Shine A Light

The delusional thinking behind ‘nuclear deterrence’

A new report from the health professionals’ campaign group Medact interrogates the notion that 'nuclear deterrence' is an essential component of the UK's defence strategy.

Alison Whyte
6 February 2013

You and I pour a can of petrol over our heads.  Then each of us threatens the other with a blowtorch. The fact that we could both go up in flames is supposed to prevent one of us from pressing the button.

That is precisely the defence posture of the UK government today. Many people, including senior military figures, are asking why we don’t just get rid of the petrol, and the blowtorch.

During the Cold War, the rationale for retaining nuclear weapons was the ‘ultimate deterrent’ of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD).  Even typing these words feels like an act of insanity, but according to this policy, the fact that both sides had the nuclear capability of reducing the other to dust was thought to keep the peace. 

At that time the UK government stated that we needed nuclear weapons to be taken seriously in the world and Aneurin Bevan coined the well-known phrase that having nuclear weapons would prevent a British foreign secretary from going “naked into the conference chamber”.

After the Cold War, when there were no longer two superpowers confronting each other with MAD, the theory seemed even more bizarre and military strategists started talking about “limited deterrence” and other nonsensical concepts.

This is the subject of a report – ‘The delusional thinking behind a policy of ‘nuclear deterrence’ published this week by Medact, a UK charity of health workers.


Image: Elena Schweitzer

Doctors have an impressive record of challenging delusional thinking. In the 1980s GPs refused to distribute ‘Protect & Survive’- a government leaflet suggesting that people should hide under the kitchen table during a nuclear attack. [PDF here] Doctors have often pointed out the irony of using medical language such as ‘surgical strikes’ when referring to attacking and killing an enemy.

The report points out that political leaders are susceptible to delusional thinking and hubris and it explores the idea in psychology that ‘in-group’ members consider their own group as innately superior to others. This is echoed in the notion that nuclear weapons can be kept in a ‘safe pair of hands’ – ie ours. 

There has been growing unease about the rationale for nuclear weapons in the modern world, particularly at a time when the defence budget is being slashed.

In 2009, the former head of the armed forces, Field Marshall Lord Bramall and two generals wrote in The Times “Nuclear weapons have shown themselves to be completely useless as a deterrent to the threats and scale of violence we currently face or are likely to face, particularly international terrorism. Our independent deterrent has become virtually irrelevant, except in the context of domestic politics.”

The idea that governments will be able to rationally talk themselves out of all situations in which nuclear weapons might be used is clearly also delusional. Medact’s report points out that Britain’s nuclear weapons didn’t stop Argentina from invading the Falkland Islands.  Also, the MAD policy is based on symmetry.  So any country without nuclear weapons could argue that they need them to be similarly protected.

There are currently nine nuclear capable countries: the United States, Russia, China, France, the UK, India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea. Other nations aspire to get hold of these weapons.  To states which have no nuclear weapons, calling for their abolition while continuing to deploy them seems at best hypocritical. Why do we have the right to posses them, if others do not?

Last year, in response to a letter from Medact, the Minister of State for the Armed Forces said that Britain maintains the Trident nuclear weapons system because it is a ‘political’ rather than a ‘military’ weapon. What on earth does this mean?  The implication must be that a political weapon will not be used, a notion that is not borne out in the most recent Strategic Defence Review.

The UK’s official defence strategy does not take the threat of first use ‘off the table’, and nuclear weapons are still considered to be an essential component of our national security.

Yet terrifying nuclear accidents continue to happen.  In 2008 in a Mr Bean-type incident, a nuclear missile crew fell asleep while on duty in a US military facility.  As they snoozed, metal boxes containing secret codes that allow the nuclear button to be pressed were left unattended.  Then in 2010 HMS Astute, “the world’s most advanced nuclear submarine”, ran aground off the Isle of Skye.

Opinion polls show that the majority of UK citizens are against nuclear weapons, but perceptions of the danger they pose appear to have diminished.  This creates a worrying space for complacency.

The notion that abandoning nuclear weapons is a vote loser is not borne out by the apparent popularity of getting rid of them in Scotland. The UK could play a leading part in rescuing the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty, but its policy of continuing to possess Trident, and planning to renew it, is another delusion which threatens us all.  

In recent years, anxiety about a possible nuclear war has been overtaken by panic about global warming, which is now seen as the number one threat to the planet and all who inhabit it. Crucial though it is that we tackle climate change, a possible nuclear accident or exchange may be a more imminent threat to our survival. We take our eye off the nuclear ball at our peril. 


‘The delusional thinking behind a policy of nuclear deterrence’, available from Medactwill be launched at the House of Lords tonight, Wednesday 6 February 2013 at 6pm. Speakers include Kate Hudson of CND, Ben Zala of the Oxford Research Group and Frank Boulton of Medact.


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