Hacker News new | past | comments | ask | show | jobs | submit login
Letters of Last Resort (wikipedia.org)
65 points by kqr2 on Feb 2, 2014 | hide | past | favorite | 49 comments

"There are no nukes. We've just been pretending all this time. They're just big metal tubes full of old laptops. Sorry. Find a nice island and settle down.

Best, PM.

PS: Sorry you've no women on board. One of the warheads is full of whisky and porn."

Yes, Prime Minister - Nuclear deterrent:


I love this part as well, when Sir Humphrey is arguing for Trident: https://www.youtube.com/v/XyJh3qKjSMk

"In the world of nuclear missiles, it is the Savile Row suit, the Rolls Royce Corniche, the Chateau Lafite 1945. It is the nuclear missile Harrods would sell you."

Out of curiosity, if some nuclear adversary decided to first-strike and wipe out England, how messed up would the UK be? It's a small, dense country, and (call me stupid), one armed nuclear sub could be wiped out fairly easily if we're talking about a power like this, right? Would all four, if armed, be able to do much damage back? I find the idea of letters of last resort fascinating...

> one armed nuclear sub could be wiped out fairly easily if we're talking about a power like this, right?

The one that's in dock for service and repair, yes. But the others could be at sea anywhere in the world, in an unknown location.

> Would all four, if armed, be able to do much damage back?

Each sub can carry 16 x Trident D5 ballistic missiles, with a range of 6,000 mi. Each missile carries multiple warheads, each with much higher yields than those used at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. So certainly the potential to do lots of damage.

The US has a similar setup with their Ohio-class submarines, though I don't believe they carry such letters or equivalent.

To elaborate: each submarine carries 48 warheads (they can carry much more, but don't). I can't find much info on the warheads with a cursory search, but Wikipedia suggests a yield of 100kt, which is entirely plausible. The missile is able to put the warhead into a circle with a radius of about 100 meters.

For a "last resort" use like this, counterforce (i.e. attacking the enemy's military) is probably pointless. I imagine you'd go for cities if you wanted to cause as much hurt as possible.

A single 100kt warhead detonated over, for example, Manhattan would devastate Manhattan and significantly damage surrounding areas. Deaths would probably be in the millions. Add in a few more scattered around intelligently and that's the entire metro region wrecked. If we figure four is enough to do NYC in decently, that means one of these submarines could wreck twelve cities that way. More (up to 48) if you just wanted to smash the core areas. Or you can mix and match.

If it was targeted at the US (don't ask me why), imagine DC, NYC, LA, Chicago, all completely flattened, along with a bunch more. Most of the population of the country as a whole would survive, but the country itself would be pretty thoroughly wrecked.

The UK 'independent' nuclear deterrent isn't. Unlike the French one, it uses US missiles whose targets and strike pattern is set if North Carolina.

Only in the same way that Honda loads your GPS at the factory in Japan, but you can drive it wherever you like.

Can you reword that? I didn't understand it.

The US sets the targets for UK cruise missiles. The French set the targets for French cruise missiles. The Frogs could bomb NY, the Brits, not so much...

Nitpick: the British submarines carry ICBMs (technically, SLBMs, which is mostly just an ICBM launched from a submarine), not cruise missiles.

(In case anyone is wondering what the difference is, a cruise missile is basically a suicidal unmanned drone that flies like an airplane, while an ICBM is a rocket that goes into space and then falls back down on its target after burning its fuel.)

The old UK V-bomber fleet was definitely targeted at Soviet cities and any air defense sites that would stop them getting there.

I would find it hard to believe that USN submarines do not have equivalent "standing orders" on what to do if after an attack the command hierarchy is unavailable.

Whether these are in the form of sealed handwritten letters from the President, I don't know.

Worth noting that the UK's nuclear deterrent is based in Scotland, not England.

To get some idea of the likely outcome of a nuclear war for the UK I can suggest watching Threads:


One interesting thing about Threads is that it is based on a rather optimistic attack scenario based on an exercise called Square Leg:


"Worth noting that the UK's nuclear deterrent is based in Scotland, not England."

As a "Yes" voter I'm hoping we'll be able to send them back to England, preferably somewhere on the south coast.

