The United Kingdom formally became a nuclear weapon state in 1952, with operational systems from 1955. The UK's strategic deterrent has evolved over the past 66 years of it being a nuclear armed state. Nuclear weapon system information, particularly the detail of national command, control and associated communications systems and protocols, are among the most tightly guarded and classified secrets of any nation. The UK is no exception to this, and until the decision to release some of the protocols and procedures as part of the Cabinet Office co-operation with a BBC Radio programme in 2008, every facet of current national arrangements was classified.
In this essay, Rear Admiral Gower states that the UK Nuclear Weapon Command Control and Communications (UK NC3) architecture is designed and operated to support SSBN strategic nuclear deterrence in all foreseeable circumstances from peacetime to nuclear conflict. “Through multiple paths and frequencies, fall-back and alternative systems and with dedicated and unique encryption and processes it delivers continuous availability for the Prime Minister should a decision to launch be made.”
This essay goes into further detail regarding the multiple communication paths, frequencies, fall-back systems, and encryption needed to continuously enable the UK's Prime Minister to act on a nuclear launch decision.
Formerly commander of two submarines, Rear Admiral John Gower was Assistant Chief of Defence Staff (Nuclear & Chemical, Biological) in the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD). He served as the senior MoD policy officer for UK NC3, reporting its status to the Nuclear Deterrence Policy Committee and the Cabinet Office for the Prime Minister. He is now an independent consultant on global nuclear policy issues.
Podcast: United Kingdom: Nuclear Weapon, Command, Control, and Communications