Deconstructing nuclear deterrence

Military and political leaders who might seriously threaten the UK are simply unlikely to be deterred by the threat to destroy their cities.

Timmon Wallis
12 June 2016

Defence Secretary Michael Fallon visiting Vanguard-class submarine HMS Vigilant at Faslane in Scotland, 2016. Danny Lawson / Press Association . All rights reserved. Jonathan Leader Maynard, who says there is a ‘strong case’ for Trident renewal, and Ian Sinclair, who says there is no such case, both agree on one thing: the language we use to discuss such matters is itself part of the problem. We must watch out for “terms which, whilst purportedly neutral and technical, subtly encourage certain ways of thinking,” says Maynard. “Everyone – academic, politician, journalist or just interested citizen – should reflect critically on the use of such terms and the connotations they encourage,” he says.

Although Maynard himself addresses a number of the terms which Sinclair has criticised, he does not pick up at all on the word ‘deterrence’ itself – easily the most loaded term in the whole vocabulary of nuclear weapons.

Indeed, most academics, politicians and journalists do not even refer to Trident as a nuclear weapon system but instead prefer to call it ‘the deterrent’, as if that were the only relevant feature of what is in fact a weapon of mass destruction whose sole function is to flatten entire cities and kill hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people.

Calling such a weapon a deterrent, or even ‘the’ deterrent, not only hides the chilling reality of what we are actually talking about. It also directly contributes to a way of thinking that allows Maynard to claim that ‘advocates of renewal mean for Trident never to be launched’. Really? Let us examine that claim a bit more closely.

Deterrence is the threat of punishment, but a threat has to be credible to deter

According to the late Sir Michael Quinlan, undisputed master of deterrence theory, ‘We cannot say that nuclear weapons are for deterrence and never for use, however remote we judge the latter possibility to be. Weapons deter by the possibility of their use and by no other route.’

By calling Trident a deterrent, we are lulled into thinking that it will never be used, when in fact it is only the willingness to use it that makes it a deterrent.

But is Trident a deterrent even if David Cameron says he is willing to use it? Michael Quinlan clearly thought so, but it is not Michael Quinlan that Trident is meant to deter. It is the political leaders of Russia who are the primary ‘targets’ of deterrence, along with the political leaders of North Korea and perhaps those of a resurgent Iran or an ISIS-controlled Pakistan. Are these political leaders deterred by David Cameron’s willingness to reduce whole cities to a smouldering pile of ashes should they dare to threaten the very survival of the UK or one of our NATO allies?

Let us examine the latter case first. Trident is assigned to NATO, which means that it is most likely to be used in defence of another NATO member under attack (ie. from Russia). The theory is that Russia would not attack Estonia, for instance, knowing that it would face a devastating retaliatory attack from the UK, using Trident. However, since Russia also has nuclear weapons (around 10,000 of them as compared to the UK’s 200 or so), an attack on Russia by the UK would almost certainly invoke a further attack on the UK itself.

Would a UK Prime Minister authorise the use of nuclear weapons against Russia to protect Estonia knowing that this would probably result in a devastating nuclear attack on the UK itself? Even if a UK Prime Minister would make that decision, the question is, would a Russian Prime Minister expect him or her to do so? Even if a UK Prime Minister would make that decision, the question is, would a Russian Prime Minister expect him or her to do so? Unless a Russian Prime Minister believes that a UK Prime Minister would be willing to risk a nuclear attack on the UK in order to ‘protect’ Estonia or another NATO country, Trident can hardly be considered a deterrent in that particular situation.

What about a direct and existential threat to the UK itself? Is it credible that a UK Prime Minister would launch nuclear weapons on Russian cities knowing that the most likely response – whether or not Russia had already used any nuclear weapons against the UK – would be further nuclear attacks on the UK? As we know from the Chernobyl accident in 1986, the prevailing winds travel East to West across Europe and in that case dumped highly radioactive fall-out in Wales and Cumbria which left huge numbers of sheep unfit for human consumption for the next 25 years. Even without a Russian nuclear attack on the UK, imagine the extent of radioactive fall-out coming back to the UK after detonation of 40 Trident warheads, each one nearly seven times the size of the bomb which was used on Hiroshima. Is it credible that a UK Prime Minister would really take that risk, despite what he or she may say in public? Because if not, the so-called deterrent is nothing but an empty threat.

How do we know if someone is ‘deterred’ by nuclear weapons?

According to General Sir Nicholas Houghton, Chief of Defence Staff, Trident is working as a deterrent ‘every second of every minute of every day’. The only reason we are able to sleep easy in our beds, without fear of imminent attack from some potential aggressor, is that Trident is silently working on our behalf under the Atlantic, day in and day out, making sure that any potential aggressor knows that they would face utter destruction were they to threaten the UK (or its allies). That is all part of the picture we are supposed to conjure up in our minds when we hear the reassuring word, ‘deterrent’.

Apart from the fact that deterrence itself means nothing unless one is prepared to actually use Trident as a weapon, the reality is that there is no way to prove one way or the other whether it has ever worked as a deterrent or would ever work as a deterrent in the future. We can never know what is actually going on in the minds of political leaders when they are making critical decisions like that. Was President Khrushchev ‘deterred’ from basing nuclear missiles in Cuba by the threat of a US nuclear attack, or was he convinced to withdraw the missiles because President Kennedy promised to withdraw US missiles from Turkey?

