Publicly ministers maintained that they had no plans to restore the UK’s chemical warfare (CW) capability which had been voluntarily relinquished in the 1950s.
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However, files released by the National Archives at Kew in London show that, behind the scenes, Mrs Thatcher suggested her government could be considered “negligent” if it did not build its own chemical arsenal.
A Ministry of Defence paper from 1984 underlined the scale of the threat with an assessment that the Russians had more than 300,000 tons of nerve agent alone.
In contrast, the United States – which was the only Nato member to possess a CW capability – had an ageing stockpile of just 31,000 tons which was not actually declared to Nato.
Meanwhile, a Home Office working group calculated that a Russian CW attack by just three aircraft on Gatwick Airport would leave 16,350 dead and 29,000 injured while a similar attack on Southampton would kill 33,350 and leave 42,000 injured.
A note of a meeting of senior ministers and defence chiefs held on August 8, 1984 – marked SECRET: UK EYES A – reported a warning by Defence Secretary Michael Heseltine that the lack of a retaliatory CW capability was a “major gap” in Nato’s armoury.
“Reliance on a nuclear response to chemical attack lacked credibility,” he warned.
Foreign Secretary Sir Geoffrey Howe said public opinion needed to be brought “gently to a better and wider perception of the imbalance between Soviet and Nato capabilities in chemical warfare, while avoiding an upsurge of alarm”.
In the discussion that followed, ministers acknowledged that any moves by the government to acquire an “independent CW capability”, would create “political difficulties”.
“A disadvantage of such acquisition was that it might undermine the broader support which had been built up recently in public opinion for the UK’s role as a nuclear power,” the minute noted.
“Against this, it was pointed out that public opinion might well be appalled if it was realised that the only response which Nato could offer to a CW attack would be nuclear retaliation.”
Mrs Thatcher indicated that she was sympathetic to the idea, while acknowledging the time was not yet right. She suggested sounding out the Americans, who were considering modernising their CW capability.
“Summing up the discussion, the Prime Minister said that it might be argued that it was negligent of the government not to acquire a CW capability. But this was not a decision which could be addressed at this stage,” the minute noted.
She added that: “Public presentation of the issue should continue broadly on present lines with the aim of bringing home to people patiently the enormous imbalance in Soviet and Western capabilities in CW.”
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