The revelation was unexpected and took a while to sink in. In a few short sentences, Geoff Hoon, the Secretary of State for Defence, has turned Britain's policy on nuclear strikes upside down, and ushered in a new era in which the previously unthinkable becomes a part of military planning.
Mr Hoon told the Commons defence select committee on Wednesday that Britain would be ready and willing to carry out nuclear attacks on Iraq if Saddam Hussein was deemed to be threatening with his alleged arsenal of weapons of mass destruction.
This was a fundamental, and critics would say, ominous, change in Britain's policy on nuclear warfare. Until now, the position of successive governments, Labour and Conservative, had been that nuclear weapons would not be used against a non-nuclear state, unless it carries out an attack in association with a nuclear armed enemy.
Indeed, the Strategic Defence Review of 1998, had specifically reiterated an assurance last given in 1978 "We will not use nuclear weapons against a non-nuclear state... unless it attacks us, our Allies or a state to which we have a security commitment, in association or alliance with a nuclear weapon state."
There is, of course, an American dimension to this, as there is in most aspects of current British foreign and defence policy. The US has carried out a "Nuclear Posture Review", with similar ideas about changing the rules of nuclear war. Selected parts of the review were leaked to the Los Angeles Times, along with a "hit list" of seven countries: Iraq, Libya, Syria, North Korea, Iran, and also, more surprisingly, Russia and China.
But whereas even the most vocal hawks in the US administration have remained ambiguous, saying the review was merely floating policy options, Mr Hoon has publicly stated that such a change has already taken place. Saddam "can be absolutely confident that in the right conditions we would be willing to use our nuclear weapons," he said. "What I cannot be absolutely confident about is whether that would be sufficient to deter them from using a weapon of mass destruction in the first place."
This is not the first time, since 11 September, that Washington had used London to give public airing to its thinking. Before the bombing of Afghanistan commenced, it was Tony Blair who laid out the supposed evidence linking Osama bin Laden's al-Qa'ida to the attack on the United States. Diplomatic sources say a similar pattern would emerge with Iraq and Saddam in preparation for an autumn war.
There is another American angle, the NMD, or "Star Wars" programme, which needs the use of the early warning stations at Fylingdales and Menwith Hill – both in north Yorkshire – to track incoming missiles from eastern Europe and Middle East.
Much of what Mr Hoon had to say to say to defence select committee appeared to be to prepare the ground for the British government to sign up to Star Wars, although there was the increasingly unconvincing caveat that the Government has not yet made up its mind.
Britain could be attacked by ballistic missiles from the Middle East carrying weapons of mass destruction within the "next few years" said Mr Hoon. The Government was monitoring the activities of "rogue states" such as Iraq and Libya, and liaising with the US over the "developing threat."
He added: "HMG believes it is right for the US, its friends and allies, and all responsible states, to consider carefully how best to tackle it with a comprehensive strategy, and the role that missile defences might play as part of this."
The defence secretary rolled out the list of the Pentagon's usual suspects: Iraq was developing missiles, North Korea has already acquired the technology to develop missiles of "intercontinental range", and Colonel Gaddafi is supposedly interested in the North Korean hardware.
Mr Hoon's controversial views came just before the meeting of the European Union defence ministers meeting in Zaragoza, Spain today to discuss intelligence gathering and co-ordination of plans to protect against nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.
"Britain is being used as a megaphone by the US administration on this issue. This is seen as particularly useful in getting a message over to western European allies," said Christine Kucia, a nuclear analyst with the British American Security Information Council.
"What Mr Hoon is saying is hugely significant, and shows that the British government is fundamentally changing its views on nuclear proliferation. The US has been deliberately ambiguous about such a change of policy, but the British government is being public and direct."
For military planners, the new policy opens up new dangers as well as possibilities. A senior Army officer said yesterday that "such a threat can well be counterproductive. Instead of stopping a rogue leader from using biological and chemical weapons, they may decide to retaliate first, knowing they may face a battlefield nuclear strike. All bets may well be off."Reuse content