In the January-February 1997 issue of the New Zealand International Review, an article by Ron Smith – Director of Defence and Strategic Studies in the Department of Political Science and Public Policy at the University of Waikato, New Zealand – argued against the growing tide in favour of the abolition of nuclear weapons. On the following point I have no dispute with him. He wrote:
“The crucial issue is that of the value of nuclear deterrence in the contemporary world. If it still has value, then that value must be measured against what we take to be the value of a nuclear weapons-free world… We cannot discuss the elimination of nuclear weapons without discussing nuclear deterrence.”
What if nuclear deterrence has no value? I will argue that this is in fact the case; and that the whole doctrine of nuclear deterrence is a dangerous illusion.
Flying With The Bomb
I served in the Royal Navy for twenty years from 1962-82. As a Fleet Air Arm Observer (navigator and weapon system operator), I flew in Buccaneer carrier-borne nuclear strike jets from 1968 to 72; and for the next five years in anti-submarine warfare (ASW) helicopters equipped with the WE-177 Nuclear Depth Bomb (NDB). As one of four nuclear crews in a Buccaneer squadron, my pilot and I were assigned a target from NATO’s Single Integrated Operational Plan, and were ordered to plan to attack it with a free-fall WE-177 thermo-nuclear bomb.
Nuclear Versus Conventional Deterrence Between States
NDBs were withdrawn from the Royal Navy in 1992. By then, new conventional ASW weapons had been developed which were able to neutralise all currently envisaged naval targets. Indeed, as far as the USA is concerned, Ron Smith rightly stated:
“There is nothing it could do with nuclear weapons that it cannot do with modern conventional weapons.”
Therefore conventional deterrence – which is credible – is the military answer to his fear that, without nuclear deterrence, “disastrous wars between the major powers are likely to occur again.”
Modern industrial States, increasingly interdependent on multinational conglomerates, the globalisation of trade and sensitive to public opinion, are increasingly constrained from going to war with each other. But even if this argument is not accepted, there is a fundamental logical objection to relying on nuclear deterrence. Although the risk of conventional deterrence failing is greater, the damage would be confined to the belligerent States – and the environmental damage would usually be reparable. What is at stake from deterrence failing between nuclear weapon States is the devastation and poisoning of not just the belligerent powers, but potentially of all forms of life on the planet. Meanwhile, retention of nuclear arsenals encourages proliferation of the problem, and with it this unacceptable risk.
In my last appointment as Staff Officer (Intelligence) to Commander-in-Chief Fleet, I helped to provide round-the-clock intelligence support to British forces in the Falklands War. I know what a close-run thing that war was. If Argentine aircraft had sunk one of the main troopships before the landing force had got ashore, the British might have had to withdraw. What would Thatcher have done? Polaris had clearly not deterred Galtieri from invading. With victory in his grasp, it is doubtful that he would have believed even Thatcher would have seriously threatened a nuclear strike on Argentina. Yet rumours abounded that a Polaris submarine had been moved south within range of Buenos Aires. If she had so threatened, my assessment was that he would have very publicly called her bluff and relished watching Reagan try to rein her in. And in the last resort, it is likely that the Polaris Commanding Officer would have either refused the order or faked a malfunction, and returned to face the court martial.
My scepticism over nuclear deterrence grew when the Berlin Wall came down; but it took the Gulf War to make me break out of my pro-nuclear brainwashing. As the first ex-RN Commander with nuclear weapon experience to speak out against them, it was very traumatic.
In the run-up to the Gulf War, my military intelligence training warned me that the US-led coalition’s blitzkrieg/punitive expedition strategy would give Saddam Hussein the pretext he needed to attack Israel – an undeclared nuclear weapon State. If thereby Israel was drawn into the conflict, this might split the coalition. If not, he still stood to gain widespread Arab support for being the first Arab leader for years to take on the Israelis.
My greatest fear was that the Iraqi leader would be provoked enough to attack Israel with chemical-headed Scud missiles. Knowing that West German technical support was involved in the warhead design, Israel’s Prime Minister Shamir would come under massive pressure to retaliate with a nuclear strike on Baghdad. Iraq had the best anti-nuclear bunkers Western technology could provide; but even if Saddam did not survive, what would happennext? With Baghdad a radiated ruin, the entire Arab world would erupt in fury against Israel and her friends: there would be terror bombings in every allied capital; Israel’s security would be destroyed forever; and Russia would be sucked in.
