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Arms Control and Proliferation Profile: The United Kingdom
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Updated: February 2015

This profile summarizes the major arms control agreements, regimes, initiatives, and practices that the United Kingdom subscribes to and those that it does not. It also describes the major weapons programs, policies, and holdings of the United Kingdom, as well as its proliferation record. This profile is one of a series focused on the arms control record and status of key states, all of which are available on the Arms Control Association’s Website at http://www.armscontrol.org.

Major Multilateral Arms Control Agreements and Treaties




Biological Weapons Convention



Chemical Weapons Convention



Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty

-Has linked its signature to that of India.



Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT)

-Has developed nuclear weapons outside the treaty.



Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons

-Party to four of the five protocols.[1]



Conventional Armed Forces in Europe Treaty



Outer Space Treaty



Ottawa Mine Ban Convention

-Banned exports of antipersonnel landmines, but retains and deploys them for defensive purposes.



Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material (CPPNM)



CPPNM 2005 Amendment

- - -


International Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism





Export Control Regimes, Nonproliferation Initiatives, and Safeguards

Australia Group: Member.

Missile Technology Control Regime: Member.

Nuclear Suppliers Group: Member.

Wassenaar Arrangement: Member.

International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Additional Protocol: Yes, entered into force in 2004.

Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism: Participant.

Hague Code of Conduct against Ballistic Missile Proliferation: Participant.

Proliferation Security Initiative: Participant.

UN Security Council Resolutions 1540 and 1673: The United Kingdom has filed the requested reports on its activities to fulfill the resolutions and volunteered to provide assistance to other states.

Major Weapons Programs, Policies, and Practices

Biological Weapons:

The United Kingdom had an active biological warfare program from 1936 to 1956. As part of that program, the United Kingdom weaponized anthrax and researched plague, typhoid fever, and botulinum toxin. Today, the British government operates an extensive and sophisticated defensive program that includes research on potentially offensive pathogens.

Chemical Weapons:

During World War I, the United Kingdom produced an arsenal of chlorine and mustard gases. In the 1950s the UK abandoned its offensive capability. In the 1990s the UK joined the Chemical Weapons Convention, and has provided assistance to countries such as Russia to destroy their chemical weapons stockpiles. [2]

Conventional Weapons Trade:

The United Kingdom is a key arms exporter. In 2007, the British government volunteered to the United Nations Register of Conventional Arms that in 2006 the United Kingdom had exported two tanks, 37 armored combat vehicles, eight attack helicopters and one missile system, as well as more than 359,000 small arms and light weapons. In a September 2007 arms trade report, the U.S. Congressional Research Service reported that the United Kingdom had agreed to $3.1 billion in new arms export deals in 2006. [3] From 2007 to 2010, the United Kingdom made $14.7 billion in arms trade agreements. From 2003 to 2010, the UK was the third highest supplier of arms to developing nations. [4]

The United Kingdom is spearheading an initiative to negotiate an arms trade treaty to establish standards for global arms exports. In 2008, the UK helped cosponsor a UN Draft Resolution that established a series of Open Ended Working Groups that began to lay the groundwork leading to talks on an Arms Trade Treaty (ATT). In July 2012 the United Nations is holding negotiations to try and draft an ATT.

The Nuclear Arsenal, an Overview:

The United Kingdom reduced its deployed strategic warheads to 120, of which no more than 40 are at sea on the Vanguard class submarines at any given time. As of 2014, the United Kingdom possessed a total of 225 warheads. Previously in October 2010, the UK government announced plans to reduce its total nuclear weapons stockpile to 180 weapons by the mid-2020s. The difference (60 nuclear weapons) will be maintained, but not deployed. [5]

Delivery Systems


  • Ballistic Missiles: The United Kingdom’s nuclear deterrence strategy consists exclusively of sea based components.

  • Submarine Launched Ballistic Missiles: The United Kingdom maintains one type of ballistic missile system in its arsenal for delivering nuclear warheads. That missile is the U.S.-origin Trident II (D5) submarine-launched ballistic missile, which has an estimated range of roughly 7,400 kilometers. [2]

  • Cruise Missiles: The United Kingdom does not possess nuclear capable cruise missiles.


  • The British military currently operates four Vanguard class Trident nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs). Each submarine is equipped with 16 Trident II (D5) missiles, each of these missiles carry up to three 100 kt warheads [6].

