The United Kingdom has nuclear weapons. All the [major] political parties support this policy. A common justification heard is that they are a deterrent against foreign aggression. For example:

UK nuclear deterrence policy consists of 5 main principles:

  • preventing attack - the UK’s nuclear weapons are not designed for military use during conflict but instead to deter and prevent nuclear blackmail and acts of aggression against our vital interests that cannot be countered by other means

Yet in 1982, Argentina (without nuclear weapons) invaded the Falkland Islands. Clearly, they weren't deterred. Why not?

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    @ColonelPanic Re your link; it doesn't make a hugely clear point: it seems to simultaneously say that they don't work as a deterrent (pointing to two (in global terms) minor loses) but then bringing up Iran and North Koreas continuing existence due to them. If anything it suggests nuclear weapons are highly effective at deterring attacks on the country itself but less effective at deterring attacks on satellite interests Commented Jun 20, 2014 at 8:32
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    Nobody really understands why Argentina seized the Falklands. They weren't deterred by nuclear forces, conventional forces, or common sense.
    – MCW
    Commented Jun 20, 2014 at 14:18
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    All the political parties in parliament support this policy. This is false. The Green Party is committed to pursuing immediate and unconditional nuclear disarmament., this party represents Brighton Pavilion.
    – gerrit
    Commented Jun 20, 2014 at 15:16
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    @MarkC.Wallace really? It's easy to imagine an alternate history (perhaps without Thatcher) in which the task force never sailed, the Falklands were lost, and the islanders deported. There might persist diplomatic protest, but otherwise the islands rarely talked about. books.google.com/ngrams/… Commented Jun 20, 2014 at 15:50
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    @WS2, the UK was in the process of reducing the equipment greatly, the Folkland conflict lead to a change of plan! Commented Aug 22, 2015 at 19:07

7 Answers 7


Because no one in their right minds would think Britain should use a weapon of mass destruction on Argentina over the Falklands, what with its 1600 population. Even then the well documented concept of a nuclear taboo was in effect. No one regarded nuclear bombs as normal bombs, and therefore no one wanted to use it so casually. The Falkland Islands were not, after all, in any way an existential crisis for Britain.

The Argentinians specifically were undeterred because they didn't really think the United Kingdom would actually respond (that is, aside from diplomatic noises). Their hope was that a quick, clean takeover would present a fait accompli that London would then have to live with. In this they were inspired by the Indian takeover of Goa which was similarly greeted only with indignant but quickly-forgotten words.

Several specific events reinforced this belief in the Junta's minds:

  1. British naval cuts and withdrawal from the Falklands. Sir John Nott's 1981 defence review was interpreted by the Argentinians as a lack of desire to militarily defend the Falklands, and encouraged them to think Britain would soon not be able to do so either.
  2. Downgrade of Falkland Islanders' citizenship status. The 1981 nationality law would have downgraded the Falkland Islanders from full British citizens into British Overseas Territories Citizens. This was interpreted as a sign that Britain was creating a distance with the Falklands.
  3. British silence on Argentinian threats of using force. As the talks in New York stalled, Argentinian press began talking of using force. Although this was said to have alarmed the British Government, little was done in response. British silence was seen as further affirmation of the belief that London will simply accept an Argentinian invasion.
  4. Lack of British military response to Argentinian provocations. A preliminary operation by the Argentinian military, which would lead to the invasion of South Georgia, was noticed by the British military in March. While plans were made to evict them with Royal Marines, ultimately Britain did little beyond vain attempts at diplomacy. This confirmed to the Argentinians that Britain would not react to Argentina invading. A week later the decision was made.

There was a good deal of bellicose comment in the Argentine press in late February and early March ... It would have been absurd to dispatch the fleet every time there was bellicose talk in Buenos Aires.

