RUSI Defence Systems – Autumn 2005
In the 1920s, after the trauma of the Great War, each of the three Armed Services prepared its plans on the basis of an entirely different potential enemy. No one could tell if the next conflict would be with Germany, Italy, Russia or even France. More than a decade elapsed before that question was answered.
The unpredictability of future military threats constitutes the raison d’être of the British nuclear deterrent. Its next generation, if constructed, will not enter service for another 15-20 years. Its life expectancy will then be at least 30 years. Who can anticipate the threats we may face in the course of the next half-century?
Our minimum strategic nuclear force therefore serves as a comprehensive insurance policy to dissuade an aggressive state – anywhere in the world – from launching an attack against us with mass-destruction weapons.
Clearly, the deterrent is not a panacea. British interests have been, and will continue to be, liable to attack by enemies who rely on the fact that a nuclear response to conventional aggression is not very likely. In the 1980s, the British Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament often asserted that Polaris was useless as it had not prevented the invasion of the Falklands. It was, of course, obvious to Argentina that a democratic country like ours would not make a nuclear response to limited aggression that fell well below the threshold for such retaliation.
Yet, to abandon the deterrent because it could not deter every type of attack would have made no more sense than abandoning the antidote to a fatal disease just because it is ineffective against lesser infections. Consider, too, the scenario if roles had been reversed: if Argentina had possessed just a few mass-destruction weapons whilst Britain had none: would we then have dared to re-take the Islands by sending a conventional task force? Aggressive dictatorships with nuclear weapons may be far less restrained than democratic states in their willingness to use them against countries that cannot retaliate.
The case for keeping a nuclear deterrent can be simply stated in point form:
- No one knows what enemies may arise during the next 30-50 years.
- Such enemies could be armed with nuclear or other mass-destruction weapons.
- Aggressive dictatorships have far fewer scruples than democracies about using nuclear weapons against non-nuclear powers, as Soviet plans revealed after the Cold War make abundantly clear.
- Democratic countries that have never possessed nuclear weapons have little choice but to rely on the nuclear umbrella of powerful allies. This does not apply to the United Kingdom, which not only is a nuclear power already, but is much harder to defeat by conventional means because of its physical separation from the Continent.
- Given this geographical advantage, the temptation for an aggressor seeking to eliminate the UK would be to use mass-destruction weapons on the assumption that another country would not reply on our behalf. Even if that assumption were false, the aggressor would find out his mistake when, and only when, it was too late for all concerned. An independently-controlled British nuclear deterrent massively reduces the prospect of such a fatal miscalculation.
- No amount of conventional forces can compensate for the military disadvantage that would confront a non-nuclear country in a war against a nuclear-armed enemy. Here, the case of Japan in 1945 is instructive – not only in terms of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but once again in terms of the reverse scenario: imagine a nuclear-armed Japan facing conventional invasion by the Allies who did not have atom bombs in their arsenal…
Nor should we be afraid to state that some weapons are acceptable in the hands of democracies, but not in the hands of fanatics and dictators. It is preposterous to claim that we must divest ourselves of our nuclear missiles if we wish North Korea or Iran to renounce their nuclear programmes. Such countries seek such weapons according to a hard-headed calculation of their own strategic ambitions – not in response to moral gestures by democratic states.
During the Cold War years, the unilateral disarmers were repeatedly challenged to name a specific nuclear or near-nuclear country that would follow Britain’s example if we abandoned our strategic deterrent. No one ever did so in the face of the actual list of the countries concerned.
Giving up the British nuclear deterrent would entail the massive gamble that this country will never be threatened by a major military power. No responsible government should ever put the United Kingdom at such deadly risk.