Nuclear test. Wikimedia/National Nuclear Security Administration. Public Domain.
When Theresa May presented to parliament the case for renewing the state's nuclear forces in July 2016, she was asked directly by a Scottish MP whether she would be prepared to order a nuclear attack. The usual response to this question over the years has been to prevaricate. The United Kingdom's new prime minister, just a few days into the job, gave an unequivocal "yes." This was one of the very rare occasions in British politics when a direct query on nuclear use solicited a direct answer. In a sense, Theresa May did everyone a favour by being so clear.
The British nuclear force is not one of the larger ones, certainly in comparison with the United States and Russia. However, it still has 100-200 thermonuclear warheads, with just one of its Trident submarines capable of launching sixteen missiles, each with three warheads. The actual numbers may be lower than this in routine deployments, but a submarine ordered to fire could certainly ripple-fire over thirty warheads to different targets within half an hour. Typical missile flight times of less than half an hour mean that the destruction could all be achieved in just double that period (see: "Britain's nuclear-weapons future: no done deal," 21 July 2016).
Each warhead is rated at about 100 kilotons of destructive power. This exceeds the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs by over four-fifths in each case. At a very conservative estimate, if each Trident warhead killed 100,000 people (an event of Hiroshima's magnitude), the British prime minister could deliver an order that would kill 3 million people within an hour.
The British prime minister could deliver an order that would kill 3 million people within an hour.
But consider a more cautious scenario, where the ballpark figure for nuclear use is "only" a million killed in an hour. How many countries have that capability? The United States and Russia each still have several thousand nuclear weapons, though their total arsenals are drastically down from the 1980s peak of over 60,000. Five other countries – France, China, Israel, Pakistan, and India – operate broadly at the UK's level of capability. North Korea is doing its best to get to that point, but has some way to go.
Leaving aside all the theology of deterrence, the reality is that eight countries underpin their approach to national security in the ability to commit appalling crimes against humanity – and one other is trying to emulate them.
To be clear, the above estimates are extremely modest. For example, in the 1980s the UK government's secret estimate of casualty rates from an all-out Soviet nuclear attack on the west was around 40 million people killed out of a population of 56 million. The government of the day preferred to give ridiculous advice on how to “protect and survive” rather than publish this figure.
A different way of thinking
This all presents us with an alternative way of looking at the possession of nuclear weapons: namely, that any state willing to kill at least a million people in less than an hour as a core part of its fundamental defence posture should be considered a rogue state. This makes for eight-and-a-half rogue states worldwide.
One counter-argument is that nuclear weapons keep the peace without carrying any risk of untoward accident or escalation. The history of the past sixty years suggests otherwise. Moreover, far more information is now available about the accidents, dangerous crises, and near-misses in this period, which shows how close the world has come to catastrophe on several occasions.
The UK too has had its share of mishaps. The Nuclear Information Service chronicles many of the country’s problems and is publishing a further report on the subject in February 2017. Today, all seven “open” nuclear states are upgrading their forces, with Israel no doubt doing the same. As, at the same time, Putin and Trump talk up their nuclear prowess, addressing the issue looks difficult. Yet that is the very reason why the rogue-state approach is so useful.
In 2017, there are 193 member-states of the United Nations with seats in the general assembly, of which 185 do not feel the need to possess their own nuclear weapons. Some gave up any efforts, Switzerland and Sweden among them. Others, certainly including Argentina and Brazil, have looked seriously at the possibility; South Africa actually had a small arsenal in the early 1990s but got rid of it. Several countries no longer have the nuclear weapons of other states on their territory, such as Canada, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan. These instances all flow from a particular context, but it's nonetheless true that very few nuclear rogue states remain (see: "Two steps to zero," 27 July 2008).
How else can the willingness to acquire the capacity to commit an appalling war crime, and treat this as central to your military stance, be described? In an era when prospects for nuclear disarmament are poor, calling rogue states by their true name is a way of thinking that should catch on.