After Dreadnought Subs, UK Must Integrate Nuclear Airborne Capabilities

Enhancing airborne nuclear capabilities with F-35s would be a cost-effective deterrent against global aggression.

The United Kingdom is well on its way to modernizing its sea-based nuclear delivery platform, transitioning from its 1990s Vanguard class submarine to four newly designed Dreadnought class nuclear missile submarines.

Despite being years from full implementation, this upgrade will field the same missiles as America’s Ohio-class nuclear submarine. While this reduces cost and allows the UK to use tested and proven weapons, London must make further improvements to deter Russia and China.

Enhancing UK Nuclear Deterrent

The Dreadnoughts are the UK’s only means of delivering nuclear weapons. Each submarine can hold up to 12 missiles, each armed with 12 warheads. The UK plans to field four of these submarines starting in the early 2030s, with at least one at sea ready to strike at all times.

Despite this arsenal, London’s nuclear capabilities are dwarfed by Russian and American submarines, which carry hundreds more warheads spread across roughly a dozen submarines.

Given frequent nuclear threats from Russia and worsening relations with China, the UK should make further improvements to its nuclear deterrent by integrating nuclear bombs into its air force.

The UK currently has 74 F-35 stealth aircraft, which can be adapted to carry nuclear bombs. The UK should collaborate with the US, similar to the Dreadnought partnership, to establish an airborne nuclear strike capability. This will once again save money and time.

Frequent Russian intrusions into British airspace and nuclear threats from prominent Russian officials make this decision necessary.

The UK is also taking a more active role in the Indo-Pacific, working alongside allies to safeguard shipping lanes and uphold freedom of navigation. This has drawn criticism from China, which is rapidly growing its nuclear arsenal. While a single British submarine could be vulnerable in conflict, dozens of aircraft present multiple, harder-to-detect targets.

Dreadnought-class ballistic missile submarine
An artist’s impression of the Dreadnought-class ballistic missile submarine. Photo: UK Ministry of Defence

Diversifying Nuclear Strategies

While the US nuclear arsenal offers extended deterrence to NATO members, it is time for other nations to help shoulder the economic and military burden of keeping global stability.

Poland and Germany are bolstering their forces due to Russian aggression in Ukraine. Similarly, Australian, Japanese, and American troops in the Pacific are increasing in size as the global focus turn from terrorism to great power competition. The UK should consider a similar approach.

Rather than developing new nuclear capabilities, the UK could simply acquire existing technology from the US a second time. With American sea-based nuclear missiles already in use, enhancing airborne nuclear capabilities with F-35s would be a cost-effective deterrent against global aggression.

Putting all nuclear eggs in one basket worked during the Global War on Terror, but in today’s world of great power hostilities, the UK should proactively safeguard its interests and NATO commitments by diversifying its nuclear delivery platforms.

Headshot Christopher GettelChristopher Gettel is an 8-year US Army veteran who served with the National Guard and 82nd Airborne Division. He has been deployed to Iraq twice, including participation in the liberation of Mosul.

Gettel recently finished a graduate certificate in Nuclear Deterrence from Harvard University’s Extension School and is now pursuing a master’s degree in International Security at George Mason University with the goal of completing a Ph.D. afterward.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of The Defense Post.

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