No one is asking the right questions about nuclear weapons

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'US nuclear weapons test in Nevada in 1953' / CC
'US nuclear weapons test in Nevada in 1953' / CC

Nuclear weapons are amongst some of the most controversial and emotive of issues. They’re up there with abortion, the legality of war and the death penalty. Ask anyone and they have an opinion, but I’m prepared to bet my lunch money that it will be a response based on the moral side of the question rather than the application of the issue itself.

Let me explain. Ask anyone if they believe in the death penalty and they’ll say, ‘yes, if my daughter was raped and murdered I’d want the bastard to fry’ or ‘no, the state has no right to commit murder’. Seldom do people beyond the legal world make the point that: ‘the death penalty is a precarious business because the justice system is never 100 percent correct all of the time and death is, obviously, an irreversible punishment’.

To this background, Adam Kelvin Fletcher recently argued against nuclear weapons on their moral and economic merits. This is a standard argument, and while Fletcher’s argument was succinct he bypassed, like so many politicians and the media who raise the issue, the application of using nuclear weapons in a conflict situation.

No one beyond military circles ever contemplates publicly what the strategy and tactics of a nuclear would look like. Military affairs are a speciality and few of us have experience planning a war. That said it would be remiss not to speculate on the merits of weaponry that come, as Fletcher notes, at such expense to the public purse.

The UK is thought to retain a stockpile of around 225 thermonuclear warheads, of which 160 are operational, but it has refused to confirm the exact size of its arsenal. Since 1998, the Trident programme has been the only operational nuclear weapons system in British service. The delivery system consists of four Vanguard class submarines based on the Clyde in Scotland and each has up to 16 Trident II missiles, (which will reduce to eight following decisions made in the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review). One submarine is always on patrol.

The logic of nuclear weapons is MAD: Mutually Assured Destruction. The UK has refused to commit to a ‘no first use’ (NFU) policy that rules out using nuclear weapons in a first strike attack. Other countries, such as China and India have committed to it but the UK, like the USA, has reserved the right to exercise its own judgement.

However, the nuclear deterrence policy of the UK Government in which it stipulates when it would authorise the use of nuclear weapons is clear, and something that Fletcher has overlooked:

  • Preventing attack – the UK’s nuclear weapons are not designed for military use during conflict but instead to deter and prevent nuclear blackmail and acts of aggression against our vital interests that cannot be countered by other means
  • The UK will retain only the minimum amount of destructive power required to achieve our deterrence objectives – this is known as ‘minimum deterrence’
  • We deliberately maintain some ambiguity about precisely when, how and at what scale we would contemplate the use of our nuclear deterrent. We do not want to simplify the calculations of a potential aggressor by defining more precisely the circumstances in which we might consider the use of our nuclear capabilities (for example, we do not define what we consider being our vital interests), hence, we will not rule in or out the first use of nuclear weapons
  • The UK’s nuclear deterrent supports collective security through NATO for the Euro-Atlantic area an independent centre of nuclear decision-making enhances the overall deterrent effect of allied nuclear forces: separately controlled but mutually supporting nuclear forces create an enhanced overall deterrent effect; the UK deterrent is operationally independent, and the UK does not require US or NATO authorization to use its deterrent – UK nuclear weapons remain under political control at all times; only the Prime Minister can authorise the firing of UK nuclear weapons.

So in application, what would the use of nuclear weapons look like?

In general, we can assume that a nuclear attack against this country would be designed to either cripple or annihilate our infrastructure and population. On that basis, we can also deduce that if a country was to undertake this attack against us it would include taking out the Government and the legislatures of this land.

Subsequent to this the surviving remnant of the UK Government would, presumably, launch a retaliatory strike against our aggressor.  The precise details of how a British Prime Minister would authorise a nuclear strike to remain secret, but it is known that at the beginning of their term each UK Prime Minister writes four identical letters of last resort to the commanding officers of the four British ballistic missile submarines. They contain orders on what action to take in the event that an enemy nuclear strike has destroyed the British government and has killed or otherwise incapacitated both the Prime Minister and the “second person” (normally a high-ranking member of the Cabinet) whom the Prime Minister has designated to make a decision on how to act in the event of the Prime Minister’s death).

According to the December 2008 BBC Radio 4 documentary The Human Button, there were four known options given to the Prime Minister to include in the letters. The Prime Minister instructs the submarine commander to either:

  • retaliate with nuclear weapons;
  • not retaliate;
  • use his own judgement; or place the submarine under an allied country’s command, if possible. The documentary mentions Australia and the United States.

In the event that the orders were to be carried out, the action taken could be the last official act of Her Majesty’s Government. The letters are stored in two safes in the control room of each submarine. The letters are destroyed unopened after a Prime Minister leaves office, so their content remains known to only them.

Now this is the bit that no one mentions or focusses on when they talk about whether nuclear weapons are right or wrong. If the rump of the surviving UK is crippled, if our population is dying and generations condemned to illness and deformities from radiation sickness, do we strike back when the damage is already so reprehensible and long lasting?

The enemy has already caused massive damage. By their very definition nuclear weapons – presumably used in large numbers and not in one instance – would decimate the UK population, leave most of the country uninhabitable for generations and our infrastructure totally destroyed or significantly damaged. What follows next could be worse: depending on the strategic goals of the enemy, there could either be invasion and occupation or annihilation for the sake of it.

Winston Churchill once said, when making the case to his Cabinet in 1940 against negotiating with Adolf Hitler, that: “If this long island story of ours is to end, at last, let it end only when each one of us lies choking in his own blood upon the ground.” The question then, for those who survive those first mushroom clouds, would be whether to resign yourself to the end of days and defeat at the hands of cowards and thugs or do you support a retaliation that took out as much of the enemy’s infrastructure and military capability as possible?

No one is saying anything about the deliberate and unscrupulous murder of millions by virtue of them being of a nationality headed by a government of dishonourable aims and motives. The Second World War cleared up that civilian casualties are a reprehensible but unavoidable part of warfare. The Blitz was matched by the bombing of Dresden; both born of a need to cripple small targets in civilian populations that morphed into the crippling of broader infrastructure with mass civilian casualties. Today, both events are deemed as either immoral or pragmatic but, whatever your view, they are most definitely controversial for their attacks on civilians.

The UK and international society (broadly speaking) frown upon the targeting of civilians. The fallout of the 2001 September 11th attacks and the age of terrorism has all but spoiled any appetite for indiscriminate attacks on civilians as a method of warfare. It would be reasonable to assume therefore that in a deep bunker, somewhere, this would be a consideration for the surviving government, but of course, it is impossible to say.

Nuclear proliferation is internationally policed and governed by the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (of which the UK is a signatory). Nuclear weapons cannot be uninvented and there is little point basing the entire argument for disarmament on the assumption that if multilateral disarmament was a success, then that would guarantee no country would not offer the materials to, or that terrorists/non-state actors wouldn’t develop a nuclear device that can fit in a backpack.

All of this is to say that while Fletcher makes an interesting argument for disarmament, his case is merely bean counting when they should be focusing on the moral arguments for using nuclear weapons in defence. As for whether or not we can afford to keep then, I can only respond by asking if we can afford not to.

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About Alastair Stewart 208 Articles
Alastair Stewart is a freelance writer and journalist. He was previously a press officer in the Scottish Parliament and worked in public affairs. He graduated from Edinburgh University with an MA in International Relations and writes regularly on politics and the arts in the Spanish and British press.

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