-- Margaret Thatcher in the House of Commons, 3 April 1982

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    Has Britain made any explicit promise not to use nuclear weapons on non-nuclear states? (Perhaps in the NPT?) Commented Jun 19, 2014 at 16:08
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    @ColonelPanic no; during the NPT negotiations, non-aligned states sought to extract that promise, but it was never formally incorporated into the treaty (the US and USSR being unable to agree on the language). But AFAIK British policy is to only use nuclear weapons defensively (but pre-emptive strikes might be considered "defensive"). Such promises are not legally binding, however.
    – Semaphore
    Commented Jun 19, 2014 at 16:38
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    The first sentence of this answer is the correct one. Launching a nuclear attack on any country wouldn't fare well with UKs foreign image. Commented Jun 19, 2014 at 20:21
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    @LeonardoHerrera If I recall correctly the sinking of the Argentine warship Belgrano was controversial enough because it wasn't actively attacking the Falkland’s at the time. Given the controversy with the destruction of a warship "involved in" the actual attack I can't imagine a giant crater where a city used to be going well Commented Jun 19, 2014 at 22:45
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    Perhaps it's more subtle that that though. Psychological pressure could still be applied by judicious hints or leaks. There have been rumours that it was considered as an option, or upping the ante by firing an unarmed (ie no nuclear warhead) Polaris at Cordoba or Buenos Aries . . . "No one in their right minds would think that Britain would use a weapon of mass destruction . . " - but just how prepared are you to gamble on that, Gen Galtieri?
    – peterG
    Commented Jun 20, 2014 at 1:38

Doesn't the quote in the question answer it? Argentina, as a non-nuclear state, was not threatening "nuclear blackmail". The UK's rapid recapture of the Falklands by conventional means demonstrates (with the benefit of hindsight) that Argentina's invasion was not an "[act] of aggression against our vital interests that [could not] be countered by other means."

  • You're right about the recapture (though many thought it impossible). The document was published 2012, so its wording can't explain the Falklands War; I linked to it as an example of modern rhetoric. Besides, I think it's been very carefully worded to leave ambiguous whether the provoking 'acts of aggression' need be nuclear or not. Commented Jun 20, 2014 at 14:37
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    It's a little unfair of you to ask a question based on interpreting the UK's actions in light of a statement published 30 years later and then ding me for doing exactly the same thing! But, still, the statement you link says, "The UK has long been clear that we would only consider using nuclear weapons in extreme circumstances of self-defence, including the defence of our NATO Allies..." It's not clear that "long been clear" means "was clear 30 years ago" but its at least consistent. Commented Jun 20, 2014 at 21:12
  • It's a common enough expression: not wanting to go nuclear. The atomic bomb is by definition a weapon of last resort, and only to be used if nothing else will suffice. A quick sortie by the Royal Navy, and a very short war, solved the problem. An atomic attack is a way of ending a war as huge as World War 2, a big bomb for a big problem; but the Falklands war never amounted to a problem on that scale.
    – Ed999
    Commented Apr 25, 2020 at 21:46

The signatory states of the Non-Proliferation Treaty(NPT) with nuclear weapons (and the UK is one of these) have made it clear that they will not use nuclear weapons against signatory states without nuclear weapons except in response to a nuclear attack, or a conventional attack in alliance with a Nuclear Weapons State.

So unless the UK wanted to throw the NPT into the dustbin and risk nuclear proliferation, they could not use nuclear weapons against Argentina.

  • the statement of intent to not be the first to use nuclear weapons is just that, a statement of intent. It's not part of the treaty, is not binding.
    – jwenting
    Commented Apr 7, 2015 at 9:24
  • @jwenting: See the second paragraph of my answer. Commented Apr 7, 2015 at 9:25

The Argentians were not deterred by the fact that Britain possessed nuclear weapons, because they believed that the British would not plausibly use nuclear weapons against them.

The Argentians apparently believed their invasion could succeed, because the British lacked both the willpower and the capability to evict them, so they would just get away with it.

This highlights the fundamental issue with nuclear weapons. Not very useful in anything except a total/suicide/M.A.D. war, or as a terrorist device.

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    Well, the Argentine invasions did succeed. Their defense afterward did not.
    – Oldcat
    Commented Mar 30, 2015 at 18:32

Basically, anyone with nukes has to stop and think, "how will history judge us?" if they were to use those nukes for anything less than stopping a major threat to their very existence. I can't believe your question is serious -- there is no way that Britain would think of using nukes to maintain their claim to some remote islands. They had sufficient conventional power (armed forces) to do the job.

The US has never quite shaken accusations that we were too eager to make a nuclear attack on Imperial Japan in the closing months of WWII, and that has helped stay our hand when hotheads were arguing for the use of nukes against the USSR, in Korea, in Vietnam, and probably elsewhere. You can argue all you want that (in hindsight) Japan was about to collapse anyway, from our submarine blockade and round-the-clock bombing, but to our leaders at the time, it genuinely looked like invading them to wrap up the war would be terribly costly.

I could see making a preemptive nuclear attack on someone nuclear-armed like Pakistan, if they were to continue sliding into a radical Islamist culture. They would just be too dangerous to have around with such weapons (including handing them over to the Taliban). Likewise, radical nutjob North Korea, if it builds up a large enough nuclear arsenal to genuinely threaten South Korea or Japan, would have to be taken out preemptively. Of course, their own use of even a single nuke against us or our friends should result in their obliteration. Let's hope these scenarios don't come to pass, but they might.

