The spectre of global thermonuclear war has cast a shadow over my entire life.
While it is not something one thinks about every day, from the time I began to watch television news and read about current affairs, I have been aware of the destructive power of nuclear bombs (using fission) and the much greater destructive power of thermonuclear bombs (using fusion).
Six years ago I spent a sombre afternoon visiting Hiroshima. At the very least, global thermonuclear war would devastate the countries targeted and those affected by the radioactive fallout, and would destroy our civilisation.
A primer on nuclear doctrine
Military thinkers have of course spent much time addressing nuclear strategy, and over the years developed several approaches.
- Launch on warning
Launch on warning was the earliest approach. The fundamental drawback with this strategy is the risk of misinterpreting the signs of a potential attack.
You may fail to identify a real attack, and thereby have your nuclear arsenal destroyed before it can be used. Alternatively you may think you are about to be attacked, when you are not, and thereby launch your own nuclear weapons giving rise to the calamity of an unintended nuclear war.
- Mutual assured destruction
Mutual assured destruction (with a second strike capability) is pilloried by anti-nuclear campaigners because its abbreviation MAD allows them to claim that the strategy is mad!
However it is the strategy that has preserved peace between nuclear powers for many decades.
The principle is to ensure that you have enough nuclear weapons which are sufficiently well protected or sufficiently well hidden and dispersed that they cannot all be destroyed in the event of the enemy initiating the first nuclear strike.
This strategy requires limiting your offensive nuclear capabilities so that you cannot destroy all of your enemy’s nuclear weapons on the ground, because if you acquire that capability, your enemy has no alternative but to adopt the strategy of launch on warning.
Similarly, if you build a defensive anti-missile shield that is too effective, so that your enemy’s nuclear weapons as depleted by your first strike could no longer seriously damage your country, you force your opponent to adopt the launch on warning strategy.
Hence the USA-USSR Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty of 1972 limiting ABM installations.
- Nuclear weapons as a stabiliser
Sometimes nuclear weapons have played a stabilising role, as in the case of India and Pakistan. Since independence, they have fought several conventional wars against each other.
In my view the acquisition of nuclear weapons by both countries has acted as a stabiliser, since there is the overwhelming risk that in the event of conventional war the losing country would launch a nuclear strike.
Absent nuclear weapons, I believe that some of the terrorist attacks that we have seen inside India would have provoked a conventional war between the two countries.
Similarly, since the Sunday Times broke the story of Mordechai Vanunu Israel has generally been believed to possess nuclear weapons. This undoubtedly reduces the risk of other states (as opposed to non-state actors) seeking to attack it.
The question is not whether NATO needs a nuclear deterrent, but whether the UK needs to have its own.
Arguments for a UK independent nuclear deterrent
The argument most commonly put forward is that the world is an uncertain place, may become more uncertain in the future, and that we cannot let our country’s ultimate security depend upon any other country.
Hence the UK needs to be able to launch a retaliatory second strike against any country that may launch a first strike against us.
We have submarine launched ballistic missiles (Trident) with one submarine continuously at sea; that alone provides sufficient firepower to devastate Russia, China or indeed any other country that might launch a nuclear strike against the UK.
Never heard, as far as I am aware, is the argument that we may wish to launch a first strike against some other country should the circumstances arise.
Also rarely enunciated is the argument that the possession of nuclear weapons gives the UK international prestige, and helps to justify our status as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council.
In this regard, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty names only five “nuclear-weapon states” – and by coincidence these just happen to be the five permanent members of the UN Security Council.
Arguments against a UK independent nuclear deterrent
The first argument, that the future is uncertain and we cannot depend on others is superficially very attractive.
However, the UK is an integral member of NATO and has a closer relationship with the USA, both in terms of political and security cooperation and also in terms of language, culture and family connections, than probably any other NATO member with the possible exception of Canada.
Under the NATO treaty any attack by Russia on the UK would be equivalent to attack by Russia on every NATO member including the USA. Accordingly the USA would be expected to respond to that Russian attack. If we cannot rely upon the US nuclear umbrella over NATO, then neither can any other country.
This first argument for why the UK should have an independent nuclear deterrent applies with equal force to every other US ally that has the economic and technical capabilities to build nuclear weapons, which clearly includes Germany, Italy, Spain, Turkey, the Netherlands and many others. Outside Europe it includes such US allies as Japan and South Korea.
Do we really believe that the world would be a safer place if every one of the countries listed above, and others such as Brazil and Argentina, chose to develop their own nuclear weapons?
The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty would not stop them since any country can leave that treaty by giving three months’ notice.
The second argument, that we may wish to launch a first strike against another country (preferably not possessing nuclear weapons) is problematical in many ways. It is almost impossible to imagine the circumstances in which this could arise.
In 1982 Argentina invaded British sovereign territory in the Falklands leading to conventional war but there was never the slightest likelihood that the UK was going to launch nuclear bombs against Buenos Aires.
The final argument, that nuclear weapons provide prestige, I suspect underlies much of the thinking in favour of a Trident renewal but without being enunciated explicitly. It undoubtedly has some validity; the question is how much validity and at what price?
Would I renew Trident?
One of the paradoxes of strategy is that if you pursue absolute security for yourself, you not only increase the insecurity of others but also increase your own insecurity. Indeed, the pursuit of absolute security is a chimera.
In my view the UK, and indeed also France where exactly the same arguments apply, should abandon their independent nuclear deterrents and instead rely upon the single NATO deterrent possessed by the USA. The money saved should be used for additional conventional military capability which we definitely need.
My position is not based in any way on the hope of achieving a “nuclear free world.” I regard that as a pipedream in the absence of world government, since nuclear weapons once invented cannot be un-invented.