The first Scud attack hit Tel Aviv on the night of *18* January 1991. For the first time, the second most important city of a de-facto nuclear State had been attacked and its capital threatened. Worse, the aggressor did not have nuclear weapons. The rest of the world still waits to learn what Bush had to promise Shamir for not retaliating – fortunately, the warhead was conventional high explosive, and casualties were light. The Israeli people, cowering in gas-masks in their basements, learned that night that their nuclear “deterrent” had failed in its primary purpose. Some 38 more Scud attacks followed.
Meanwhile, in Britain the IRA just missed wiping out the entire Gulf War Cabinet with a mortar bomb attack from a van in Whitehall. They were not deterred by Polaris – yet a more direct threat to the government could barely be imagined.
Nuclear Deterrence Won’t Work Against Terrorists
To my surprise, in 1993 the British Secretary of State for Defence agreed with me. In a keynote speech on 16 November at the Centre for Defence Studies in King’s College, London entitled “UK Defence Strategy: A Continuing Role for Nuclear Weapons?”, Malcolm Rifkind almost agonised over the problem:
“… I have to say that it is difficult to be confident that an intended deterrent would work in the way intended, in the absence of an established deterrent relationship… Would the threat be understood in the deterrent way in which it was intended; and might it have some unpredictable and perhaps counter-productive consequence? Categoric answers to these questions might be hard to come by, and in their absence the utility of the deterrent threat as a basis for policy and action would necessarily be in doubt… it is difficult to see deterrence operating securely against proliferators.”
By an “established deterrent relationship” presumably he meant the unstable, irrational balance of terror between two trigger-happy, paranoid power blocs – otherwise known as the Cold War. Its inherent instability was evidenced by the inevitable struggle for “escalation dominance”. More than 50,000 nuclear warheads was the ridiculous result; while health, education, and other services that make up civilised society deteriorated on both sides through lack of resources.
With the break-up of the Soviet Union and an unchecked arms trade, it is only a matter of time before terrorists get a nuclear weapon. They are the most likely “proliferators”, because nuclear blackmail is the ultimate expression of megalomania and terrorism. Yet nuclear deterrence cannot be relied upon against such threats.
*What If Terrorists Try Nuclear Blackmail?
The first rule is that on no account should the threat of nuclear annihilation be used to try and oppose them. They will just call your bluff – because targeting them with even a small nuclear weapon would be impossible without incurring unacceptable collateral damage and provoking global outrage. Indeed, they would relish taking as many others with them as they could. So nuclear weapons are worse than useless in such a crisis.
My advice would be to emulate how the French authorities dealt with a man with explosives wrapped around his chest who hijacked a class of schoolchildren and threatened to blow them up if his demands were not met. They exhausted him by lengthy negotiations while installing surveillance devices to determine his condition and location. At an optimum moment Special Forces moved in and shot him dead with a silenced handgun.
The most important underlying point to make here is that the surest way to minimise the chances of a nuclear hijack is to stop treating the Bomb as a top asset in the security business and the ultimate political virility symbol.*
This nightmare will intensify as long as the five permanent members of the UN Security Council insist on the Bomb to “guarantee” their ultimate security – when in fact it does the exact opposite – while trying to deny it to other States. Such a policy of nuclear apartheid is hypocritical and un-sustainable.
Nuclear Deterrence Undermines Security
The Falklands and Gulf Wars taught me that competing for unilateral security leads to more insecurity, both for others and ultimately oneself. We need a new understanding of security: one that sees it as a safety net for all, not a “win or lose” military game which leaves the underlying problems which caused the war unresolved, and feeds the arms trade. True security lies in fostering a just, sustainable world order.
The Bomb directly threatens security – both of those who possess it and those it is meant to impress. Indeed, it is a security problem, not a solution. This is because it provokes the greatest threat: namely, the spread of nuclear weapons to megalomaniac leaders and terrorists – who are least likely to be deterred.
