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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 systems.

 

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 detonate.

 

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."

 

Neither 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.

 

KR

 

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Category: News; BBC Two
Date: 15.11.2007
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