On using nuclear deterrents

A week on from my declaration that I’m giving up politics, my mind has settled a little more, and I realise more fully what I meant by that. I remain interested — fascinated, even — by fundamentals: what you might call political philosophy. What I have no time for or patience with is current affairs: the specific set of events and personalities that are in the news right now. That stuff is both ephemeral and monumentally frustrating, so best ignored. But the core issues continue to exercise me.

Royal Navy submarine HMS Victorious departs HMNB Clyde under the Scottish summer sunshine to conduct continuation training. The Royal Navy has operated the UK’s Continuous at Sea Deterrent since 1967 when the first SSBN – or Ship Submersible Ballistic Nuclear – HMS Resolution began patrolling armed with the Polaris missile system.  

So when should we use a nuclear deterrent?

I assume out of the gate that we are all civilised, and would never initiate a first strike.

What you need is for potential aggressors to genuinely believe that you would use your deterrent in retaliation — because if they believe you would retaliate, they will be less likely to attack. (That is why Jeremy Corbyn’s insistence that he would never use Trident is poor tactics, whatever you think of the morality behind it.)

On the other hand, you don’t ever want to actually retaliate: because us and Russia both wiped out is worse than us wiped out and Russia not.

So what you really need is a leader who, while planning never to use our weapons, can convince the world that he or she will. In other words you need a consummate liar.

Discuss.

(All of this is of course assuming that you’ve already got the deterrent, or committed to building it. In light of yesterday’s Trident vote, I am taking that as a given.)

27 responses to “On using nuclear deterrents

  1. A destroyed UK but intact Russia might not be the best result of a nuclear exchange. The world after such an exchange would have all of Russia’s paranoid leadership in place, all their (now tested) weaponry systems intact, plus carte blanche to act in the same way again. The country that wiped out 60 million people would have suffered no consequences in your best case scenario. There would be no pressing need for a change of direction for the leadership/kleptocracy. The same generals and leaders who initiated the unthinkable would not have been killed in the return of fire. The US would be alone in confronting non-democracies. (France would obviously be pounded in any such exchange, plus spreading radiation would kill a large proportion of their citizenry)

    Nuclear war on the specific scale you described would probably not signal the end of the human race. However the UK and most of western Europe would be set back centuries, as well as having to cope with years of radiation, lingering deaths and destroyed infrastructure. Should Russia get off free and clear in this situation? What message does that send to both this theoretical Russia and what survives of the rest of the world? The security council, assuming the UN could possibly survive such a war, would consist of just Russia, China and the US. Democracies (primarily in Europe) would be destroyed or set back, while authoritarian regimes would be on the automatic ascendancy.

    Or to put it another way, if for some unlikely reason I was PM and asked for my sealed orders in the case of a nuclear attack I would certainly request a full scale counter strike. Firstly to not allow even the ghost of a chance that I might be suspected of ordering otherwise (as you hint). Secondly because to not return fire would be a justice-free outcome. I don’t *think* I’m completely insane or a psychopath to come to that conclusion but of course objective self-analysis is questionable :-)

  2. But your final premise (“us wiped out and Russia not”) presumes a scenario that is close to zero probability, surely? I mean, even if Russia and the UK were the only nations left with nuclear weapons, and Boris had single-handedly destroyed our diplomatic relations with every other nation on the planet, *and* called Putin something more extreme than a goat-fiddler, I’m still not convinced that nuclear strikes would be even considered an option, always assuming there was any pretext for war in the first place. (It has been noted that we are in a fairly advantageous position, geographically, in that pretty much the rest of the world would have to have been removed before we could be. The history of wars in Europe demonstrate that fairly well. And in those circumstances, the question is probably moot. I mean, sure, you can contrive circumstances under which that wouldn’t apply, but they would probably need to be as absurd as the ones I posited above.)

    Also, I’m not sure that stating that you’d never use Trident is any more or less poor tactics than stating that you wouldn’t hesitate, no matter how good a liar you actually are. Neither position seems wholly credible.

  3. myleskelvin

    How many nuclear powers are necessary to assure MAD? Discuss.

  4. rjubber: well, you went into this in a lot more detail than I did, and predictably the result was a lot more depressing than my rather frivolous thought experiment. You have persuaded me that my axiom “us and Russia both wiped out is worse than us wiped out and Russia not” is at least not obviously true — because of what kind of world it would leave behind.