Perhaps it was a combination of factors, but the truth is we will never know, not even from the memoires of the politicians themselves, since they invariably write their own version of history from whatever perspective will make them look best.

The bombing of Hiroshima is a case in point. The emperor himself said he was accepting unconditional surrender because of the ‘new and most cruel’ bombs that were unleashed on Japan by the US. That is the version of history everyone was told at the time and it is the version we have all been taught at school ever since. But the weight of historical evidence now points decidedly against this being the case. When the bomb fell on Hiroshima, it is a matter of historical record that it went almost unnoticed by the Japanese High Command and there were no calls to surrender or even to reassess their situation. Yet within hours of the Soviet invasion of Japan which happened two days later, the High Command had convened to discuss their surrender.

Since conventional bombing had already destroyed 67 other Japanese cities by that point, one or two more destroyed cities – even at the hand of a new and more deadly weapon – was not that significant in military terms. The declaration of war by the only major world power not yet at war with Japan and the surprise attack which caught the Japanese military totally unawares was, on the other hand, of much more significance to the military and political leaders of Japan at that moment.

Bombing of cities does not win wars so the threat is hardly a deterrent

The extensive bombing of cities in WWII actually turned out to be counter-productive and some historians argue it actually prolonged the war rather than shortened it. War production in Germany increased throughout the six years of incessant bombing of German cities. We need only look at the bombing of London and other British cities by the Nazis to see why this might be the case. Did the people who lived through the Blitz feel despondent and demoralised? Were they banging on the doors of Downing Street asking Churchill to surrender to Hitler so the bombing would stop? How can Trident be considered a deterrent?

Bombing of cities certainly causes death, destruction, suffering and hardship. A single Trident warhead landing on a modern city would cause devastation unparalleled in human history. But there is no evidence that bombing of cities ends wars or even dents the ability or determination of military forces to fight on. The military are in most cases not in the cities being attacked in any case, and if they are, they are probably well-protected in deep underground bunkers while the civilians face the brunt of the attack.

If military forces are not seriously damaged by large-scale attacks on cities and political leaders are not seriously threatened by such attacks, then the threat of launching those attacks cannot be considered a deterrent. Military and political leaders who might seriously threaten the UK are simply unlikely to be deterred by the threat to destroy their cities. How then can Trident be considered a deterrent?

Are countries without nuclear weapons less safe than those who have them?

While the psychological effects of nuclear weapons on the thinking of a potential aggressor are impossible to assess, a social-scientific assessment of how different countries have been affected by having nuclear weapons is quite straightforward. There are roughly 195 countries in the world and only 9 of them currently possess nuclear weapons (with a further 40 or so claiming protection under the US ‘nuclear umbrella’). If nuclear weapons were an effective deterrent against threats and attacks, we should expect to find that the 50 or so countries with nuclear weapons have faced fewer threats and attacks than the 150 or so countries without nuclear weapons. We should also expect to find the 50 or so countries with nuclear weapons to be facing fewer threats and attacks since they attained nuclear weapons than they faced prior to having nuclear weapons. Neither of these two hypotheses are historically correct. Former Navy Commander Rob Green has likened Trident to the Emperor’s New Clothes.

Of the more than 100 wars which have taken place since 1945, nearly half of them have involved nuclear-weapons states. All of the nuclear weapons states, apart from North Korea, have been attacked at least once by non-nuclear weapons states despite having nuclear weapons as a ‘deterrent’. In the case of the UK, Egypt seized control of the Suez Canal in 1956, Iceland seized British fishing vessels in 1974, Argentina seized the Falklands/Malvinas in 1982 and the Provisional IRA carried out numerous attacks on UK forces and assets over a 20 year period. In none of these cases did having nuclear weapons act as an effective deterrent to those wanting to harm UK interests.

During the Cold War, it is often claimed that only US and UK nuclear weapons kept the Soviet Union from attacking or invading NATO countries. However the Soviet Union also did not attack or invade Finland, Sweden, Austria, Switzerland, Yugoslavia, Spain or Ireland, despite these countries not having NATO or nuclear weapons to protect them (Spain joined NATO in 1982).

According to the government’s own Strategic Defence Reviews, no country has posed a military threat to the UK for at least 20 years and no country is expected to pose a military threat to the UK for the foreseeable future. If no country is threatening to attack the UK, it is simply false to suggest that Trident is acting as a deterrent because there is nothing to be deterred.

If Trident were cancelled tomorrow, the reality is that noone in the UK would notice. The idea that we would somehow be less safe and more vulnerable to attack without Trident is, frankly, preposterous. Former Navy Commander Rob Green has likened Trident to the Emperor’s New Clothes: this super-duper new weapon sounds pretty impressive, but actually it does nothing and therefore is not powerful at all.

Tim Wallis’ book, The Truth About Trident, is out now, published by Luath Press.

Who is bankrolling Britain's democracy? Which groups shape the stories we see in the press; which voices are silenced, and why? Sign up here to find out.


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData