The new nuclear deterrence and disarmament crisis

We are violating the fundamental principles of Mutual Assured Destruction – and there seems to be a lack of awareness, let alone alarm, about this in mainstream western commentaries.

Robert Green
3 April 2019, 11.26am
The Trinity test of the Manhattan Project was the first detonation of a nuclear weapon, 1945.
Wikicommons/public domain.

My book Security without Nuclear Deterrence, a new edition of which was published last year in the UK, explains my gradual rejection of pro-nuclear deterrence indoctrination as a former operator of British nuclear weapons.

The naked nuclear emperor

In it I chronicle how the US politico-military-industrial complex, drawing the wrong lessons from Hiroshima and Nagasaki and in denial about the horrors it had unleashed on humanity, seized upon the bogus mantra of nuclear deterrence to play upon people’s fears and justify sustaining the unaccountable, highly profitable scientific and military monster spawned by the Manhattan Project.

Since then the principal guardians of nuclear deterrence – the western group comprising the US, UK and France – have struggled to provide intellectual coherence as endless adjustments to the theory and doctrine were made to accommodate the latest expansion of the nuclear arms race it had unleashed. Uncritical repetition by posturing political leaders, careerist experts and mainstream media of simplistic soundbites gave it the aura of a state religion, to the point where it echoed the fable of the emperor with no clothes.

Nuclear deterrence is based upon a crazy premise: that nuclear war can be made less probable by making it more probable. Worse, it is bedevilled by two insurmountable contradictions:

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* A rational leader cannot make a credible nuclear threat against an adversary capable of an invulnerable retaliatory ‘second strike’.

* Yet a second strike would be no more than posthumous revenge.

Moreover, unlike conventional war, following nuclear war – amid millions of dead and untreatable survivors, radioactive poisoning and apocalyptic destruction – the smoke alone from firestorms over cities in a nuclear war in South Asia would blot out the sun around the entire northern hemisphere, causing massive crop failure and global famine.

Recently, the groundless claim that nuclear weapons prevent war between nuclear-armed states was yet again challenged in the latest clashes between India and Pakistan, whereupon anxious nuclear powers led by the US and China had to intervene to restrain them. India and Pakistan naively followed their former colonial master’s insistence that nuclear deterrence held the key to guaranteed security and acceptance as a great power. Instead, blind faith in nuclear deterrence has emboldened both sides to launch provocative military actions over disputed Kashmir: thus nuclear weapons have increased the risk of war between them.

Challenging the Nuclear Order

An important recent paper by British expert Dr Nick Ritchie, A hegemonic nuclear order: Understanding the Ban Treaty and the power politics of nuclear weapons, examines how the US-led nuclear order has evolved around nuclear deterrence.

The 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) represents a significant challenge to the P5’s oligarchic power to establish norms biased towards non- and counter-proliferation, co-opt dissenters and institutions, and sustain mainstream acceptance of nuclear deterrence dogma.

This nuclear cartel recognises that reframing the discourse from an arms control and non-proliferation mindset to a ‘humanitarian disarmament’ standpoint threatens their status quo. Hence the ferocity of their response led by the western group, bitterly protesting at how irresponsibly naive the 122 member States who had adopted the TPNW had been in destabilising international security, when US-Russian relations were deteriorating and North Korea had demonstrated further strides in its nuclear capability. This bluster tried to deflect attention from US President Trump’s far more destabilising determination to renege on the Iran Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, expand US ballistic missile defence, and even question the value to the US of NATO.

This bluster tried to deflect attention from US President Trump’s far more destabilising determination to renege on the Iran Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, expand US ballistic missile defence, and even question the value to the US of NATO.

The TPNW represents a new, determined diplomacy of resistance, fuelled by frustration over the nuclear cartel modernising their arsenals. The nuclear order is constrained by US ability to maintain subservience through bargaining between the dominant and dominated, employing strategies of inhibition applied to friends and foes alike, including aid, conventional arms sales, alliances and extended nuclear deterrence.

The post-Cold War period witnessed a shift from non- to counter-proliferation, preventing the acquisition of nuclear weapons by threatening attack against regional ‘rogue’ states, including first use with new low-yield nuclear warheads. In so doing, nuclear deterrence doctrine had been effectively inverted from professed prevention of war to pre-emptive war backed by ballistic missile defence, thereby exposing its practical irrelevance, not least in countering terrorism after 9/11.

Ritchie discusses how the western group have led development of benign conceptions of ‘responsible’ nuclear sovereignty and norms of behaviour, forming a respectable façade for what is essentially a fetishisation of nuclear weapons, imbuing them with extraordinary symbolic power. This subject was first tackled in 2009 by Anne Harrington de Santana in her subversive critique, Nuclear Weapons as the Currency of Power: Deconstructing the Fetishism of Force. In support, institutions have been established to monitor and control nuclear weapon and energy programmes, such as the International Atomic Energy Agency, the 48-member Nuclear Suppliers Group, and the Zangger Committee with 39 member States. These institutions are not neutral, but politicised fora that fix systems of bias, privilege and inequality.