    David Brain: let’s hope you’re right.

    myleskelvin: zero worked pretty well.

  5. David Brain : asserting that you would counter a nuclear strike from Russia, North Korea, Iran or Pakistan (thus far) seems like it *could* be perceived credibly. Look at how Russia ‘elects’ leaders – strength is all. Posturing on horse back is not considered utterly laughable. It’s depressingly primitive. On the plus side that mind-set might well believe a firmly stated desire to retaliate. It’s what they would do. Failure to retaliate could be such an alien response – turning the other cheek taken to an absurd degree – that a martial power might need intelligence data captured privately or public statements (eg Corbyn) to accept that the opposite might be considered. For instance Russia would not have believed for a second that Margaret Thatcher would have demurred from retaliation. John Major – perhaps not so much.

    Of course the other elephant in the room is Ukraine. Russia agreed to leave the country alone if they gave up their nuclear armament. It can be reasonably assumed that if they still possessed that deterrent, the current situation would not have occurred. A nation’s capacity to bargain at the top table, and to protect its interests, are diminished without equivalence capability – and that seems to have had a real-world demonstration.

  6. myleskelvin

    With the possibility of Putin and Trump running Russia and the USA, I would want to keep an independent deterrent.

  7. To start off I’m rejecting the premise that given we will be destroyed, we’d prefer not to destroy russia: I prefer them destroyed as well, so credibility there is straightforwardly about saying this and empowering your people to follow through.

    What’s more interesting to me is: when and how can we use nuclear deterrence to prevent attacks that don’t result in our destruction? A threat of reprisal has a lot of credibility when you have nothing to lose, but if a peripheral territory gets attacked or there’s a land invasion, you do have a lot to lose.

    I feel like you should be able to threaten some kind of nuclear attack as a deterrent to invasion, but I’m not sure how. You can’t threaten destruction of their whole country as a response to invasion unless you can credibly prefer total destruction of your territory to fighting a conventional war, which I think is hard to show, especially for countries with built up conventional militaries.

    I think a credible commitment to destroy any occupied territory would work, because it would make the expense of invasion result in no real value gained (unless the land is at such a strategically valuable position that they want it, even without its people and industry), while keeping destruction of their original territory on the board as a threat to deter escalation. The issue is credibly committing to this seems difficult.

  8. it would make the expense of invasion result in no real value gained (unless the land is at such a strategically valuable position that they want it, even without its people and industry),

    Nonsense. It results in three real gains:

    a. It renders the land and its contents unusable to the invaded nation. Say you know that a country has committed to destroy any invaded territory, and you (somehow) know they are guaranteed to follow through. What do you do? Well, you invade their oil fields. Boom! They have no oil. Now what are they going to use to put in their fighters to stop your bombers? What are they going to put in your tanks, to stop your tanks? You can basically now invade their capital at your leisure, as they are defenceless. Or, you invade the islands on which they have their forward bases in a given theatre. Boom! Now they have no way to counter your operations in that theatre, leaving you free to do whatever you want there.

    b. It reveals the position of their launch sites. So if they rely on a submarine-launched system, now you know where their submarine is, and you can find and sink it. Okay, it will obviously immediately move, but you have a start position and submarines aren’t that fast — Vanguard-class ones move at about 25 knots, or 29mph, underwater. You can draw a circle, find it and sink it, no problem. Now you don’t have to worry about them nuking you and, again, you can head for their capital with impunity.

    c. Even if you don’t want to bother destroying their launch platforms, the missiles they used to destroy their own territory are now not available to them to do anything else. If, like the UK, they have only the bare minimum stockpile of nuclear missiles, you have severely crippled their ability to deal any damage actually to you. Make them blow up two bits of their own territory and it’s quite possible you can then go ahead and invade their mainland, trusting that your anti-missile defences will be able to cope with whatever they have left to throw at your capital city.

    So what we might call the ‘cut off your nose to spite your face’ deterrent strategy is in fact just unworkable in real life.

    The correct answer to, ‘when and how can we use nuclear deterrence to prevent attacks that don’t result in our destruction?’ is that you make it clear that commands have been given to launch a crippling counter-strike (ie, destroying the belligerent nation’s capital and two or three other major cities) once a certain line has been crossed, a line that is somewhere between, say, the first enemy soldier’s boot landing on British soil and the surrender of London. But you don’t say exactly what that line is.

    And then you ask them: do you feel lucky? Well, punk… do you?

