New Forest East


By Leonard Cheshire

The Tablet – 19 July 1986

Avoiding Nuclear War, Stan Windass, Brassey's Defence Publishers, (£8.50 paperback)

... The author argues that it is essential to distinguish between the strategic and the operational deterrent. The former, which he redefines as "Mutually Assured Strategic Deterrence", is seen as based on a logical and clear concept. If one side uses its strategic weapons and the other retaliates, and if the process is not very soon halted, both are destroyed and much of the world with them. Such mutual destruction means that these weapons are self-cancelling and not rationally usable.

By contrast, tactical nuclear weapons are designed only for battlefield use. They deter by threatening an aggressor's armies, not his homeland, and for this reason are termed "operational". The threat they pose is real and credible; indeed, without them it is difficult to see how NATO in its present form could prevail against a determined Soviet attack. Moreover, since using them does not necessarily mean escalation to strategic level, they are, theoretically speaking, usable. However, if they were to be used, they would almost certainly provoke a massive nuclear response, with catastrophic effects for Europe. The distinction between operational and strategic weapons has a meaning for the Soviet Union and the United States that it does not have for us.

The real difficulty arises when we consider theatre nuclear weapons: that is to say, European-based cruise and Pershing missiles, and their Soviet counterparts, the SS20s. These lie in the "murky intermediate range" halfway between the operational and the strategic deterrent. If war should break out they would very soon become the focus of attention, and in this sense are part of the battlefield scene; yet because they threaten the adversary's homeland, they are also part of the strategic scene; so they link the two and provide a ladder of possible escalation. There are good reasons for their deployment, but the result is to mix together in one system the contrasting logic of the operational and the strategic deterrent – a mix which is both destabilising and confusing.

The ultimate objective Windass has in mind is a minimum Mutually Assured Strategic Deterrent, which he regards as unusable, because self-cancelling, combined with a non-provocative but effective conventional defence, which he sees as usable. We would thus be left with two defence systems, each with its own separate and distinctive logic. Because the strategic deterrent is unusable both sides would have an incentive to reduce it to the minimum safe level, and relegate it to the sea, "the last hiding place on earth".

His suggested way forward is to phase out battlefield nuclear weapons without negotiation, and replace them with an improved conventional defence of a kind that could not be used for offence. This would reduce dependence on nuclear weapons, raise the nuclear threshold and make it simpler to negotiate arms control. Then comes the more difficult problem of the removal of theatre weapons, which in part belong to the battlefield scene and in part to the strategic; this would therefore have to be mutually negotiated. He acknowledges the difficulty, but thinks that if progress along the whole spectrum of relations between the superpowers is made, the goal can be achieved.

Having read the book, I am in the unusual position of being at the same time in fundamental agreement and in disagreement. I agree with nearly all the steps that are proposed, but I disagree with the ultimate goal. Avoiding nuclear war is not enough. Nothing less than the avoidance of all war between the superpowers is an adequate goal. The conventional weapons of World War II caused the indiscriminate killing of 35 million civilians. Does the Church's condemnation of indiscriminate killing of civilians apply only to nuclear weapons, and not to this degree and form of killing too? This is my complaint with the peace campaigners: in focusing so exclusively on one aspect of the dread problem we face, they fail to see the problem as a whole.

... My own position is that we should harness the very "unusability" of nuclear weapons to make war between the major powers totally and permanently unfightable; unfightable, that is, at any level. Windass believes that one can rely on a conventional defence against any military attack that the Soviet Union could possibly mount. I do not. This is what nations have thought throughout the whole of recorded history, and look how often they have been proved wrong. Either the attack comes in an unexpected way, or from an unexpected direction, or with unexpected power; or perhaps a combination of all three. It is said that we would not repeat the Maginot Line mistake, but that is what those who built it said of their predecessors' mistakes. In any case, even if conventional means could finally prevail, tens of millions would almost certainly die and Europe be torn to pieces.

No, I do not see the world as a safer place if nuclear weapons were disinvented – something that is impossible in any case. Conventional weapons deter only in a relative sense, by persuading the enemy that an attack will not succeed. Nuclear weapons deter in an absolute sense by threatening the immediate destruction of his homeland if he attacks. They do not, of course, prevent war between smaller nations; but what a giant step forward for mankind if we could be certain that world war had been banished to the tragic past.

I do not claim to know how to set about this, for I have no knowledge of the complexities of arms negotiations. But I am convinced that it is achievable. The superpowers are already publicly stating that nuclear war is unwinnable. Why, then, if your nuclear weaponry makes war unfightable and if neither of you wants to fight, do you both insist on building a vast and enormously costly conventional armoury? Why don't both of you formally and solemnly agree that the day of military action between major powers is past, and retain just the insurance of an effective, non-provocative strategic deterrent? You would then make such savings on your military budgets that you would have the funds to counter other, and I believe more dangerous, security threats, and to help build up the world economy.

This book has given new impetus to my thinking. I warmly recommend it.