Nuclear Deterrence Undermines Democracy
Democracy depends on responsible use of political and military power, with leaders held accountable to the will of the majority of the people. If a democratic nation is forced to use State-sanctioned violence to defend itself, its leaders must stay within recognised moral and legal limits.
*Morality. The policy of nuclear deterrence inevitably involves an actual intention to use nuclear weapons under certain – admittedly extreme – circumstances. Michael Dummett, Wykeham Professor of Logic at New College, Oxford took up the argument in a speech on 19 October 1993:
“We have to ask ourselves, ‘Is it wrong to have an intention to do what is wrong?’ Plainly it is. So, ‘Is it wrong to have a conditional intention to do what would be wrong?’ There is a seductive argument which goes: ‘The point is to prevent the condition from arising in which I am threatening to use nuclear weapons.’ What is wrong about that is not any consequence of forming that intention; it is that you give your will, albeit conditionally, to the act intended. The strategy of deterrence requires a conditional intention to commit a monstrously wicked act: to annihilate entire cities and all the people living in them. It is therefore a strategy which no government should use and no citizen should support.”
Legality. That is where democracy and Nuremberg come in. On 8 July 1996 at the Peace Palace in The Hague, I was present when the International Court of Justice gave its Advisory Opinion on the following question put to it by the UN General Assembly in December 1994:
“Is the threat or use of nuclear weapons under any circumstance permitted under international law?”
In the most authoritative declaration of what international law says about the question, the Court highlighted the “unique characteristics of nuclear weapons, and in particular their destructive capacity, their capacity to cause untold human suffering, and their ability to cause damage to generations to come.” Thereby, the Court confirmed that nuclear weapons are in the same stigmatised category of weapons of mass destruction as chemical and biological weapons. Indeed, the effects of nuclear weapons are more severe, widespread and long-lasting than those of chemical weapons of which the development, production, stockpiling and use are prohibited by specific convention regardless of size. Also radiation effects are analogous to those of biological weapons, which are also outlawed by specific convention.
Unsurprisingly, therefore, the Court could find no legal circumstance for the threat or use of nuclear weapons. Also it endorsed the view that threat and use are indivisible. In deciding that it could not conclude definitively whether the threat or use of nuclear weapons would be lawful or unlawful in an extreme circumstance of self-defence, the Court left no exception. On the contrary, it challenged the nuclear States that they had not convinced it that limited use of low yield, so-called “tactical” nuclear weapons “would not tend to escalate into the all-out use of high yield nuclear weapons.” Furthermore it confirmed that, as part of humanitarian law, the Nuremberg Charter of 8 August 1945 – paradoxically signed two days after the nuclear strike on Hiroshima and the day before the one on Nagasaki – applies to nuclear weapons.
Though neither directly binding or enforcable, this clearly brings into question the legality of, for example, ballistic missile-firing submarines deployed on patrol. Nuclear deterrence is about threatening the most indiscriminate violence possible, unrestrained by morality or the law. It is therefore a policy of gross irresponsibility, and the antithesis of democratic values.
Stifling Dissent. Furthermore, democracy within a nuclear weapon State is inevitably eroded by the need for secrecy and tight control of equipment, technology and personnel. When I became a nuclear crew in Buccaneers, I was given a special security clearance before being told never to discuss the nuclear role, even with other aircrew in my squadron, let alone my family. It was considered such an honour – only the four best crews were chosen – that no-one questioned it.
As Senior Observer of the Sea King ASW helicopter squadron in the carrier HMS EAGLE in 1973-74, I had to train the other Observers how to use a thermo-nuclear depth bomb (NDB). The speed and depth advantage of the latest Soviet nuclear submarines over NATO air-launched ASW torpedoes was such that it had been concluded that only an NDB could be guaranteed to destroy them. Now this was just to protect our carrier, not last- ditch defence of the motherland. Moreover, the Observer would have had to press the button to release it – not the Prime Minister, as they are so fond of claiming. There was a “Low/High Yield” switch: low yield was about 5 kilotons, and high yield over 10 kilotons – Hiroshima was not much more than that. Worse, this would definitely be a suicide mission, because our helicopter was too slow to escape before detonation. For good measure, such an attack would vaporise a huge chunk of ocean, cause heavy radioactive fallout (both from the NDB and the nuclear submarine reactor and any nuclear-tipped torpedoes it carried), and also cause the underwater sonic equivalent of Electro-Magnetic Pulse – quite apart from escalating World War 3 to nuclear holocaust.