Other important US-dominated institutions include NATO and its Nuclear Planning Group, and the bilateral Asia-Pacific nuclear alliances. Then there is the institution of US-Russia nuclear arms limitation, developed to organise and constrain Cold War nuclear arms competition, manage the risk of nuclear violence in crises, and displace disarmament as the more logical, equitable and effective alternative path.

Closely linked to bilateral attempts at arms control is the US-Russia consensus to persist with over 1,500 strategic nuclear warheads on each side at minutes’ notice to launch before confirmation of a nuclear strike, almost thirty years after the Cold War ended.

In a commendable effort to challenge this notoriously unreliable and irresponsible posture, a seminar held in Switzerland in 2009 co-sponsored by the EastWest Institute and the Swiss and New Zealand governments brought together US and Russian experts to explore ways to de-alert their forces. However, in their report, Reframing Nuclear De-Alert: Decreasing the operational readiness of US and Russian nuclear arsenals, the co-sponsors explained that no progress was achieved because both US and Russian sides blocked any change to current arrangements. This demonstrated the pernicious influence of nuclear deterrence doctrine and the associated nuclear order.

Underpinning this entire construct has been a deliberate socialisation of ideas to mould a pro-nuclear consensus, and sideline or suppress other ways of thinking about security, justice, and nuclear order through indoctrination, self-censorship, and exclusion of those ‘out of touch with the real world’ who do not accept nuclearism.

This regime of acceptable knowledge, or ‘institutional truth’, has brought us to the current perversely unsustainable situation, especially with the US erosion of arms control agreements. Western nuclear weapons are seen as inherently legitimate and good for international peace and security; but those in the hands of authoritarian states or those beyond the West's sphere of influence are illegitimate and undermine a western interpretation of international order.

The nuclear deterrence and disarmament crisis

However, in addition to all nuclear-armed states modernising their arsenals, in February last year, the new US Nuclear Posture Review signalled the start of the most serious nuclear deterrence and disarmament crisis for 30 years.

In February last year, the new US Nuclear Posture Review signalled the start of the most serious nuclear deterrence and disarmament crisis for 30 years.

In May 2018, Trump trashed the Iran Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action; then early this year the US released a Ballistic Missile Defence Review, and then withdrew from the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty.

The 2018 US Nuclear Posture Review revives enthusiasm for ‘usable’ low-yield nuclear warheads to shore up nuclear deterrence credibility. It includes a new, low-yield Trident nuclear warhead; a new nuclear-armed cruise missile; and a more accurate, guided version of the B61 freefall nuclear bomb with lower variable yield between 0.3-50 kilotons (the Hiroshima bomb was 16 kilotons), and a fusing system more capable of withstanding the shock of penetrating hardened and deeply buried targets. This will replace 150 older model B61 bombs deployed in Belgium, Netherlands, Germany, Italy and Turkey.

The US Missile Defence Review, published in January this year, commits the US to expanding ground and space-based systems. These violate the fundamental principles of Mutual Assured Destruction – but there seems to be a lack of awareness, let alone alarm, about this in mainstream western commentaries.

One new, particularly dangerous development is the push to deploy conventionally armed ballistic missiles in US submarines, possibly including Trident, for pre-emptive ‘Prompt Global Strike’ against a threat which otherwise would require a nuclear response. An obvious risk would be that, even if the conventional warhead is launched in a different ballistic missile from Trident, Russia would presume it was a nuclear strike.

A global nuclear tinderbox

The announcement on 2 February of US withdrawal from the 1987 INF Treaty, followed the next day by Russia’s withdrawal, means that the world – especially Europe – is faced with a far more dangerous rerun of the 1979 NATO decision to deploy nuclear-armed Cruise missiles and Pershing ballistic missiles in Europe to counter Soviet SS-20 intermediate range ballistic missiles.

This time the US leadership is unlikely to listen to European concerns, which are heightened by a more ambiguous US/NATO nuclear posture; probable collapse of US-Russian arms control initiatives, and even greater consequent public alarm and resistance. This could severely strain NATO cohesion, and trigger a major rethink of its nuclear deterrence doctrine.

In predictable response, specifically to Trump’s withdrawal from the INF Treaty, President Vladimir Putin claimed in his state of the nation address on 20 February that, in addition to new weapon systems soon to become operational, Russian submarines stationed off the east and west US coasts are now capable of launching Zircon hypersonic stealthy cruise missiles invulnerable to ballistic missile defence with a range of up to 1,000 km.

The inevitable consequence of US hubristic abuse of its hegemonic nuclear order, and the Russian response, is to increase the risk of nuclear weapon use through miscalculation, mistake or malfunction.

Moreover, there is general acceptance that once the first nuclear detonation occurs, escalation to all-out nuclear war would rapidly and uncontrollably follow. Facilitating all this has been a fallacious and disingenuous lumping together of nuclear with chemical and biological weapons of mass destruction by some policy-makers, when the reality is that nuclear weapons are orders of magnitude worse.

See Part Two here.

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