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Big enough to deterJeff McMahan
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Vol. 4 No. 7 · 15 April 1982

Big enough to deter

Jeff McMahan

1978 words
Nuclear Illusion and Reality 
by Solly Zuckerman.
Collins, 154 pp., £7.50, January 1982, 0 00 216554 6
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Lord Zuckerman’s recent pronouncements on the nuclear arms race have been favourably received by a large number of people of surprisingly divergent outlooks. His words are piously quoted by spokesmen for CND, and have been endorsed with enthusiasm by Lord Chalfont, the scourge of unilateralists. They have even received the blessing of three of Britain’s former prime ministers. This unlikely amalgam of admirers will not be disappointed by Zuckerman’s new book: it contains something for everyone. But on closer examination, that is what is troubling about it: the universal appeal is maintained, no doubt unwittingly, at the expense of consistency.

The book ranges over a number of important issues. Zuckerman marshals some impressive arguments to show that geographically-limited nuclear war is merely an armchair strategist’s fantasy, and provides a short but persuasive statement of the case against the neutron bomb. He reveals certain economic realities and implications of the arms race and expounds the theory, now associated with his name, that the arms race is in part propelled by the scientists involved in the research and development of new weapons. He exposes the futility of thinking that there can be an effective defence against a determined nuclear attack, and forcefully pleads for a comprehensive ban on nuclear testing.

These are some of the main theses of the book. But its central thesis is that the superpowers must return to a halcyon state of minimal deterrence. The doctrine of minimal deterrence is difficult to define with precision. Zuckerman suggests that a minimal deterrent consists in a nuclear force no larger than that which is required ‘to deter aggression’. How large is that? According to Zuckerman, it is not very large, for in his view Britain’s present independent force ‘is big enough to deter’. Thus ‘the scale of the nuclear forces deployed in Britain and France [should] be taken as a yardstick of what size of nuclear forces are enough to deter in a bilateral [i.e. super-power] context.’ In short, the superpowers could each get by with an arsenal no bigger than Britain’s. This is a striking and attractive view. But it raises questions which Zuckerman fails to address. For example, he refers to an arsenal that is ‘big enough to deter’, but neglects to mention what the arsenal is supposed to deter. This is important, for, while an arsenal like Britain’s might be able to deter, say, an unprovoked nuclear attack on a country’s cities, it would not provide a credible deterrent to such threats as the disruption of shipping or a limited conventional attack. Zuckerman does not seem to recognise that a minimal deterrent can be effective, and remain minimal, only if it aims to deter a quite narrow range of threats of the gravest character.

Second, there is the question whether a minimal deterrent is to be defined in absolute terms or relative to the capabilities of the enemy. In other words, would the size of a minimal deterrent have to vary with the size of the adversary’s arsenal? The answer to this question is extremely important, since it determines whether the US could implement a policy of minimal deterrence unilaterally. Zuckerman never addresses the question directly, but the answer which is implicit in the book is that ‘minimal’ is defined in absolute terms. The UK arsenal is ‘big enough to deter’ the Russians even though their arsenal is vastly superior. Thus the US should be able to reduce its arsenal unilaterally to a size only slightly larger than that of Britain’s – larger since victory over the US would presumably be a more tempting prize than victory over Britain.

Finally, there is the question of whether minimal deterrence could be stable as a long-term policy. There are several reasons for thinking that it could not. The first is that new technological developments could be highly destabilising under minimal deterrence. If, as seems likely, minimal deterrents would be primarily submarine-based, then dramatic advances in anti-submarine warfare could put the major portion of either side’s deterrent at risk. Moreover, effective anti-ballistic missile (ABM) systems might become possible under minimal deterrence. Zuckerman rightly points out that, as things stand, an effective ABM system is a mirage, since ‘it will always be possible to saturate an ABM system with an avalanche of missiles.’ But saturation may not be possible with a minimal deterrent. In other words, the prospects look gloomy, for, as Zuckerman suggests in his analysis of the driving forces behind the arms race, it will be extremely difficult to halt the development of potentially destabilising technologies.

The doctrine of minimal deterrence is also inconsistent with the aim of stopping proliferation, since the reasons for having a deterrent presumably apply to most if not all states. Yet proliferation will ultimately undermine the possibility of minimal deterrence – at least if ‘minimal’ is understood in the absolute sense. Zuckerman obviously conceives of minimal deterrence in a bilateral context. But he would have to concede that the size of one’s deterrent will need to be a function of the number of adversaries one must deter. For each additional adversary, there will be additional cities which must be targeted: therefore one’s arsenal must grow each time a potential adversary acquires nuclear weapons. In a world of proliferating ‘deterrents’, the requirements of deterrence will compel each country to maintain a force far in excess of the minimum envisaged by Zuckerman. In addition to these problems, minimal deterrence would also leave open the possibility of accidental nuclear war, or war through madness or misunderstanding. It is therefore unlikely to be satisfactory as anything more than an interim policy.

As a believer in deterrence, Zuckerman is opposed to the unilateral abandonment of Britain’s deterrent. Other reviewers have thought that his arguments have ‘demolished’ the case for unilateralism, but in fact they leave it wholly intact. He first attacks two claims sometimes made in defence of unilateralism. One is the claim that, if Britain were to renounce its arsenal, this would set an example for other countries. He points out that the US and the USSR would not follow suit, but that does not wholly refute the point. And in any case the point is one which unilateralists would concede cannot stand on its own. Disarmament must be compatible with the security interests of Britain and the West; any influence it might have on other states would be a bonus. The second claim he attacks is the one according to which ‘were we to divest ourselves of nuclear weapons, we would be less likely to be a target in the event of a nuclear war.’ His riposte is that, as a member of Nato, Britain would be attacked whether or not it had nuclear weapons. This response fails to address the unilateralist’s point that, should we be attacked, the attack would probably be less extensive, because there would be fewer targets. It also has the unfortunate implication that it would be better not to belong to Nato, for Zuckerman assumes that, while Nato countries ‘would all be destroyed’, neutral countries would suffer only from fallout and other indirect effects of the war. The only defence he offers for remaining in Nato consists in producing an opaque and irrelevant quotation from Henry Kissinger. It is an annoying feature of the book that Zuckerman often dodges the necessity of providing reasons for his beliefs by simply quoting authorities.

Zuckerman’s only positive argument for retaining the deterrent is that, as an instance of a minimal deterrent, it serves as an example to the super-powers ‘of forces that are adequate to maintain a deterrent threat’. But how realistic is it to suppose that the super-powers will be impressed by Britain’s example? Britain’s example has shone for more than twenty years and they have yet to be impressed. Zuckerman himself, in criticising the similar claim that unilateral disarmament would set an impressive example, asserts that ‘the USA and the USSR ... will clearly decide their policies with respect to levels of disarmament between themselves, and not in response to any gesture that the UK alone might make.’ And, in any case, why would it be necessary to keep the example constantly before their eyes? Political leaders are not wholly incapable of learning from the past.

Not only are his arguments against unilateralism without force, but Zuckerman himself is, without knowing it, a closet unilateralist: for a particular combination of his views adds up to a case in favour of abandoning the deterrent. Zuckerman perceives the value of Britain’s deterrent to lie, not in its independence, but in the contribution it makes to Nato’s total force: ‘the UK’s nuclear effort makes sense only because its nuclear boats and aircraft are assigned to Nato.’ He believes that the British force is ‘big enough to deter’, but that – assuming the Russians have aggressive intentions – it is the Nato force as a whole which in fact holds them at bay: ‘Not for one second do I believe that it is Britain’s nuclear power that deters the USSR from taking action so hostile to the UK’s interests that [Britain] would be driven to independent nuclear action.’ Second, he strongly urges that Nato should build up its conventional defences in Europe: ‘such resources as Nato’s European members can command should be devoted to strengthening [conventional] forces.’ On this point he is undoubtedly right – even if one believes that deterrence in Europe must ultimately depend on the threat to use nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons are simply not credible as an instrument of first resort in the event of a conventional attack. By relying increasingly on nuclear weapons at the expense of conventional forces, Nato is indeed painting itself into a dangerous corner.

