By Julian Lewis
RUSI Journal, vol.154, no.1 – February 2009
These are very tough times for British defence planners. Years before the present economic crisis, the United Kingdom was fighting military campaigns on a peacetime Defence Budget. Increasingly this has led to inter-Service warfare for inadequate resources. Yet, the case for retaining our nuclear deterrent is common ground between Government and Opposition, and attempts to revive unilateralism have failed to generate significant support, regardless of the end of the Cold War. This is due to a mixture of military and political factors.
The military argument for retaining our independent deterrent can briefly be summarised as follows:
a) Future military threats and conflicts will be no more predictable than those which engulfed us throughout the Twentieth Century. This is the overriding justification for preserving Armed Forces in peacetime as a national insurance policy. No-one knows which enemies might confront us during the next 30–50 years, but it is highly probable that at least some of them will be armed with mass-destruction weapons.
b) It is not the weapons themselves which we have to fear, but the nature of the regimes which possess them. Whereas democracies are generally reluctant to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear dictatorships (though they did against Japan in 1945), the reverse is not true. Think, for example, of a non-nuclear Britain in 1982 facing an Argentina in possession of a few tactical nuclear bombs and the means of delivering them.
c) The United Kingdom traditionally has played a more important and decisive role in preserving freedom than other medium-sized states have been able or willing to do. Democratic countries without nuclear weapons have little choice but to declare themselves neutral and hope for the best, or to rely upon the nuclear umbrella of powerful allies. The United Kingdom is a nuclear power already and is also much harder to defeat by conventional means because of our physical separation from the Continent.
d) Our prominence as the principal ally of the United States, our strategic geographical position, and the fact that we are obviously the junior partner, might tempt an aggressor to risk attacking us separately. Given the difficulty of overrunning the United Kingdom with conventional forces, in contrast to our more vulnerable allies, an aggressor could be tempted to use one or more mass-destruction weapons against us, on the assumption that the United States would not reply on our behalf. Even if that assumption were false, the attacker 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.
e) No quantity of conventional forces can compensate for the military disadvantage which faces a non-nuclear country in a war against a nuclear-armed enemy. The atomic bombing of Japan is especially instructive – not only because the Emperor was forced to surrender, but also in terms of the reverse scenario: imagine if Japan had developed atomic bombs in the summer of 1945 and the Allies had not. An invasion to end the war would have been out of the question.
The political argument is even more simply stated:
a) A large majority of the population consistently takes the view that it is safer for the United Kingdom to retain nuclear weapons whilst other countries have them, than it would be to renounce them unilaterally.
b) In the 1980s, two General Elections demonstrated the toxic effect of one-sided disarmament proposals on a party’s prospects of gaining power.
c) It was, and remains, widely believed (i) that schemes for ‘mutual understanding’ and disarmament after World War I, played into the hands of dictators and helped pave the way for World War II; and (ii) that the nuclear stalemate of the Cold War enabled all-out conflict between the major powers to be avoided for fifty years, despite their mutual hostility and in contrast to those regional theatres where communists and their enemies could – and did – fight without fear of nuclear escalation.
d) The ending of East-West confrontation has not altered the balance of public opinion, because (i) it could easily re-emerge, and (ii) unpleasant regimes are on the point of acquiring nuclear weapons and some may already have done so.
Although a recent letter in the press, attacking British insistence on ‘a costly successor to Trident’, has brought a flicker of hope to the deterrent’s traditional opponents, the combination of military and political factors listed should, and probably will, continue to prevail.
The letter says little which is new, but has attracted attention primarily because of the pedigree of the people who signed it. All three are retired Generals – one of them, indeed, a former Chief of the Defence Staff. Their arguments will not, however, change the Government’s mind, nor that of the party which may presently supersede it.
Leading ‘by example’
Let us consider the components of the Generals’ case. They aver that renewing our deterrent may undermine the objective of a world free from nuclear weapons to which a variety of senior politicians and statesmen, past and present, apparently subscribe. Renewal, it is claimed, may ‘actively encourage others to believe that nuclear weapons [are] still, somehow, vital to the secure defence of self-respecting nations’. Yet, none of the people referred to – Douglas Hurd, Malcolm Rifkind, David Owen and George Robertson – has indicated any belief that Britain should abandon its strategic deterrent unless other nuclear powers simultaneously do the same. All of them are multilateralists who have strenuously opposed attempts inside and outside Parliament to do precisely what the Generals are recommending.
