British nukes protected by bicycle lock keys
Britain is the only nuclear weapons state which does not have a fail-safe mechanism to prevent its submarines launching a nuclear attack
without the right code being sent, according to tonight's Newsnight on BBC Two.
The programme also reveals that until less than ten years ago, the locks
on RAF nuclear bombs were opened with a bicycle lock key.
Ten years ago the United States decided it was too risky to allow their
Trident submarine commanders to launch without a code, known as the
Trident Coded Control Device, which is sent by the President via the
Chiefs of Staff.
The idea was to prevent rogue or accidental launches
triggering World War Three and the Russians and French have similar
However, the Ministry of Defence has told Newsnight that such safeguards
are "not relevant" to the British situation.
They say that "Britain is
unique" and British Trident commanders can still launch a nuclear attack
without any command from Whitehall if the worst comes to the worst.
Newsnight also reveals that, until they were retired in 1998, the RAF's
nuclear bombs were armed by turning a bicycle lock key. There was no
other security on the bomb itself.
American and Russian weapons were
protected by tamper-proof combination locks which could only be released
if the correct code was transmitted.
The British military resisted Whitehall proposals to fit bombs with
Permissive Action Links or PALs – which would prevent them being armed
unless the right code was sent.
PALs were introduced in the Sixties in
America to prevent rogue generals or pilots launching a nuclear war and
since then all US weapons have been fitted with a PAL.
The correct code had to be transmitted by the US Chiefs of Staff and
dialled into the bomb before it could be armed, otherwise it would not
Crews in missile silos also had a dual-key arrangement so one
man could not launch Armageddon.
Similar safeguards are in place on
Russian nuclear weapons.
Newsnight reveals that RAF nuclear bombs were armed by opening a panel
held by two captive screws – like a battery cover on a radio – using a
thumbnail or a coin.
Inside are the arming switch and a series of dials
which are turned with an allen key to select high yield or low yield,
air burst or ground burst and other parameters.
The bomb is actually
armed by inserting a cylindrical bicycle lock key into the arming switch
and turning it through 90 degrees.
There is no code which needs to be
entered or dual key system to prevent a rogue individual from arming the
bomb, although RAF crews were supposed to always work in pairs if they
were near the bomb or had the keys for the bomb.
National Archive papers show that, in 1966, Chief Scientific Adviser
Solly Zuckerman formally advised Defence Secretary Denis Healey that
Britain needed to install PALs on its nuclear weapons to keep them safe.
However, the Royal Navy argued that its officers could be trusted and: "It would be invidious to suggest... that senior Service officers may, in
difficult circumstances, act in defiance of their clear orders."
the Navy nor the RAF installed PAL protection on their nuclear weapons
and the RAF kept their un-safeguarded bombs at airbases until they were
withdrawn in 1998.