UK admits nukes aboard Falkland ships

Feature story - 9 January, 2004
When the destroyer HMS Sheffield was sunk during the war between the UK and Argentina over the Falklands-Malvinas islands, the UK Ministry of Defence refused to admit there were nuclear weapons aboard any of the ships in the conflict. As a part of the nukewatch network, we knew otherwise.

Greenpeace Nuclear Free Seas Campaign: HMS Talent arrives in Hamburg in 1995

It's a cold and rainy day in England in 1982. On a road leading to Portsmouth Naval Base, a lone figure huddles in the only shelter for miles around, a bus stop. A convoy of vehicles including four lumbering military transports, a command & control/accident response vehicle and a fire engine slowly roll past. The man in the bus stop takes out a slip of paper and notes the time and description of the vehicles. As part of the nukewatch network, he's one of dozens of volunteers who are tracking the movement of nuclear warheads, and he knows precisely where this convoy is heading - to load nuclear depth charges aboard the HMS Sheffield.

When the HMS Sheffield was sunk some months later, the British authorities refused to confirm there were nuclear weapons on board. On December 5th last year, the UK Ministry of Defence admitted for the first time that some of the ships in its Falklands task force had set sail in 1982 with nuclear depth charges designed to destroy submarines.

Twenty one years for the truth

"We issued a statement in 1982 saying that there were nuclear weapons aboard the Sheffield. It took 21 years for the UK government to acknowledge we were right." says our researcher, William Peden.

Argentina has demanded an apology from the UK, and clarification of whether nuclear weapons were aboard the Sheffield when she sank, and if so, whether they were recovered. The British Government denies that nuclear weapons entered the territorial waters of Argentina or the Falklands, or that any were aboard the Sheffield when she was destroyed by an Exocet missile.

But a 1991 report by the International Atomic Energy Agency stated that there were nuclear weapons aboard the Sheffield when she went down. The Sheffield was also the only wreck which was subject to a recovery operation by a UK dive team. The team's mission was officially to recover "strategic material."

"It's difficult to imagine that weapons were not aboard when she went down" says Peden. "We monitored all movements of weapons in and out of Portsmouth during the Falklands war. The Sheffield was loaded with nukes before the war began. She was four days out of Portsmouth on a return trip from the Mediterranean when she was rerouted, so she never had the chance to offload in port. If she transferred weapons at sea, nothing came back to Portsmouth during the war. So the question to the MOD, really, is how and where were they removed from the Sheffield before she sank?"

Gone, but making a unwelcome comeback?

Britain no longer deploys nuclear weapons on submarines or surface vessels at sea during peacetime, thanks in part to our Nuclear Free Seas campaign, which pursued the goal of removing nukes from submarines and surface ships in the 80s and 90s.

In 1991, the US and Soviet Union agreed to remove submarine launched cruise missiles from ocean deployment, though each did so through a unilateral pledge and made no binding agreements. The US Navy has ever since maintained the ability to restore Tomahawk nuclear missiles to their attack submarines on 30 days notice.

The US Navy has recently proposed phasing out the Tomahawk capability. But on December 2nd it came to light in an obscure defence magazine, Inside the Navy, that the US Navy has now been instructed by Donald Rumsfeld's Department of Defense to maintain this cold-war capability.

And hard on the heels of that decision, the UK has announced that they will not be phasing out their own sea-based system, the Trident missile, but will instead replace it with new weapons not yet defined.

The US has recently approved funds for research and development of "mini-nukes" -- small nuclear weapons designed to be used in battlefield scenarios, which make the prospect of the use of nuclear weapons during wartime far more likely.

"Nuclear weapons don't belong on planet Earth, but they particularly don't belong at sea," says Peden. "Missiles on the oceans again would represent a major escalation of dangerous arms and an increase in the chances of nuclear accidents. That's not buying increased security -- that's a ticket back in time to a far more dangerous world."