  • In June 2012, the British government awarded a contract to Rolls-Royce to build two new nuclear submarine reactor cores. The second core is for the first Successor class vessel, which will be a new generation of nuclear submarines that carry the Trident missiles. The new generation of SSBN are not scheduled to enter service until 2028. [7]

  • British nuclear warheads are only deployed via submarines. Currently, the government maintains four Vanguard-class submarines that carry Trident missiles, which are projected to start reaching the end of their service lives in the early 2020s. In June 2012, the British government awarded a contract to Rolls-Royce to build two new nuclear submarine reactor cores. The second core is for the first Successor class vessel, which will be a new generation of nuclear submarines that carry the Trident missiles. The government will decide in 2016 whether or not to approve full production of the new submarines. [8]There has been political debate over this issue, as the coalition government is currently split over whether or not to spend the money on this project, or find a cheaper alternative. [9]

Strategic Bombers

  • The United Kingdom does not possess nuclear capable aircrafts.  Britain’s dismantlement of the RAF’s gravity based nuclear bombs in 1998 marked the beginning of its maritime-only deterrence strategy. [10]

Nuclear Doctrine

In May 2000, the British government reaffirmed a commitment not to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapon states-parties to the NPT subject to certain conditions regarding their behavior and alliances. London refuses to rule out the first use of nuclear weapons, but has stated that it would only employ such arms in self-defense and “even then only in extreme circumstances.” In 2002 and again in 2003, the British government stated they may use nuclear weapons against rogue states if that state used weapons of mass destruction against British troops.

The British government’s standard practice is to have only one submarine on routine patrol at any given time. The government claims the missiles aboard the submarine are not on alert and that launching a missile would take several days of preparation.

The United Kingdom has conducted 45 nuclear weapon tests. The first test occurred on October 3, 1952, and the last took place November 26, 1991.

Fissile Material

In April 1995, the British government declared that it no longer produces fissile material, highly enriched uranium (HEU) and plutonium, for weapons purposes. As of 2011, the government has declared that its military stockpile consists of 3.2 metric tons of plutonium and 11.7 metric tons of HEU.

The United Kingdom also possesses the world’s largest stockpile of civilian plutonium, with over 86 tons designated for this purpose. The country also stores approximately 28 tons of foreign owned plutonium, the majority of which belongs to Japan. There civilian stockpile of HEU is roughly 1.4 tons.

Proliferation Record

Although a leading supplier of conventional weapons to other states, the United Kingdom is not known to have deliberately or significantly contributed to the spread of biological, chemical, or nuclear weapons to other states.

Other Arms Control and Nonproliferation Activities

The British government has signed protocols stating its intent to respect and not threaten the use of nuclear weapons against states-parties to the Latin American, South Pacific, and African nuclear-weapon-free zones. London has not done so for the Southeast Asian or Central Asian zones.

The United Kingdom is a state-party to the Open Skies Treaty, which enables unarmed reconnaissance flights over all states-parties territories, and has signed the Adapted Conventional Armed Forces in Europe Treaty. The UK, along with other NATO members, is refusing to ratify the latter agreement until Russia fulfills commitments to withdraw its military forces from Georgia and Moldova.

As of 2008, the UK supports the negotiation of a fissile material cutoff treaty, and has stated that the Conference on Disarmament is the appropriate forum for negotiations. Although the British government previously endorsed an “effectively verifiable” cutoff, it has backed off promoting that objective after the United States in 2004 declared it no longer supported that goal.

The United Kingdom signed and ratified the Convention on Cluster Munitions, which bans “all use, stockpiling, production and transfer of Cluster Munitions.” [11] The treaty went into effect August 1, 2010. The United Kingdom joined the United States in invading Iraq in 2003 citing its alleged pursuit of weapons of mass destruction. No evidence has been discovered to support these allegations.

The UK participated in both Nuclear Security Summits, where at the latter they stressed the need to improve safeguards to prevent nuclear terrorism.

London has engaged in negotiations with Iran such as the most recent rounds of the P5+1 talks over Iran’s nuclear activities. The British government supported ratcheting up sanctions on Iran to persuade it to halt certain activities, particularly uranium enrichment. This included a European Union-wide ban on importing Iranian oil that went into effect July 1, 2012.

-Researched and prepared by Alex Bollfrass. Updated by Victor Silva


1. The United Kingdom has not ratified Protocol V on Explosive Remnants of War.

2. Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, Postnote: Chemical Weapons, December 2001, 4 pp.

3. Grimmett, Richard F., Conventional Arms Transfers to Developing Nations, 1999-2006, Congressional Research Service, September 26, 2007, 92 pp.

4. Grimmett, Richard F., Conventional Arms Transfers to Developing Nations, 2003-2010, Congressional Research Service, September 22, 2011, 89 pp.

5. International Panel on Fissile Materials, Global Fissile Material Report, 2011, January 2012, 49 pp.

6. SIPRI Yearbook 2013, (Oxford: Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, 2012),  p 300

7. Ibid.

8.SIPRI Yearbook 2013, (Oxford: Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, 2012),  p 301

9. “Britain to spend $`.7B on sub projects.” United Press International, June 21, 2012.

10. Sayenko, Sergei. “Britain’s coalition split over Trident.” The Voice of Russia, June 18, 2012

11. Federation of American Scientists, Doctrine and Policy. Updated December 5, 2006


12. Convention on Cluster Munitions – CCM, The Convention, page visited July 2012, http://www.clusterconvention.org/

Posted: November 29, 2007