Certainly, there is an argument to be had about whether a nuclear-free world is attainable or desirable. Some multilateralists are convinced that striving for this is the only way to generate further pressure against nuclear proliferation. Others view a nuclear-free world as a dangerous chimera in the absence of a revolution in the minds of men which would allow general and complete disarmament to be implemented too. The former rightly fear the multiplication of nuclear-armed states; the latter rightly dread the creation of a world made safe, once again, for conventional warfare between the major powers.
Neither group deludes itself that a British decision to renew Trident will derail what would otherwise be a global agreement either to reduce nuclear stockpiles or to eliminate them entirely. Ours is a minimum strategic deterrent which has recently seen a reduction from a warhead total of 200 to one of only 160. This is not the first time we have taken such steps – without the least discernible reciprocation from any other country. The notion that our replacing four ageing submarines with four new ones, or a modest stockpile of warheads and missiles with a similar number of upgraded ones, would drive a non-nuclear state into the WMD business is utterly fanciful.
Nation-states operate according to hard-headed calculations of their own strategic interests. During the Cold War, the advocates of one-sided British nuclear disarmament were repeatedly challenged actually to name a single, specific nuclear or near-nuclear country which would abandon its quest for nuclear status in response to a gesture by the United Kingdom. Not one example was ever offered by the unilateralists, either then or subsequently. Yet, it is easy to envisage the reverse scenario, where a country fearing conventional conflict with the United Kingdom might redouble its efforts to obtain mass-destruction weapons, in the knowledge that without their own deterrent the British would be incapable of persisting with any campaign.
‘Pseudo-independence’ and ‘unthinkable’ scenarios
This leads to the second strand of the Generals’ case: that the UK deterrent ‘cannot be seen as independent of the United States in any meaningful sense’, since the missiles are provided by, and shared with our American allies. According to this view, the United Kingdom should rely exclusively on the US nuclear umbrella, because although we have ‘in theory, freedom of action over giving the order to fire, it is unthinkable that, because of the catastrophic consequences for guilty and innocent alike, these weapons would ever be launched, or seriously threatened, without the backing and support of the United States’.
In his article in this edition of the RUSI Journal, of which he courteously gave me sight in advance, General Sir Hugh Beach asks ‘what geopolitical niche can be discerned in which Britain could be exposed to nuclear blackmail without being able to count on American cover?’ He even makes the bold claim that ‘no such scenario has ever been described, nor have Britain’s “vital interests” ever been defined’. Both the question and the claim overlook the fact that our deterrent is a weapon of last resort.
The role of our strategic nuclear force remains what it has always been: to deter any power armed with mass-destruction weapons from using them against us in the belief – true or false – that no-one would retaliate on our behalf. The use of our deterrent consists of the preventative effect it has on the behaviour of our enemies: the actual launching of a Trident missile would mark the failure of deterrence and would presuppose that a devastating attack had already been inflicted on our country. In other words, the prospect of ‘catastrophic consequences’, to which the Generals refer, would already have been inflicted upon the United Kingdom. Under such dreadful circumstances, the aggressor would know that the British had nothing left to lose and that is why he would be insane to attack us in the first place.
He would also know, as General Beach and his colleagues agree, that the United States would be physically incapable of preventing us from instantly retaliating (if, indeed, that is what the Prime Minister of the day had decided to write in the submarine commander’s sealed letter) in the unlikely event of the failure of deterrence. The fact that over a period of months a US Government could, if it wished, slowly disable our retaliatory capability, is neither here nor there. This could not be done at the very short notice which would apply in any crisis where the UK needed to neutralise a blackmailer or deter a WMD attack.
As for particular scenarios, let us consider the entirely plausible one of a renewed threat from the East to Continental Europe. A number of outcomes are possible. An aggressor with strong conventional armies might advance with or without using tactical nuclear weapons. If this happened, NATO would respond militarily, possibly with but possibly without using tactical nuclear weapons in turn. If this all led to massive escalation, then Doomsday would indeed be upon us all. Yet, it is quite conceivable that, for fear of this very outcome, both sides might draw back from a nuclear exchange. Given her geographical vulnerability, even the one Continental power with an independent nuclear force – France – might decide to endure conventional occupation in preference to nuclear Armageddon.