I doubt the voters in the constituency's in the areas hosting the bases will be very happy at losing a very well paid jobs

And I am sure that some of the depressed areas of southern England woudl welcome these jobs with open arms - theres already suspicion that English dock workers where made redundant to protect Scottish jobs.

The people of Argyll and Bute (the Scottish Parliament constituency containing the Coulport and Faslane bases) have voted for the SNP in recent Scottish Parliament elections:


The MOD itself says that a total of only 520 civilian jobs would be lost if Trident was moved - and only 310 of those are definitely locals:


And finally, don't you think some things are more important than money and jobs?

I really liked Charlie Stross's account of how he changed his views on an "independent" nuclear deterrent:


Personally, I changed my mind from being a reluctant supporter for the need for nuclear weapons while wandering round, of all places, Auschwitz-Birkenau, our guide made a comment about how although Auschwitz-Birkenau remains the very worst that we have achieved as as species a lot of countries, including the UK, calmly contemplate the use of weapons that would have far worse results. From that day I have felt very strongly about trying to remove nuclear weapons from my country and independence seems the most viable route to achieving that goal.

My understanding is that nuclear submarine bases need to be close to very deep water. Faslane is great from that point of view. A look at a hydrographic map of the UK suggests the only options south of the border are Barrow-in-Furness and the Isle of Man. The Vanguard-class missile submarines in question were actually built in Barrow, so there's a good chance the locals would be happy enough to see them come home.

one armed nuclear sub could be wiped out fairly easily if we're talking about a power like this, right?

No. The idea of ballistic missile submarines like this (and those also operated by the US, France and Russia) is that they should be impossible to find when on patrol.

It's a bit embarrassing that a UK and French ballistic missiles submarines actually collided while on patrol:


A US missile submarine also collided with a Russian attack submarine in 1992:


That suggests they are hard to find, if they can't even see each other?

On the contrary. If they were just wandering randomly around the oceans, you would expect collisions between two subs to be impossibly rare. In fact it's known that, at least during the Cold War, nuclear subs often played cat and mouse games with each other, using passive sensor technologies to stalk each other to keep tabs on them. Every now and again though someone slams on the brakes or makes an unexpected turn and bam, collision. Obviously very embarrassing for all concerned, and I wouldn't be surprised if it happens more often than we hear about, and only incidents with serious damage get reported.

From the Wikipedia page for the French-UK incident:

'Hervé Morin, France's Minister of Defence, said that they "face an extremely simple technological problem, which is that these submarines are not detectable".'

The USS Baton Rouge was an attack submarine (SSN) itself, not a ballistic missile submarine (SSBN).

Now that's a great job interview question, because it's sort of a programming problem that also shows how a candidate thinks: formulate a letter of last resort. Knowing they'd have to work for a range of unexpected catastrophic situations, what are the priorities going to be and how will you make sure they're implemented if nobody's there to oversee them?

So.. if my country was wiped out by foreign government (not even really elected by its population) how would I kill as many of their people (except the government, they would be protected in bomb shelters of course)? Might be a good interview question - for screening out people with empathy.

Without retaliation there is no consequence for a country to wipe out their enemies with a first strike. The Letters of Last Resort might say not to retaliate, but it's important that the enemy doesn't know that is your policy. It also likely includes instructions like whether to join an allied country, whether to surrender, whether to throw the nukes overboard so they can never be used, where to go, etc.

Wow, this is not at all what I meant. The scenario could be vastly different, it doesn't even have to be about nuclear submarines. And even if it was about nuclear subs, it's not about killing as many people as possible (wtf?), it's about choosing a sensible course of action beforehand for a catastrophic and chaotic event.

...and I think that's pretty clear when you read my comment. Are you choosing to misunderstand?

I just saw your response to my comment. No, sincerely, it wasn't clear to me. I wasn't being deliberately obtuse.

Letters of Last Resort are/were written in the context of the policy of Mutual Assured Destruction (M.A.D.) which was predicated on the premise that if you wiped me out, my retaliation would wipe you out. My comment was made with that in mind.