Yet all these concerns were brushed aside when I raised them. I was simply told not to worry, and get on with it. So I did: but I began to realise that nuclear weapons were militarily useless; and that my leaders – both military and political – were placing me in a position where I could fall foul of the Nuremberg Charter. However, the old British military tradition of the Charge of the Light Brigade in the Crimean War, as immortalised by Tennyson, was alive and well: “Theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do and die.”
Nuclear Gunboat Diplomacy? This difficulty has re-emerged recently, with the deployment in Trident of a single, variable lower-yield warhead in some missiles to threaten a “more limited nuclear strike” in order to deliver, in Mr Rifkind’s words, “an unmistakable message of our willingness to defend our vital interests”. He justified this by the need to find an answer to the fact that six 100 kiloton, MIRV’d warheads atop the other missiles are not a credible deterrent threat to “rogue” States threatening British vital interests anywhere in the world.
These vital interests, spelt out in the 1995 Defence White Paper, include British trade, the sea routes used for it, raw materials from abroad, and overseas investments. This has been accompanied by, for example, the following statement in the December 1996 issue of the Royal United Services Institute Journal by Admiral Sir Peter Abbott KCB, then Commander-in- Chief Fleet:
“Within the context of a broad security policy, I anticipate that specific military action may be required in the way of dissuasion, retribution or coercion against those nations, regimes or groupings which pose a threat to our vital interests, project a tangible military threat to our homelands, forces overseas or allies, and those who disrupt the international system.
“Therefore, although part of that framework will include defence in its classic sense of reactive measures consistent with NATO doctrine, it will also have to include more pro-active measures. This will add meaning to new concepts of deterrence, based on dealing with problems as they emerge and whilst the potential adversary is more amenable to persuasion, rather than waiting for them to grow and an adversary to become strong. We will also have to cater for the irrational opponent or those occasions when the threat of nuclear use is not practicable or simply not credible. This can be achieved by dissuasion, which is sustained by a constant demonstration of our military capability and readiness to use it, and retribution which should ensure that if an opponent, whether a pirate or rogue regime, is not dissuaded after warnings, he can expect to suffer considerable, unacceptable, and possibly personal, consequences.
“This implies the possibility of what I would call pre-emptive deterrence. This is a philosophy which has been fashionable in history at certain times – that of establishing waypoints beyond which a state feels threatened and a potential enemy, rational or not, will be subjected to offensive action at an appropriate level. Given my points about deterrence and economy of effort before, we will wish any action to be at a time and place of our choosing so that we can retain the initiative. This is particularly relevant with regard to emerging technological threats based on WMD, ballistic/cruise missiles and terrorism.. This argues for dealing with the problems at source, before any potential aggressor can concentrate in range and in force.”
Entente Nucleaire. Such “power projection” thinking reinforces the secretive collaboration between Britain and France, begun in 1992 with the creation of a Joint Commission on Nuclear Policy and Doctrine. On 30 October 1995, with the row over French nuclear tests as a backdrop, Chirac and Major announced that the Anglo-French nuclear relationship had reached the point where “we do not see situations arising in which the vital interests of either France or the UK could be threatened without the vital interests of the other also being threatened.” Officials played down reports that joint missile submarine patrols were possible. However, the UK Financial Times reported that “agreement had been reached on a broad definition of sub-strategic deterrence: in other words, the use of a low-yield ‘warning shot’ against an advancing aggressor, along with a threat… of a massive nuclear strike unless the attack halts. This warning shot would apparently be fired as soon as either country’s ‘vital interests’ were threatened.” The implication is that such a threat could be made even against a non-nuclear State, notwithstanding British and French negative security assurances – and the fact that such a threat, let alone use, of nuclear weapons is clearly illegal.