Where would this leave the United Kingdom, if it had abandoned its own nuclear force? The answer is, rather like Japan in the summer of 1945. Physically separate from the Continent, the British would be extremely difficult to eliminate conventionally – but they could be blackmailed into surrender by the threatened, or actual, dest uction of their cities, either singly or en masse. As for the American nuclear umbrella, would an aggressor which had managed to overrun the Continent be persuaded by a proxy threat of retaliation by the US on behalf of the UK when so much had already been given up without the nuclear button being pressed? Not necessarily. And that would lead to one of two terrible outcomes: either the UK would be attacked by mass-destruction weapons with impunity, or there would indeed be a US nuclear response with horrific consequences for all the belligerents as a result of the aggressor’s miscalculation. An independently-controlled British deterrent would prevent any such attack and would force the aggressor to rely upon conventional military force alone.
‘But the Cold War is over’
Of course it is – and this is what really underlies the thinking of the posse of Generals who have recently galloped into view. Because strategic nuclear deterrence is largely irrelevant to the current counter-insurgency campaigns which are stretching the British Army to the limit, and because we are fighting wars on a peace-time Defence Budget, some senior Army officers are suggesting that we must choose between fighting what is called ‘the war’ of the present, rather than insuring against the possibility of ‘a war’ of a different kind in the indefinite future.
This choice is unacceptable, and the underlying message – that the era of high-intensity state-on-state warfare is gone for good – is a dangerous fallacy. Every sane individual hopes that such warfare will never return; but to rely on this in the face of past experience would be foolhardy in the extreme. The lesson of warfare in the Twentieth Century, repeated time and again, was that when conflicts broke out they usually took their victims by surprise. Obvious examples are the failure to anticipate World War I, the follies of the ‘Ten-Year Rule’ from 1919 to 1932, and the entirely unanticipated attacks on Israel in 1973, the Falklands in 1982, Kuwait in 1990 and the United States in 2001. Conversely, and on a brighter note, the speed with which the Soviet Empire unravelled from 1989 left even its sternest critics largely nonplussed.
Our present counter-insurgency campaigns are very important indeed, but they cannot be compared with battles for the very survival of the United Kingdom homeland. Such existential threats confronted us twice in the past hundred years: if international relations deteriorate, they could easily do so again.
Some of the retired (and active) senior officers who have been criticising the deterrent may have disapproved of it even when the Cold War was at its most intense. General Beach, I recall, falls into this category and cannot, therefore, be accused of inconsistency. The suspicion remains, however, that others accept that an independently-controlled British nuclear force was of value in the latter half of the Twentieth Century, but believe that this no longer applies in the era of what I term Un-Islamic Extremism. This is short-sightedness with a vengeance; and it is probably fuelled, at least in part, by the mistaken belief that cancelling Trident would release large sums of Defence cash for use by our over-stretched land forces. As the three Generals put it in their letter in the press: ‘Rather than perpetuating Trident, the case is much stronger for funding our Armed Forces with what they need to meet the commitments actually laid upon them.’ [Italics added]
‘It’s all about politics’ – a lesson from the ’Sixties ...
So far, Lord Bramall and the late Lord Carver are the only former Chiefs of the Defence Staff to have denounced the British deterrent. The Generals’ letter describes it as
‘virtually irrelevant except in the context of domestic politics’.
It is profoundly to be hoped that other ex-Service chiefs will presently combine to articulate the case in favour its military value. In the meantime, though, we must make do with a revealing story from the archives about a previous occasion when the deterrent was being renewed.
It is set out in the minutes of the Chiefs of Staff meeting of 29 September 1964, just over a fortnight before the General Election which brought Harold Wilson to power. Lord Mountbatten, as CDS, informed his colleagues of a draft paper which had been prepared on the importance of retaining an independent nuclear force:
This paper was intended for use, subject to the approval of the Chiefs of Staff, in the event of a new Government proposing to abolish this force … [H]e considered that [the Chiefs of Staff] were under a moral obligation to put the military aspects of the problem without delay to any Government which might consider abolishing our independent deterrent.
He proposed that each Service chief should personally sign a memorandum designed to dissuade an incoming Labour Government from adopting unilateralism:
This should state that it was the traditional responsibility of the Chiefs of Staff of the Services to defend these Islands against all forms of attack … The paper should go on to say that now and in the foreseeable future the Chiefs of Staff saw no way of continuing to discharge this defence responsibility except by the possession of a nationally controlled nuclear deterrent force, of such a capability that it could inflict upon any aggressor such a degree of damage as to outweigh any possible benefit which he might obtain from his aggression. The paper should conclude by asking that if the Government wished to do away with our deterrent force, they should formally absolve the Chiefs of Staff from further responsibility for the defence of the United Kingdom against attack. [Italics added]
In the ensuing discussion, it was pointed out that the Labour Party was claiming that the British independent nuclear deterrent
was neither British nor independent and that it did not deter. The paper should include the military facts refuting this argument. There were no strings in the Polaris agreement to our independent use of the weapon in emergency … The Chiefs of Staff paper should not be qualified by any reference to United States assistance. The first duty of the United States Government was to act in the best interests of their own country. It was always possible that an occasion could arise where support of United Kingdom policy was not compatible with these interests.