In the last year, I've interviewed 7 different people in my company (4 engineers, two ISDs, and 2 SMEs). I've been wanting to improve my interview skills for quite some time, so I've been trying to add an open-ended question of this nature to my interviews. Each and every single person that I've interviewed, even when told in advance "This is a critical thinking question, there is no wrong answer" have failed to even speculate at an answer.


I guess it depends on the mood of the rest of the interview. If it's all about getting a slew of technical quizzes right, chances are people will be intimidated or pissed-off by an open-ended question at the end. However, if the interview is more a "getting-to-know-each-other" thing that is free-form in general, this works much better. And I might be biased, but I think that's also a more productive style to interview in general.

Getting tech knowledge right is something that doesn't transfer well between interviews and real work, so having them code and work under real-life conditions is a preferable procedure anyway. Like I said, I might be biased, but the best predictor for good work is, you know, good work ;) So in a shop that follows this philosophy, the interview becomes more of a first stage to determine if it makes sense to do one or more test work days.

If it's all about getting a slew of technical quizzes right, chances are people will be intimidated or pissed-off by an open-ended question at the end.

^ That would be a really annoying shift of gears in an interview, particularly if the sudden open ended question seemed to have no relevance to the gig being interviewed for.

At least I would probably be pretty annoyed and give really ridiculous answers/possibilities. But having interviewed people myself, I tend to grade my interest in a job by how the interview is given, and will cut the line if I think the person in charge of interviewing doesn't know what they are interviewing for/why they are asking the questions they are asking.

> "This is a critical thinking question, there is no wrong answer"

This might be an 'exception that proves the rule'.

By saying there is no wrong answer (in this case), you are illustrating that you have otherwise been strict on wrong answers. This is either going to be concerning, or a sudden change of pace which is difficult to manage.

After the Hundred Years' War, it's kind of ironic to see that one of the possible orders for the last-resort British weapon is to place itself under French command.

The UK nuclear submarines are based in Scotland, so you could just argue that it is a continuation of the Auld Alliance:


On a more serious note, there has been talk of the UK sharing aircraft carriers with France, so it isn't a completely daft idea (although certain sections of the UK public would probably prefer to attack France as a last resort - presumably aiming to miss the holiday homes, vineyards and ski resorts).

Really?! I guess after that slightly more recent bit of trouble on the other side of the Atlantic[1] it's pretty ironic that one of the possible orders for the last-resort British weapon is to place itself under US command(!?).

(As far as I can tell it is speculation that they would place themselves under French command)

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_Revolutionary_War

Of course postdating that is the Napoleonic Wars (and in the middle of that was the War of 1812)...

Things have changed quite a bit in the past 600 years.

It's strange to think that countries that never had this kind of weapon and maybe don't have a detailled nuclear doctrine might have to take such a decision in the middle of a crisis if they are "chosen".

Hennessy's book also mentions the possible involvement of the RAC or AA (can't remember which, but presumably the RAC) as part of the comms network for controlling the UK's nuclear capability.

Off the top of my head, I think the idea was that, if the PM was out and about, he would make use of an RAC phone box (just like the police had TARDIS-like phone boxes, so did the breakdown rescue organisations) to issue instructions. A typically British, cobbled-together solution to some otherwise complex requirement.

Worth noting that Hennessy was talking about the time of Harold Macmillan and the V-bombers.

A great book:


It was actually the AA not the RAC, and the precise nature of the system in place doesn't entirely seem to be known publicly.

I wasn't suggesting that that was the precise nature of the system.

Here's a the dramatized version of David Grieg's 2012 play "The Letter of Last Resort" produced for BBC Radio 4. I can recommend it.


Good thing they updated the procedures just in time for Able Archer 83!

26 May 1983 minutes on discussing the last resort procedures: http://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/SearchUI/details/C1...

Able Archer on 8-9 November 1983: https://www.cia.gov/library/center-for-the-study-of-intellig...

Episode #399 of This American Life discusses this.

It's really good. Posting the podcast link here for the overseas folks who aren't familiar with the program: http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/399/c...

I feel like this link was posted because last (current latest) podcast was this episode.

Yes this aired nationally on radio a few days ago and the poster failed to attribute. Faux pas.

Guidelines | FAQ | Lists | API | Security | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact