 2012:

Hi Pavlo. Have you ever seen "Dr. Strangelove, Or How I Came To Love The Bomb"? It's an insane movie about an insane situation. The whole concept of mutually assured destruction is anchored by the idea that we build these weapons and they build these weapons and as long as nobody uses these weapons, the strategy works. But if someone uses these weapons, well, the plan sort of falls apart.

That's an interesting link. The whole Cuban Missile Crisis is in the news because of its 50th anniversary. I remember it very well from the viewpoint of a 12-year-old. We thought there was going to be a nuclear war. My understanding is that the Russians came out ahead on the one hand because the Americans had to remove their missiles from Turkey as part of the deal. On the other hand, Krushchev, as part of the deal, couldn't reveal that Turkish missiles were removed and he was removed from power shortly thereafter.

David Hunt (author) from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on October 31, 2012:

AlexK2009, I assume the PM does review the letter's contents as necessary. The instructions in the letter could be anything-- they could even tell the captain(s) of the sub(s) to use their discretion as to whether to launch or even where to target. Thinking about this can start headaches.

Pavlo Badovskyi from Kyiv, Ukraine on October 31, 2012:

Great hub. In fact such things were always kept in secret. Just couple of days ago I read an article quoting extracts from the Kennedy speech which he was supposed in case of nuclear attack in the time of Caribbean crisis in 1962. See link below.

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2218288/Cu...

AlexK2009 from Edinburgh, Scotland on October 31, 2012:

The Soviet Union may be no more but these letters are not obsolete for new enemies arise. The letters could order attacks against any country or selection of countries in the world.

I would hope these letters are reviewed by the current prime minister from time to time. Things can change rapidly

David Hunt (author) from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on October 30, 2012:

Great questions, Larry. The only one I can answer is: LoLR is not obsolete. PM David Cameron (the current PM) wrote one the first day he became PM.

Larry Fields from Northern California on October 30, 2012:

Hi David. Outstanding hub! Now I have a stooopid question: Are the Letters of Last Resort (LoLR)obsolete?

Yes, before the Soviet Union broke up, the LoLR sort of made sense. But now we have more members in the Nuclear Club. And my understanding is that some weapons grade plutonium and uranium is missing.

More to the point, what about a Surreptitious Importation Strike (SIS) against the UK? In an SIS, we'd never know who the perps were. They could even be terrorists who hated Brits and Russians equally. They could kill two birds with one nuclear stone. Well, actually several well-placed nuclear stones, smuggled in cargo containers on ships, and carried to their final destinations on lorries.

Voted up, shared, and more.

David Hunt (author) from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on October 30, 2012:

austin, thanks for your kind comment. It is frightening-- what a high-stakes game. Of course, nuclear war is a smidgeon less likely nowadays, but still. To think those letters could say "stand down" just as well as "strike so and so" could drive you nuts.

Bernard J. Toulgoat from Treasure Coast, Florida on October 30, 2012:

Fascinating read. Frightening too. Pretty clever way to go with a final bang ! I just hope those four letters will never come out of their safe. Thank you for sharing this highly interesting information

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