Undemocratic Decisions. Meanwhile, the history of the British Bomb shows that every major decision was taken without even full Cabinet knowledge, let alone approval. In 1980 I was a fly on the Whitehall wall when Thatcher insisted on having Trident, despite disagreement among the Chiefs of Staff and without consulting the Cabinet. Admiral of the Fleet Sir Henry Leach, First Sea Lord at the time, was the first to call it “a cuckoo in the naval nest”. He was supported by Admiral Sir Sandy Woodward, then a Captain as Director of Naval Plans. Richard Sharpe, then also a Captain on the Naval Staff and a former nuclear submarine Commanding Officer, later wrote in the 1988-89 edition of Jane’s Fighting Ships (the first under his editorship):
“Because funding for Trident has come mainly from the naval share of the defence budget, it is having an increasingly detrimental effect on the equipment programmes for the rest of the Fleet.”
Adam Raphael, in an Observer article on 11 July 1993 headlined “Megabuck Trident as much military use as Noah’s Ark”, described it as “Thatcher’s macho mistake”. I understand that the Royal Navy is deeply split over Trident for these reasons. And now it is faced with the likelihood that Trident’s deployment on deterrent patrol contravenes international humanitarian law.*
Nuclear Weapons Are Self-Deterring
Fortunately for us all, the one aspect of nuclear deterrence which probably does work is that nuclear weapons are in fact self-deterring. My evidence for this again comes from a British Secretary of State for Defence. In his 16 November 1993 speech, Rifkind said:
“…there is sometimes speculation that more so-called ‘useable’ nuclear weapons – very low-yield devices which could be used to carry out what are euphemistically called ‘surgical’ strikes – would allow nuclear deterrence to be effective in circumstances where existing weapons would be self-deterring.”
He went on to warn against reviving a war-fighting role for them, because this would:
“…be seriously damaging to our approach to maintaining stability in the European context, quite apart from the impact it would have on our efforts to encourage non-proliferation and greater confidence outside Europe. This is not a route that I would wish any nuclear power to go down.”
Unfortunately, he contradicted his own wise words by supporting the replacement of Polaris by Trident; and more specifically by supervising the introduction, mentioned earlier, of a lower-yield, single warhead in the missile load of the Trident submarine currently on patrol.
Any sane potential aggressor intent on acquiring nuclear weapons should heed Churchill’s warning after Dresden: “The Allies risk taking over an utterly ruined land” – and that was conventional bomb damage. Even a low-yield “demonstration” strike (rumoured to be in growing favour among US, UK and French planners searching for roles for their nuclear arsenals) would so outrage world opinion that it would be self-defeating.
For a nuclear State facing defeat by a non-nuclear State, there is evidence that nuclear weapons are again self-deterring. The US in Vietnam, and the Soviets in Afghanistan, preferred withdrawal to the ultimate ignominy of resorting to nuclear revenge.
For all these reasons, I conclude that nuclear deterrence is a dangerous illusion.
From Nuclear Deterrence To Abolition
On 4 December 1996 in Washington, General Lee Butler USAF (Ret’d),Commander-in-Chief of US Strategic Command from 1992- 94, explained to the National Press Club why he, too, had “made the long and arduous journey from staunch advocate of nuclear deterrence to public proponent of nuclear abolition.” He warned: “Options are being lost as urgent questions are unasked, or unanswered; as outmoded routines perpetuate Cold War patterns and thinking; and as a new generation of nuclear actors and aspirants lurch backward toward a chilling world where the principal antagonists could find no better solution to their entangled security fears than Mutual Assured Destruction.”
As a member of the Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons, General Butler had joined Field Marshal Lord Carver, Chief of the UK Defence Staff from 1973-76, in stating:
“The risks of retaining nuclear arsenals in perpetuity far outweigh any possible benefit imputed to deterrence … The end of the Cold War has created a new climate for international action to eliminate nuclear weapons, a new opportunity. It must be exploited quickly or it will be lost.”
Their first recommended step towards this is for all nuclear forces to be taken off alert. This would “reduce dramatically the chance of an accidental or unauthorised nuclear weapons launch.” Apart from making the world much safer, it would puncture the myths of nuclear deterrence doctrine once and for all.