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Tuesday 6 October 2015

The Nuclear Option

Following the aftermath of the May 2015 election, I wrote that I personally would quite like a Labour leader who was even more left-wing that Ed Milliband (though I also noted that this might not be a good way for Labour to get back into power). Well, now we've undeniably got one. Whether this will be to Labour's advantage or disadvantage remains to be seen. This has given me a nasty case of confusion, with the ideological part of me wanting to leap up, punch the air, and shout, "BOO-YA YA PIG-F*$*@!ng TORIES !", and the pragmatic part of me quietly sitting down, hands steepled, going, "Hmmm."

The media are telling a lot of lies, half-truths and reporting statements out of context about Jeremy Corbyn - but that's another story. One thing that is absolutely no lie is that Corbyn is a stalwart opponent of nuclear weapons. In this case, the realistic part of me has won the day, but the ideological part is waging a quite successful guerilla campaign. Which means that I'm going to happily vote for the man, would love to give him a hug, but hope he loses the debate on this particular policy.

Nuclear weapons are possibly the worst thing ever devised, and if I could flick a switch that would instantly remove every single one right now, I'd do it without hesitation*. What I am not in favour of isn't disarmament, it's Britain unilaterally deciding to disarm in the current global political climate. Here's why I don't find the arguments that the UK should abandon its deterrent entirely convincing.

*Excepting a very small stockpile in a case labelled, "DO NOT OPEN UNLESS ASTEROID".

(Normally I'm a keen advocate of Godwin's Law ("anyone who mentions the Nazis instantly loses the argument") on the grounds that you can prove anything with extreme, abnormal examples. In this case I have to ignore it, because nuclear weapons are themselves extreme, abnormal examples, and anyway they were invented during WWII)

1) We will never use them...

As the classic Yes Prime Minister explains, nuclear weapons aren't much good as a deterrent against warfare in general. No-one is considering nuking Russia because they're disturbing Ukraine any more than Britain would consider nuking Argentina if they invaded the Falkland Islands again. India and Pakistan aren't nuking each other, despite permanent tensions, and Israel isn't nuking anyone despite the fact that no-one likes them very much.

But an argument could be made that nukes are a deterrent against full-on nation-nation conflicts. Would Russia resort to their "salami tactics" if the Western powers didn't have nuclear weapons ? Perhaps not. Would Nazi Germany have invaded Poland if Poland had had nukes but the Germans didn't ? Unlikely. A small state, unable to defend itself by conventional means, threatened with occupation by an much more powerful, evil but non-nuclear invader... is that really such a black-and-white case of, "no, nuclear weapons must never be used, we must surrender to these people and let them exterminate us" ?

That's hypothetical. We don't have any cases of such a situation directly threatening Britain or her allies - currently. Yet the Arab Spring* (amongst countless other historical examples) proves just how incredibly quickly the political situation can change without warning, and we shouldn't underestimate that. Nor should we ever underestimate just how evil people - and even whole societies - can become. History tells me that there's probably no limit to how savage people can be, and being prepared for that just seems prudent.

* Read that link.

2) ... because using them would wipe out the world

Using them against, say, Russia, probably would wipe out the world. Using them in a joint operation with Russia probably wouldn't.

The possibility of us actually initiating a justified, joint pre-emptive strike that wouldn't make the situation any worse does seem incredibly far-fetched, and it certainly isn't the main reason we have nuclear weapons. Anyway I would rather that no-one ever needed to use them at all. So why bother keeping nuclear weapons if all they do is limit warfare, rather than deterring it entirely ?

Nuclear weapons are their own deterrent. The doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction means that no-one ever uses their nukes because that would bring about their own annihilation in a global nuclear holocaust. Even the craziest dictator doesn't want to risk that.

So, the "we will never use them because apocalypse" argument is correct, but misses something. No-one else will use them either, because we've got them too. Now that we have this unfortunate situation, the point of keeping nuclear weapons is, ironically, to prevent nuclear war.

We do not have nuclear weapons so that we can wipe out the planet in the case that someone launches a nuclear strike against us. All that would do is turn an awful situation into a total apocalypse. Rather, we have them so that that situation can't happen in the first place. The threat of our nukes prevent others from using theirs. And, in the highly unlikely but not impossible case that we actually do need to use them without risking the apocalypse, the option is available.