Finally, a factual point which Zuckerman fails to mention is that maintaining an independent deterrent makes it economically and psychologically difficult to maintain adequate conventional forces. Even if Britain does not in the end indulge in the extravagance of Trident D5, the operating and maintenance costs for Polaris over the next ten years will not be trivial. Earlier this year the MoD ordered about a hundred new Polaris rocket motors at a cost of several hundred million pounds. Furthermore, because people entertain certain illusions about the importance of nuclear weapons, nuclear weapons tend to divert public attention away from conventional defences. They also reduce people’s willingness to engage in national defence by making conventional service seem futile.

If we put these various points together with the fact that, as a believer in minimal deterrence, Zuckerman holds that the Nato nuclear arsenal is ‘miles in excess’ of what Nato rationally requires, then it is easy to see that he has produced an argument for unilaterally abandoning the deterrent. If the deterrent makes sense only in its role as an integral part of the Nato force, and if the Nato force is overgrown, so that much of it is superfluous, then one way of making the force more ‘minimal’ would be to eliminate the British contribution. And if it can be eliminated it ought to be, for otherwise it will absorb resources which could instead be devoted to the vital task of strengthening Nato’s conventional defences. This argument for giving up the deterrent is certainly more plausible than Zuckerman’s arguments for retaining it. I began by noting that Zuckerman has spread his banner so wide that there is room for virtually everyone underneath. But the critical reader will not find it comfortable to remain there for long. He may be grateful to Zuckerman for dislodging him from one of the many positions Zuckerman has exploded, but he will feel the need to move beyond the doctrine of minimal deterrence to a more coherent and defensible solution to the problem which nuclear weapons pose.

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Letters

Vol. 4 No. 8 · 6 May 1982

SIR: I am sorry that your reviewer, Mr McMahan, interpreted my reference to the concept of minimal deterrence as implying an ‘absolute’ measure of the size of a nuclear arsenal (LRB, 15 April). The engaging sophistry with which he treats the issue, and then provides his own answers, would, I imagine, apply equally to the apocryphal question of how many angels could dance on the head of a pin. It also reveals a certain remoteness from the real world and some innocence about the technical and military realities of nuclear armaments.

Lest what he has written mislead any of your readers into supposing that the numbers and kind of nuclear arms that are possessed by the nuclear powers have been produced in the fulfilment of rationally-formulated operational requirements, let me, as one who has been directly involved in the process, assure them that this is not the case. Nor is it the case that one country’s idea of what constitutes an adequate armoury is determined by the example of another. At the time of the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, the number of warheads in the arsenals of the USA and the USSR was a fraction of what they have now. There were, however, enough to deter both sides from starting a nuclear war, given that either, at any time, had thought of doing so. In relation to what exists now, those numbers constituted a level of, let us say, minimal deterrence.

The United Kingdom then also had a sizeable arsenal, but what use it would have been, given that hostilities had broken out, no one knew. We were at the ringside of the dispute, into which we would have been inevitably drawn if it had not been defused. Had the Russians not given way, it was expected that what was called ‘the nuclear balloon’ would go up on Sunday, 28 October. As I recounted in an obituary of Lord Mountbatten, he, our three Chiefs of Staff, the Permanent Under-Secretary and myself (then Chief Scientific Adviser) were together with the Minister of Defence, Mr Thorneycroft (now Lord Thorneycroft), when we learnt that the Russians had accepted the Americans’ terms and that the crisis was at an end. We just sat round the table looking at each other, until the silence was broken by Lord Mountbatten, with the remark: ‘Well, what would we have done if the Russians had not pulled back: do we know?’ No one knew, and no one has yet provided an answer. Somehow I doubt that one has been produced by Mr McMahan or by any of his fellow research students.