In the event, it soon became clear that the new Government was looking for reasons not to implement its manifesto commitment to unilateralism, provided that, as a senior Ministry of Defence official told the Service chiefs on 17 November, ‘some difference between the proposals now put forward and those approved under the previous administration’ could be found. The projected Polaris fleet was consequently reduced from five submarines to four; face was saved – and so was the deterrent.
This episode contradicts several recurrent myths: first, that the nuclear deterrent has traditionally been imposed by governments on reluctant military chiefs for political rather than military reasons; secondly, that there is anything new – or valid – in claims that our deterrent is not really independent; and, thirdly, that there is no military case for a separate United Kingdom nuclear force, given the existence of the American nuclear umbrella.
… And another from the ’Eighties
The perceived lessons of disarmament during the inter-war years and nuclear stalemate during the post-war era have, over time, become embedded in the popular psyche. With the original decision to develop a UK deterrent taken in strictest secrecy, there was little scope for protest until its second generation was due.
The organised anti-nuclear movement thus came into being in the late 1950s. In the early 1960s its ‘first wave’ split the Labour Party, as the V-bombers gave way to Polaris. In the early 1980s its ‘second wave’ worried NATO as Polaris gave way to Trident – and as five NATO states, including the United Kingdom, accepted Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces as part of a successful strategy to secure the removal of Soviet SS20s.
Yet, throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s, opinion polls regularly showed two-thirds of the British public to be in favour of keeping nuclear weapons as long as other countries had them, and only a quarter in favour of unilateralism. Labour’s insistence on aligning itself with the minority position in 1983 and 1987 is widely perceived as a major factor in both those heavy General Election defeats – and that explains why the party finally altered its policy in July 1991. The change was engineered by the then Shadow Foreign Secretary Gerald Kaufman, and, in March 2007, when Parliament voted by 409 to 161 to proceed with the next generation of the nuclear deterrent, Sir Gerald reminded MPs of his description of Labour’s 1983 anti-nuclear manifesto as ‘the longest suicide note in history’, and the reasons for making the change:
That shift of policy removed an insuperable barrier to the Labour Party's electoral credibility. Without it, many of my hon. Friends would not be in this House today, including some who may be contemplating voting against the Government this evening. Do those hon. Friends really believe that our shared objective of world nuclear disarmament can be achieved by unilateral disarmament by Britain? Do they really believe that if we gave up Trident, the eight other nuclear weapons powers would say, ‘Good old Britain! They have done the right thing. We must follow suit.’? Pull the other one! ... Defeating the Government tonight … could so reduce our party's credibility as to contribute to a Labour defeat at the next election ... A cartoon in The New Yorker once showed an Army officer in a bunker saying to his assembled troops: ‘Gentlemen, the time has arrived for us to make a futile gesture.’ Futile gestures can be personally satisfying, but what do they get us? I will tell the House what they get us: 18 years in opposition. It is one thing to revisit the scene of the crime; it is quite another to revisit the scene of the suicide.
Why is unilateral British nuclear disarmament electoral suicide for any would-be Government? Are so many British citizens simply deceiving themselves by opting, in a nuclear-armed world, to be able to threaten nuclear retaliation? Or is it that the common sense of ordinary people has lessons to teach to retired Generals as well as to ambitious politicians?
1. The argument has been deployed more extensively in ‘Nuclear Disarmament versus Peace in the 21st Century’, RUSI Journal, vol.151, no.2, April 2006, pp.50–54.
2. The Times, 16 January 2009.
3. DEFE 32/9: COS 58th Mtg/64 (2)(Confidential Annex)(SSF), 29 September 1964. The full military case for the deterrent, set out in the COS papers, can be examined in ‘Britain’s Need for a Nuclear Deterrent’, (Part II: Historical Study – Deterrence in the Polaris Era), Defence Studies, vol.8, no.3, September 2008, pp.262–285.
4. DEFE 32/9: COS 68th Mtg/64 (3)(Confidential Annex)(SSF), 17 November 1964.
5. Hansard, 14 March 2007, cols.344–345.