  9. Nobody Special

    Thanks in part to the thirty years between now and the last time any part of the preceding argument was even potentially relevant, I submit Millennials will be the the first generation (yay, another first to indiscriminately celebrate) to most capably assure its own self-destruction due to its paralyzing fear of being left out and its inevitable exposure to well-intended but fatal advice of the form, “If Johnny jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge, would you?”

  10. “So what you really need is a leader who, while planning never to use our weapons, can convince the world that he or she will. In other words you need a consummate liar.”

    If he or she is a perfect liar how can you be sure you haven’t been fooled yourself?

    So, you might *need* or even *want* a leader like that, but there would be no way to know if you ever got one, I think.

  11. Exactly right, gnustavo! So we may in fact already have a perfect leader, and not know it :-)

  12. The problem is that I think it’s pretty unlikely that someone is going to be such a consummate liar (don’t get me wrong- I think politicians are generally liars, I just think they’re mostly transparently so.) I tend to think that the only way to be convincing about it is to actually mean it. And, unfortunately, I do think we need a deterrent.

    If you have really managed to stop paying attention to current politics, I envy you. I think I would be a lot happier if I did, and since I know that there’s there’s nothing I can do about any of it I really ought to do so, especially this year (I’m in the States.) But I’m like an addict- paying attention to politics is bad for me, and I derive no real pleasure from it anymore, but I can’t stop.

    Back to deterrents- they’ve worked pretty well so far, because as nutty as some of the governments with large arsenals have been at times, none has been so irrational that they couldn’t be deterred. The thing that really worries me about proliferation is that as the nuclear club grows larger the likelihood of someone who is not rational enough to be deterred having control of some nuclear weapons also increases. I suppose the bright side is that they would be unlikely to have enough of an arsenal to wage a truly apocalyptic war, but that’s a fairly bleak bright side.

  13. as the nuclear club grows larger the likelihood of someone who is not rational enough to be deterred having control of some nuclear weapons also increases

    That’s precisely why we put so much effort into trying to destroy / starve the nuclear programmes of states like Iran, isn’t it?

    It’s also why, for example, we supported the deal whereby Ukraine gave the Soviet nuclear weapons that had been stationed there back to Russia, in return for guarantees its borders would be respected: Russia may be a despotic autocracy, but it’s still better for only one country to have nuclear weapons than two.

    Of course, one does have to wonder, if Ukraine still had nuclear weapons, might that have deterred Putin from launching the slow-motion invasion which is currently under way?

  14. “That’s precisely why we put so much effort into trying to destroy / starve the nuclear programmes of states like Iran, isn’t it?”

    It is, but… it seems to me that it’s pretty hard to keep a state determined to build them from doing so (look at how much we were caught by surprise by India and Pakistan.) And I’d say that the deal we have with Iran now amounts to close to a tacit acknowledgment of that.

    I’m old enough to remember the cold war, which was pretty scary. And yet, here we are. It’s easy to pessimistic, but I suppose it is worth remembering that our worst fears often fail to become reality.

  15. it seems to me that it’s pretty hard to keep a state determined to build them from doing so (look at how much we were caught by surprise by India and Pakistan.)

    I don’t know, they don’t seem to be easy things to build. Think of all the countries that would have liked to have nuclear weapons but did not, or have not yet, managed it: Saddam’s Iraq, Libya, North Korea (probably), Iran, Assad’s Syria, Jordan, etc etc.

    I mean, just take Iraq: Saddam was desperate for nuclear weapons and yet (we now know) the sanctions, plus the inspections, had effectively shut down his nuclear programme long before the 2003 invasion. He was far more successful at pretending he was about to develop nuclear weapons than he was at actually developing them!

    It’s a bit like guns, I think. It’s pretty hard to stop someone from getting hold of a handgun, if they really want to. But that doesn’t mean we should just make all gun ownership legal, USA-style. Even if you can’t prevent everyone from getting hold of weapon, it’s still worth spending a lot of effort to make it as hard as possible.

    I’d say that the deal we have with Iran now amounts to close to a tacit acknowledgment of that.

    I get the impression it’s more a tacit acknowledgement that Obama was running out of time to get something, anything, he could claim as a foreign policy achievement as part of his legacy, regardless of the problems it stores up for the future.

  16. “Saddam’s Iraq, Libya, North Korea (probably), Iran, Assad’s Syria, Jordan, etc etc.”