Mr McMahan tells us with categorical assurance that a nuclear arsenal of the size which the United Kingdom possesses ‘would not provide a credible deterrent to such threats as the destruction of shipping or a limited conventional attack’. What the source of this presumed piece of military wisdom is, he does not indicate; I cannot believe that it derives from his own experience. The critical fact is that no direct ‘limited conventional attack’ has taken place from either side since Nato was formed. None occurred in the 1950s, when Nato’s total arsenal in terms of destructive power could not have been much in excess of what the UK disposes now. If the Russians had wanted to invade Nato territory then, would they not have been deterred by féar of a nuclear riposte, whether or not this would have happened? Was the Nato nuclear armoury not a ‘credible’ deterrent then? What, in fact, does ‘credible’ mean in Mr McMahan’s vocabulary? Does the fact that a nuclear exchange today would result in vastly more devastation than it would have done twenty years ago make the nuclear threat and counter-threat more credible? Mr McMahan confuses me. Happily, however, there is a grain of comfort in the knowledge that when it comes to action, military commanders and planners are not governed by the post hoc rationalisations of armchair strategists. Everyone in a position of authority and responsibility on both sides has known for years that a direct armed confrontation between the Western and Warsaw Pact powers must be avoided because of the risk that it could trigger a nuclear war.

One final point. Mr McMahan writes as though it is not my view that one or other of the two superpowers could start unilaterally reducing the size of its enormous nuclear arsenal before the two engage in what is called ‘balanced reduction’. This is not so. As my book makes clear, I do believe that this could be done, at the same time as I hold that neither of two nuclear-armed adversaries could in reason divest itself of its nuclear weapons to the level at which the other side could use the threat of a nuclear attack as an instrument of political policy. What this level would be is anyone’s guess, but knowing something about the nature and repercussions of destruction in war, I would settle, as I suggested, for enough destructive power to guarantee, say, the devastation of ten of the UK’s, or the USSR’s, or the USA’s, or France’s main cities. But that, of course, is a personal view, not the result of some abstruse and ‘objective’ calculation, or of some academic exercise of logic applied to terms which are dealt with in a manner that denies them any military or political reality.

Solly Zuckerman
Lord Zuckerman, University of East Anglia

Vol. 4 No. 9 · 20 May 1982

SIR: Lord Zuckerman’s reply to my review (Letters, 6 May) unfortunately shares the faults of his book: his comments are both confused and inconsistent. He first criticises me for suggesting that his notion of minimal deterrence implies ‘an “absolute" measure of the size of a nuclear arsenal’ – meaning, I suppose, an absolute measure of what size a nuclear arsenal ought to be. He then suggests that to seek such a measure is analogous to attempting to determine how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. He concludes his letter, however, by giving it as his ‘personal view’ that a nuclear arsenal should have ‘enough destructive power to guarantee, say, the devastation of ten’ of an adversary’s main cities. Given the sense of the term ‘absolute’ as it is used in my review, that estimate has all the signs of an absolute measure. (I will yield to any intuitions he might have about his analogous problem with dancing angels.)

He next accuses me of misleading your readers into believing that the world’s nuclear arsenals have been produced to fulfil rational policy requirements. I never implied that this was so, though I suppose it is implicit in my piece that it would be, nice if it were so.

There then follows an interesting but doubtfully relevant anecdote which features Lord Zuckerman at a pow-wow of VIPs during the Cuban missile crisis. The parade of big names with whom his Lordship was intimate leads gracefully up to his sneering reference to my being a mere research student, but neither the anecdote nor the sneer does anything to advance the argument of his book or to rebut my criticisms.

It is curious that he then goes on to defend with great vigour the view that nuclear weapons could be useful for deterring a limited conventional attack by a nuclear-armed adversary. In his book he writes that ‘if anything is going to inhibit the Russians from making any incursion into Nato Europe, it will be Nato’s conventional forces.’ His abandonment of the view put forward in his book will disappoint some of his admirers-in particular, Professor Michael Howard, who has recently praised him in the TLS for adhering ‘to the good old view… that nuclear weapons are good for nothing except neutralising other nuclear weapons.’

Finally, he complains that I do not give him credit for believing that each superpower could make unilateral cuts in its arsenal, and claims that his book makes it clear that this is his view. But the only references I can find in his book are to bilateral reductions. And in any case I explicitly note that it is implied by his argument that either superpower could make cuts unilaterally.

All this, however, is rather beside the point: nowhere in his lengthy and dismissive reply are my central criticisms of his book addressed.

Jeff McMahan
St John’s College, Cambridge

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