Belfast Telegraph

UK Website Of The Year

The chicanery and brinkmanship that shapes theory of nuclear war

Labour leader Ed Miliband believes the Trident missile system is one of the guarantors of international peace. So why is he so keen to stop Iran developing its own bomb? And will he change his mind to do a deal with Nicola Sturgeon's Scottish Nationalists?

By Malachi O'Doherty

Published 07/04/2015

Apocalypse now: Labour leader Ed Miliband and SNP chief Nicola Sturgeon are miles apart on the issue of a nuclear deterrent for the UK
Apocalypse now: Labour leader Ed Miliband and SNP chief Nicola Sturgeon are miles apart on the issue of a nuclear deterrent for the UK

Nuclear weapons are going to be on the table when the Scottish Nationalists and Labour inch closer to making a deal. Nicola Sturgeon believes that the Trident missile system, housed on the Clyde, is a colossal waste of money. Ed Miliband subscribes to the theory that it keeps us all safe.

This is the debate we may be facing into, does our capacity to destroy cities in seconds, to kill people in their hundreds of millions, really prevent wars happening?

We are all tooled up for nuclear war because of a theory called deterrence. This theory says that you are not likely to nuke me because I would nuke you back, but would I?

Britain and the United States and the other countries in Nato subscribe to other theories, too, like the defence of human rights and opposition to terrorism.

They argue against those who kill civilians in war with weapons of mass destruction, yet reserve the right and the power to burn whole populations and make vast nations uninhabitable.

But, they argue, we have this power so that we won't have to use it. In which case, why not just have big plastic warheads, scary looking enough to convince the enemy, but ultimately just toys? Maybe they have; they wouldn't tell you, or me. There may be some design flaws, even some human flaws, in this fundamental military doctrine of deterrence, the doctrine upon which the safety of the world is said to depend.

There isn't a lot to go on, but the Russians did once see in their early-warning system a mistaken message that American intercontinental ballistic missiles were about to rain down on them.

A sentry of sorts had a call to make.

He had either to start off a process that would lead to the annihilation of humanity, or he had to take a moment to think this over.

Not surprisingly, he being a human being, he hesitated, and a false alarm created by flocks of birds passed without the world being blown up.

The flaw in the theory of deterrence is that it assumes that a nuclear power contemplating its own destruction will strike back and eliminate the enemy. It won't eliminate the threat; it will be too late for that. But it will strike back and erase cities and incinerate millions of people.

But deterrence will actually have failed once the enemies' missiles are in the air. The purpose of those weapons, to deter, will then be unavailable. Their only function then will be revenge and genocide and it is not impossible to suppose that military commanders who are about to die will see little point in everybody else dying along with them.

It is not beyond the bounds of human possibility that Russians under attack would spare the rest of the human race, or that Americans and British under attack would think in the same way. Better a world run by them than no world at all.

And that doubt that the other side would join in the end of the world carnival dilutes the doctrine of deterrence and weakens its hold.

We are not supposed to think these thoughts, of course, to undermine the credibility of deterrence, for that would only put us all in danger. We and the enemy have both to believe that any nuclear strike will provoke a nuclear strike coming the other way.

Usually in military theory, credibility has to be upheld with action.

You do what you said you would do and then the enemy knows for sure what to expect the next time, but in the nuclear scenario there is no next time and no chance to build that credibility. So how do you make the threat believable?

You could imagine a situation in which the Russians would fire one nuclear bomb to take out a single city.

That would force on the West the calculation of whether the end of the world was worth one city.

They might decide that it wasn't and seek some political resolution short of wiping Russia off the map and getting wiped off in return.

But credibility is not a consideration at all when the missiles coming in are going to destroy all of the Western world.

Credibility is about keeping a strategy alive so that you can use it again.

That option will not be there when all of our military and industrial capacity is about to disappear. Nuclear deterrence needs to have its credibility up front. That is done through having the native populations believe in it.

Imagine a situation in, say, 1965, when a Soviet spy goes to a dinner party in London and chats with all the big writers and thinkers of the time over drinks. He raises the subject of the prospects of nuclear war and they all laugh at him.

They tell him that they don't believe for a moment that Britain will ever fire a nuclear weapon. We are just too nice, they say. We would never sanction the eradication of civilian populations in war, and least of all in a situation where we were doomed anyway and had nothing to gain by it.

The spy would then report to Moscow that deterrence was a bluff. In order that he would not do that, the West made sure during the Cold War that its own populations, in fact, did believe that we would fire our missiles when the time came.

And they did that by scaring the wits out of us. To persuade the enemy that there are circumstances in which you will nuke him, you have to persuade your own population of the same thing. And that is one of the most cruel things about the strategy of deterrence - that your own population must live in fear of its own bomb.

And it was because many people in Europe believed that nuclear war was coming in the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties that we had a huge drop-out culture, a widespread loss of faith in the alternative to war, which is professional development, family life and old age.

Instead, we got hippyism, nihilism and living for the moment.

If we return to feeling that we have to remind Russia about our weapons, there will be cultural, spiritual and economic consequences at home, because deterrence entails preparing your own population for death. It is a death cult.

And if it was really a guarantor of peace, then the West should not be trying to prevent Iran from developing the bomb, but encouraging her - unless what it really wants is not peace, but the option of war.

Belfast Telegraph

Your Comments

COMMENT RULES: Comments that are judged to be defamatory, abusive or in bad taste are not acceptable and contributors who consistently fall below certain criteria will be permanently blacklisted. The moderator will not enter into debate with individual contributors and the moderator’s decision is final. It is Belfast Telegraph policy to close comments on court cases, tribunals and active legal investigations. We may also close comments on articles which are being targeted for abuse. Problems with commenting? customercare@belfasttelegraph.co.uk

Read More

From Belfast Telegraph