The Prime Minister's Dead Hand
Letters of Last Resort
Mutually Assured Destruction, the Doomsday Clock, the Dead Hand: dramatic terms-- perhaps even melodramatic-- which refer to the horrors and inevitable mutual destruction wrought by an exchange of nuclear weapons. The British, in their typically understated and emotionally restrained manner, have Letters of Last Resort.
The Letters of Last Resort are a mechanism which ensures that, should the United Kingdom be destroyed in a nuclear strike and the British Prime Minister and a “second person” designated by the Prime Minister are both dead, at least one British ballistic missile submarine on duty-- and there is always one somewhere in the ocean-- is under orders to carry out the dead Prime Minister's last order. In a safe inside a safe inside the submarine is the Prime Minister's Letter of Last Resort. Depending on those orders, the submarines' captains have the authority and the duty to launch their Trident ballistic missiles as the final act of the British state.
One of a Prime Minister's first acts is to write his or her Letter of Last Resort. It is a sobering experience, deciding to launch missiles when your country no longer exists-- or to not launch them, or anything in between. What is crucial is that every potential nuclear enemy knows that such letters exist, otherwise Britain's nuclear arsenal serves no purpose as a deterrent to a first strike against the country. Besides the Prime Minister, no one knows what the letter contains. When a Prime Minister leaves office, the letters are destroyed without opening them.
In the days when British nuclear weapons were carried by RAF bombers, one Prime Minister, James Callaghan (PM from 1976-1979), stated after leaving office that he would have ordered nuclear retaliation. Until 2016, all other Prime Ministers have remained mum on the contents of their Letter of Last Resort. In a complete break with the past, however, Prime Minister Theresa May, in office only two weeks, was asked if she was prepared to “authorize a nuclear strike that could kill 100,000 innocent men, women and children”. She replied unequivocally, “Yes”.
Four Letters, Four Subs
Four identical letters are made; one for each Vanguard class ballistic missile submarine in the Royal Navy. Britain has no land-based missiles or nuclear bombs anymore. The huge subs, nearly 500 feet long and displacing 16,000 tons, are enough of a deterrence. Each of them, HMS Vanguard, HMS Victorious, HMS Vigilant and HMS Vengeance, can carry 16 ballistic missiles having a range of 7,000 miles. With each missile containing up to 12 independently-targeted warheads, a single sub could deliver 192 warheads. Official policy states, however, that only 48 warheads are on board each sub.
Up to three of the subs may be in port or dry-dock, but one or more is always on patrol. While on patrol, the submarines' locations are unknown. Not even the Navy knows exactly where they are, nor do most of their crews. During a patrol, which may be three months or more, the submarine's 160-person crew may not communicate with anyone, including their families.
Should BBC Radio 4 Ever Go Off the Air...
Should the worst happen and the Prime Minister and the “second person” die, the captain of each patrolling submarine runs through a check list of procedures to determine if the government is still functioning. BBC Radio 4, which broadcasts racing tips, cricket test matches and soap operas among other programs, happens to broadcast on a frequency that can be picked up by all four submarines. One of the checks the subs perform to see if civilization has ended is whether they can still receive radio broadcasts from Radio 4. If the checks indicate the UK has ceased to function, the captains open their safes and the safe inside them. They take out the Letter of Last Resort and execute the dead Prime Minister's instructions, which will unleash a punishing retribution from their dead country. Or not.