Cruise missiles were removed from the UK in 1991, ending their controversial deployment at Greenham Common in Berkshire, because of the intermediate-range nuclear forces (INF) treaty, which is now expected to lapse on Friday.
The US is due to officially withdraw from the 1987 agreement – which eliminated missiles with ranges of 310-3,420 miles (500 to 5,500km) – after Donald Trump last year accused Moscow of violating it – a charge Russia denied. In response, Vladimir Putin suspended Russia’s participation in the treaty last month.
The Greenham Common base was the site of a celebrated women’s protest. Many of those present believe the demonstrations helped create the pressure to disarm that led to the signing of the missile ban treaty between the US and Soviet Union in 1987.
Rebecca Johnson, who spent five years at the protest camp from its early days in 1982, believed it took years of “massive anti-nuclear protests in the 1980s” at places such as Greenham to force world leaders to act.
Ripping it up, Johnson said, put the world “at heightened risk of nuclear weapons use and war” – although she, still an anti-nuclear protester, hopes countries will sign up to an alternative multilateral 2017 treaty on the prohibition of nuclear weapons instead.
“When we started at Greenham, I’m not sure we were particularly thinking in terms of a nuclear treaty, we just wanted to get rid of the missiles,” she said. “It was the treaty that gave me permission to leave and start campaigning on other things.”
Protests at the US airbase began after a group of women marched from Cardiff in autumn 1981 in the hope of debating with the base commander and its personnel the decision to base 96 cruise missiles there. Their plea was ignored and instead the women set up a camp and lived there full-time. The camp stayed until 2000.
The US left Greenham in 1992, and the site is now open heathland, although the original missile silos remain. They were used as a setting for a rebel base during the filming of Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
If cruise missiles were ever to be redeployed in the UK, Johnson believes the most likely site would be RAF Lakenheath in Suffolk. Such a redeployment is considered unlikely, although the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) will on Friday deliver a letter to Downing Street to ask the prime minister, Boris Johnson, to refuse to host intermediate US nuclear weapons.