The Letters of Last Resort

Following on my last post on Surviving a Nuclear War, it’s important to remember that just because Russia launches a Nuclear Missile, it doesn’t necessarily mean we are all doomed. If nothing else we have seen just how inept aspects of Russian military and intelligence are.

If Putin were to give orders for a nuclear attack, first of all they still have to be followed and there is a chance that his senior generals would refuse it and bump him off, not least because it would almost certainly lead Russia being obliterated.

Presuming though that this didn’t happen and a nuclear weapon was aimed at the British Isles, what could we do? It has already been rumoured that aside from using a nuclear device on the battlefields in Ukraine, the next most likely scenario would be for a nuclear warning blast detonated somewhere over the North Sea.

If a nuclear weapon was aimed at the British Isles, then it is likely that the US Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) – also known as the ‘star wars’ defence – could be used to intercept and destroy it. The system was set-up in 1984 under then president Ronald Reagan, while the US and Soviet Union were still engaged in the Cold War.

Edward Lucas, a security expert explained that “very good chance” of nuclear missiles being intercepted, over the UK, with the aid of the star wars defence.

The Government could also opt to make use of the military’s Type 45 destroyer vessels, which could use their defensive capabilities to fend off any nuclear attack.

For example, if it was deemed necessary, these ships could be placed in the Thames Estuary to defend London and the surrounding areas. These vessels have a radar that can track and destroy targets the size of a cricket ball 250 miles away and it has been reported they have to switch off some capabilities to allow Nato allies a chance in war games. Whilst not part of an integrated Star Wars system, a couple of those along east coast of the U.K. would likely make a formidable defence.

HMS Dragon, a Daring Class Destroyer

Since April 1969, the Royal Navy has maintained continuous at sea deterrence, with at least one nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarine patrolling the seas undetected at all times. Their fundamental purpose is to preserve peace, prevent coercion, and deter aggression.

In fact, the continuous at sea deterrent (CASD) is the most capable, resilient, and cost-effective platform on which to deploy Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson (God help us all) is also the only person who can authorise the use of our nuclear weapons, even if deployed as part of a North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) response.

The Government states it would consider using the UK’s nuclear weapons “only in extreme circumstances of self-defence, including the defence of our NATO allies”.

But what would happen if everything that could go wrong, did. No-one is left alive. In that case we come to the Letters of Last Resort. These are four identically-worded handwritten letters from the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom to the commanding officers of the four British ballistic missile submarines. They contain orders on what action to take in the event that an enemy nuclear strike has destroyed the British government, and has killed or otherwise incapacitated both the prime minister and their designated “second person”, typically a high-ranking member of the Cabinet, such as the Deputy Prime Minister or the First Secretary of State, to whom the prime minister has designated the responsibility of choosing how to act, in the event that they die in office. In the event that the orders are carried out, the action taken could be the last official act of the United Kingdom..

If the letters are not used during the term of the prime minister who wrote them, they are destroyed unopened after that person leaves office, so that their content remains unknown to anyone except the issuer.

A new prime minister writes a set of letters immediately after taking office and being told by the Chief of the Defence Staff “precisely what damage a Trident missile could cause”. The documents are then delivered to the submarines in sealed envelopes, and the previous prime minister’s letters are destroyed without being opened.

In the event of the deaths of both the prime minister and the designated alternative decision-maker as a result of a nuclear strike, the commander(s) of any nuclear submarine(s) on patrol at the time would use a series of checks to ascertain whether the letters of last resort must be opened.

According to Peter Hennessy’s book The Secret State: Whitehall and the Cold War, 1945 to 1970, the process by which a Vanguard-class submarine commander would determine if the British government continues to function includes, amongst other checks, establishing whether BBC Radio 4 continues broadcasting.

In 1983, the procedure for Polaris submarines was to open the envelopes if there was an evident nuclear attack, or if all UK naval broadcasts had ceased for four hours.

While the contents of these letters are secret, according to the December 2008 BBC Radio 4 documentary The Human Button, there were four known options given to the prime minister to include in the letters. The prime minister might instruct the submarine commander to:

  • retaliate with nuclear weapons;
  • not retaliate;
  • use their own judgement; or,
  • place the submarine under an allied country’s command, if possible. The documentary mentions Australia and the United States.

The Guardian reported in 2016 that the options are said to include: “Put yourself under the command of the US, if it is still there”, “Go to Australia”, “Retaliate”, or “Use your own judgement”. The actual option chosen remains known only to the writer of the letter.

It’s sobering to think that this submarine captain may be on of the last British citizens alive, would he fire back if somehow Allied weapons hadn’t been let off at Russia, would he head to the USA or America to try and rebuild a society based on British values or would the last act of the United Kingdom to be unload nuclear weapons on a largely dead planet.

About Stephen Liddell

I am a writer and traveller with a penchant for history and getting off the beaten track. With several books to my name including several #1 sellers. I also write environmental, travel and history articles for magazines as well as freelance work. I run my private tours company with one tour stated by the leading travel website as being with the #1 authentic London Experience. Recently I've appeared on BBC Radio and Bloomberg TV and am waiting on the filming of a ghost story on British TV. I run my own private UK tours company (Ye Olde England Tours) with small, private and totally customisable guided tours run by myself!
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2 Responses to The Letters of Last Resort

  1. Ankur Mithal says:

    Even the defence mechanism sounds scary! I suppose time to take mankind’s wonderful ability to destroy each other to the Moon or Mars now, to act in case all Earth-based life gets wiped out.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Sanctions are crippling the economy of ‘Fortress Russia’ | From guestwriters

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