    OK- well, yep for a nation like Libya it might be pretty tricky. And I’m not sure that either Syria or Jordan has been making a concerted effort to develop nuclear weapons.

    Iraq is a bit of a special case, because of the first gulf war. If they had been a little cagier and had not invaded Kuwait I think they likely would have had nuclear weapons eventually. The war changed their circumstances significantly though.

    I’m not saying we shouldn’t be trying to keep people from developing nuclear weapons. Or keep them from wanting to, ideally. I really think our attitude ought to be “the nuclear club is closed.” I just have a feeling that we won’t be able to keep it so.

  17. OK- well, yep for a nation like Libya it might be pretty tricky.

    Now, yes. But Gaddafi never managed it, and he would have if he could.

    And I’m not sure that either Syria or Jordan has been making a concerted effort to develop nuclear weapons

    Assad has been collecting chemical weapons for decades, and is now using them on his own people. Do you think he wouldn’t have developed a nuclear programme, if he could have?

    Now, you’re right he never made a ‘concerted effort’ to develop them, but I think that is mainly because they are hard to make, and especially hard to make without alerting people that you are doing so. So I would say that is evidence against your contention that ‘it’s pretty hard to keep a state determined to build them from doing so’ because in Syria we have a state that certainly would have built them if it could have, but was stopped because of the technical difficulty of doing so without drawing unwanted international attention, sanctions, etc.

  18. Hi Mike, This is a comment for your Amazon.com ranty-post from a bunch of years ago. Did you ever solve your problem? I’m asking because I buy loads of books from AmazonUS, and each time, I pay an international funds transfer fee to my credit card provider. I want to pay via PayPal (fee-free). The standard way of doing this is to buy an Amazon gift card from a third-party supplier, but the gift card sites that I’ve located so far don’t like “furriners.”
    A lovely side-effect would be that I could buy books that are region-restricted from my zone. I’ll monitor new comments here, or you could chat via email on [my name], (all one word) @ gmail.com

  19. Hi, Sarah. Do you mean this post? If so, would you mind please re-posting your comment there? Then we can have the conversation in a place where it will be useful to others who find that page. Thanks! (For the record: I get notified whenever someone leaves a comment on any page on this site.)

  20. Hi Mike, Yes that’s the post, but in 2013 you made the following comment: “For some reason, spambots keep posting to this article, and I have to keep moderating them. So I’m closing comments on this post. If for any reason someone really, really needs to comment here, just drop it onto the most recent post, and I’ll move it across.” So that’s what I did…

    Cheers,

    Sarah Brabazon

    >

  21. Oh, Sarah, so sorry! I forgot about that.

    I’ll drop you a line by email.

  22. It’s eerie how much of this topic was covered in an episode of Yes Prime Minister. I believe the term used was ‘salami tactics’. The opponent – in this case the then Soviet Union – would never directly attack Britain. It would slowly chip away at other territories. Never putting you in the position where you have no choice.

    It seems the nuclear deterrent works, only if both sides are willing to pretend to be very good at bluffing.

  23. salami tactics

    I remember that episode. One thing that isn’t mentioned is that if the Russians were forced to use salami tactics, then the deterrent has in fact already done its major job, of preventing them from launching a pre-emptive nuclear strike and simply obliterating the United Kingdom from a distance — which would, if we didn’t have a deterrent, and they could arrange things so that it would not be in the USA’s interests to retaliate on our behalf, be a much easier way for them to remove us than bothering with ‘salami tactics’.

  24. futilelaneswapper

    As I understand it, nuclear deterrence is based on the principle of Mutually Assured Destruction. The word `assured` is critical: the enemy must genuinely believe that you’ll push the button, and you must genuinely be committed to doing it. MAD is a perfect example of a zero-sum game in action. So liars need not (and indeed must not) apply, otherwise we lose the game.

  25. That is only true if the other side knows they are liars.

  26. the enemy must genuinely believe that you’ll push the button

    Not true: they only need to not be able to be certain that you won’t.

    The ‘assured’ part refers to the fact that the delivery system must be capable of delivering enough warheads that enough are guaranteed to make it past the enemy’s anti-missile defences to deal a crippling blow.

    You don’t have the have certain assured destruction; just the possibility of assured destruction ought to be enough to deter all but the insanest of actors.

  27. Right; but you need to definitely have the possibility of assured destruction.

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