New Forest East


Journal of the Royal United Service Institution – March 1971

As a convinced subscriber to the view that prolonged and decisive conventional warfare is still possible in the nuclear era, I should like to point out certain errors and omissions in the intriguing analysis by Mrs. Elizabeth Young (Correspondence, December 1970).

Her central theme would appear to be the impossibility of obtaining a decisive result in any non-nuclear conflict involving one or more nuclear powers.

This theory is applied to both indirect, and direct confrontations, the former category being exemplified by the inconclusive campaigns of Korea, Vietnam and the Middle East. I remain to be convinced that these episodes lend the slightest support to Mrs. Young's contentions. Whereas she stipulates that the superpowers (on every side) could not allow their clients to be really defeated, the inescapable result of this state of affairs is quite overlooked. Given these commitments, the only way in which a decisive result could have been obtained would have been for the superpower 'guarantors' to have waged total war amongst themselves. This they were almost certainly not prepared to do – even on a conventional basis – and there is thus every reason to suppose that all these crises would have proved equally indecisive had nuclear weapons never been invented.

All this is, however, of little significance, compared with the fundamental inapplicability of Mrs. Young's ideas in the European context. It would obviously be impossible to fault her claim that a non-nuclear war must inevitably be indecisive and interminable, if one agreed with her initial assumption that 'neither side can risk so defeating the other as to tempt it to use nuclear weapons'. But those who press for an increased conventional capability are convinced that a country on the verge of defeat and occupation will not opt for the nuclear holocaust as an alternative. This standpoint – whatever its merits – is completely unaffected by Mrs. Young's hypothesis which itself falls apart if one refuses to accept the tacit implication that suicide is preferable to surrender.

As to the conclusion of the war, I would suggest that the conventionally inferior nation, refusing its suicidal option, could go down to utter defeat with its nuclear arsenal still intact. This is not to say that a Polaris fleet and its adjuncts will be useless in this situation. It will, in fact, be fulfilling the one function of which it is perfectly capable: that of preventing the enemy from using his nuclear potential, and restricting him to his conventional armoury.

Balliol College