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    Actually even a nuke armed Pakistan would probably get a conventional attack to decapitate the government with a threat of retaliation if they use nukes.
    – Oldcat
    Commented Jun 19, 2014 at 18:35
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    I was about to upvote after your first phrase. After your second phrase, I wanted to downvote, but can't. I can't believe that asking questions get answered by stating disbelief in the seriousness of the question. Even the most obvious question can be well asking, especially when it is so obvious that no one ever asks the question and everybody has a mutual agreement noone ever talks about. E.g., it looks a lot like you would have agreed on banning Galileo, had you lived some years earlier.
    – phresnel
    Commented Jun 20, 2014 at 9:03
  • @Oldcat I guess if the Pakistani were to nuke someone who has nukes, they'd get as good as they give, iow nuclear retaliation. If they merely threaten nuclear strike, and start bombing up their air force or whatever their current delivery vehicle is, I can imagine India (the most likely target for a Pakistani strike) launching a conventional strike against those bases to get rid of that threat, but only if war were pretty much on the very near horizon anyway (think Israel striking first in the 6 day war, seeing the obvious preparations of an Arab attack against them).
    – jwenting
    Commented Jun 20, 2014 at 12:12

The only nation which has ever used nuclear weapons against an enemy was the US, and it used them against Japan to end the war in a way that Japan would not forget...ever. Argentina's aggression did not rise to even a remote resemblance to that of Japan's against the US...

All of which leads to an intriguing answer and thought : Britain didn't use nuclear weapons against Argentina because Argentina was being silly and all it needed was a taste of old school Royal Marine stuff...In any event, Who in today's world would use nuclear arms against an enemy? Answer: Only in symmetrical warfare or terrorism.

All of which leads to a thought that crosses my mind from time to time which I immediately reject because I cannot point to or express any connecting impression or idea which supports it. In fact, it is easily ridiculed as silly tin hattery. But from time to time, the thought crops up and winks a wink at me over my whisky and water..wa

The thought: True terrorism which was seeking relevance for its cause would use a nuclear weapon. So why doesn't it.

Nuclear weapons are easy to build or easily obtained from a nuclear state.... That history might denounce this true terrorist surely will not stop one whose belief system is that destroying a non-believing enemy even if it means destruction to oneself is preferable to allowing the non-believing enemy to exist. So why hasn't one been used by the Oceania ubiquitous terrorism we are informed of 24/7/365 by almost every media outlet in the world? Yes, thousands die each year at the hands of insane people who blow themselves up...and that is the reason for my thought....Insane people are the ones doing it....and there is no want of insane people in this world ... but that is a far cry from a world wide terrorism....even if we can attach it to the Muslim faith because there are those Muslims de minimus in number, but made large by media exposure, who vociferously believe the insanity of killing innocents as a means to an end...

That no nuclear weapon has been used by those who profess to engage in terrorism as a means to their end--And what exactly is the end of the terrorism we see reported?-- suggests that there is a probability that the terrorists are kept in play by those who are desirous of ensuring anti-terrorist authoritarian control mechanisms which work exceedingly well against civilian populations and which could not be maintained outside an atmosphere of fear of terrorism.....And this leads to the thought that terrorism is sponsored by those who desire to maintain authoritarian control over populations, but cannot do so without some excuse. And the best excuse, bar none, is fight against a potentially nuclear armed existing world wide terrorist threat.

Corporations which control governments are the only group of people who seem to benefit from terrorist control measures. Corporate sponsored private or military anti-terrorist forces in nations whose resources they are exploiting work remarkably well at keeping the local population in line when it complains about the exploitation...Think of those nations which own the World Bank and the IMF and the other banking interests and their corporate clients and corrupt governments.....With information instant in today's world, there must be a boogy man out there necessitating all that anti-terrorist armed force out there...



Britains nuclear deterrent didnt work because the Argentines were aware that any first use of nuclear weapons by a NATO power would automatically demand a USSR response whether or not the USSR or their interests were directly targeted and that WW3 would ensue

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    Why would it demand any such thing? Is there any evidence that anyone at the time thought this?
    – Semaphore
    Commented Oct 2, 2015 at 17:14
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    Yeah, we can all see the communist USSR risking WW3 to defend a right-wing junta in Argentina. Not. Commented Jun 6, 2017 at 22:37

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