3) Our allies will help us if we ever really do need nuclear weapons

From Yes Minister - The Challenge :

Hacker : Ah, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. I'm not that unilateralist ! Anyway, the Americans will always protect us from the Russians, won't they ?
Sir Humphrey : Russians? Who's talking about the Russians ?
Hacker : Well, the independent deterrent...
Sir Humphrey : It's to protect us against the French !
Hacker : The French ?! But that's astounding !
Sir Humphrey : Why ?
Hacker : Well they're our allies, our partners...
Sir Humphrey : Well, they are now, but they've been our enemies for the most of the past 900 years. If they've got the bomb, we must have the bomb !
Hacker : If it's for the French, of course, that's different. Makes a lot of sense.
Sir Humphrey : Yes. Can't trust the Frogs.
Hacker : You can say that again !

It's all too easy to re-write this scene given post-2000 politics :

Hacker : Anyway, the Americans will always protect us from the Russians, won't they ?
Sir Humphrey : The Americans ? THE AMERICANS ? Minister the Americans elected a chimpanzee as President ! A man who thinks its a revelation that most of their imports come from overseas ! Who said our Prime Minister was bigger than a poodle ! And now there's a very real chance that they'll elect as the most powerful man in the world someone who's widely regarded as little more than a talking, racist toupee !
Hacker : Yes, well, I see your point.... Still, that leaves us under the protection of the Frogs, eh Humphrey ? Bit embarrassing, but they wouldn't let us down, would they ? If push came to shove... ?
Sir Humphrey : [Sighs] Minister the last French premier said he couldn't imagine a situation where Britain would need an aircraft carrier and the French wouldn't want to be involved, a statement which had several political journalists coughing the words, "Falkland Islands" so loudly that they had to be treated for laryngitis. 

To be marginally more serious, of course I would hope our allies certainly would protect us by nuclear means if such a situation ever arose. Of course, that would mean that now our allies have to invest in this incredibly expensive system while we do not. Good for us, but not likely to be well-received by countries who don't want to disarm. I also believes it sends out the wrong signal at the wrong time : given the financial crisis, spending cuts, the chaos in the Middle East and the sly manoeuvrings of Russia, I think we would be perceived as weaker, not stronger.

Of the nuclear states (US, Russia, the UK, France, China, India, Pakistan and (just about) North Korea), only France and the US are at all likely to come to our aid in that incredibly unlikely situation that we actually need them. But if such an absurdly unlikely, desperate situation that required nukes did arise, I'd really prefer not to have to rely on anyone.

4) Other countries have disarmed / don't have / don't need nuclear weapons

Most countries have never had any nuclear weapons, but that doesn't mean they aren't defended by ours. It's pretty hard to ignore my Czech colleagues saying, "please don't give up your nuclear weapons". Anecdotal, perhaps, but there we go. If anyone has any international opinion polls on public feeling in non-nuclear states towards those which are so armed, let me know (or equally, the opinion of the military experts in those unarmed countries).

Four countries have abandoned nuclear weapons. Three of them (Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine) gave them up to Russia (those from the Ukraine were disassembled) when the Soviet Union collapsed. Only South Africa decided to get rid of them entirely of its own volition. The country had no more than seven nuclear weapons and probably conducted no actual tests. And, well, of the countries most likely to ever be involved in a major conflict with Russia or China, I wouldn't put South Africa at the top of the list.

5) If no-one disarms first then nothing will ever change

This also neatly explains why Corbyn's, "I'd never use them"
comment was so ill-advised.

The above arguments might make it seem as though I'm implying that we're stuck with these god-awful death weapons that cost billions and which we'll almost certainly never use, because if we decided to disarm then we instantly fling open the doors to our enemies. Of course, that isn't quite what I mean.

Would disarming actually increase the probability of us being nuked, right now ? No. Does it increase the chances that we'll be invaded and/or nuked at some point in the distant future ? That is much, much harder to answer. It would be foolish in the extreme to say, "definitely not". I do not believe anyone is remotely capable of predicting the future with anything like the required accuracy for us to safely opt for unilateral disarmament.

This doesn't mean we're stuck with them forever. But for the last sixty years or so, the sheer horror of what a nuclear war would mean has prevented it from happening. That has been in part due to a balance of power (or rather, in the case of nukes, a balance of terror) between the world's most influential nations. While I don't think that now is the right time to disarm, I do think it's possible - I just want it to be done multilaterally and in as complete safety as can be achieved.

Consider the fictional Sir Humphrey's absolutely correct comment that for most of the last 900 years the French were Britain's arch-enemies. That changed. Which means that Russia, having had a bit of a rough century, aren't guaranteed to be at odds with us forever. I believe that this is an area of foreign policy where Corbyn is absolutely right : we must try and engage with our enemies rather than provoke them, because if we don't we really will remain stuck in pointless hostilities.

War between the nations of Europe has been common for the last 1,500 years. Today it's unthinkable that Norway would invade England or that France would take on Italy. I would like us to be that close with all the other nuclear states before we start talking about disarmament. If we can do this with nations we've fought for 900 years, we can do it with anyone. I just think disarmament is something you do once trust has been established, not as a (in my opinion risky) way to establish that trust initially.

6) Think of all the things we could do with the money instead !

For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.  - Matthew 6:21.
It really is depressing just how much better the world could be without military expenditure. I wrote a while back about all the wonderful stuff we could have had if we hadn't held a stupid sports contest for two weeks. That was a mere £9 billion. Trident costs a lot more, but possibly not as much as the £100 billion that's so often bandied about. That's over the full 40 year lifetime though, so "only" £2.5 billion per year. Still, I was surprised to learn that that's just 5% of the MODs budget (Corbyn claims 25%, presumably referring only to the equipment budget). In any case, £2.5 billion is a lot, but it's hardly unaffordable for one of the richest countries on the planet.

Even Jeremy Corbyn has stopped saying that savings from Trident could go towards "national well-being" and has recognized that Britain needs a strong military (it almost sounded like he was saying, "replace Trident with conventional forces", though that's just my interpretation). The Liberal Democrats, erstwhile opponents of Trident, have changed their stance considerably on the nuclear deterrent.

Yet, while in principle it would be infinitely preferable to spend the money on just about anything else, helping to deter nuclear attacks is a price worth paying. We're not spending billions on weapons of mass destruction we'll never use. We're spending it on a proven method (however stupid) for preventing nuclear war. That's where my heart is, Matthew. Not in investing in the weapons, but in preventing their use.

7) But does it have to be Trident and not something cheaper ?

Like a wooden submersible duck...
A permanently at-sea submarine solution offers the best deterrent. Even if a surprise enemy first strike completely obliterates our land and surface forces, they stand very little chance of also taking out a nuclear submarine hiding God-knows-where in the ocean. So making that pre-emptive first strike becomes a pointless risk that no-one's willing to take, hence it doesn't happen. With the submarine solution, there's not really any need for fleets of bombers or underground missile silos.

Other options considered include a smaller number of submarines. That would mean there isn't always one on patrol, so there's sometimes a risk that a first strike would completely eliminate our ability to retaliate. That rather weakens the whole "deterrent" aspect.

Could we provide a credible deterrent without submarines at all ? Some people think so. Arguably, by having a fleet of nuclear-armed bomber aircraft* instead, we would not only save around £13 billion but also simultaneously increase our conventional capabilities (which we are far more likely to ever actually use). The trouble is that if you want to deliver bombs by aircraft, it's much more difficult to guarantee that those aircraft reach their targets : sub-orbital ICBMs are much harder to shoot down; submarines are "practically invulnerable" to a surprise attack. On the other hand with enough stealth aircraft, and a virtual certainty of having enough time to deploy them, a credible nuclear deterrent without submarines might be possible.

* Though the F35 plane proposed to carry the bombs has been universally panned as being simply utterly awful.


I want nuclear weapons gone. I really, really do. But more than that, I want to guarantee that nuclear war never happens. That is the priority. Right now, given the incredibly unstable political climate of the world, disarming Britain does not seem like a sensible way to ensure that. I think other countries are more likely to perceive it as saying, "we cannot afford nuclear weapons" rather than, "we no longer need nuclear weapons".

I've never been a fan of the idea that "if you want peace, you must prepare for war". An armed truce is not peace; you can't threaten people into liking you. But you can engage with them with genuinely honourable intentions whilst having a backup plan in case something goes horribly wrong. Turning the other cheek is a laudable principle, but sometimes you just get slapped. Bullies seldom respect what they perceive as weakness.

History teaches us that human beings are capable of almost anything, and as such, predicting the future is nigh-on impossible. There are no guarantees in anything we do. I have great respect for Jeremy Corbyn's pacifism, but I just don't see unilateral disarmament as either currently safe or a way to peace. Peace, however, might just be a route to multilateral disarmament. I think we should first be in a position of genuine, mutually-dependent trust before we disarm, so that we can finally destroy these awful things forever.

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