Counting weapons

Rudolf Peierls

  • Britain and Nuclear Weapons by Lawrence Freedman
    Papermac, 160 pp, £3.25, September 1980, ISBN 0 333 30511 6
  • Countdown: Britain’s Strategic Forces by Stewart Menual
    Hale, 188 pp, £8.25, October 1980, ISBN 0 7091 8592 8
  • The War Machine by James Avery Joyce
    Quartet, 210 pp, £6.95, October 1980, ISBN 0 7043 2254 4
  • Protest and Survive edited by E.P. Thompson and Dan Smith
    Penguin, 262 pp, £1.50, October 1980, ISBN 0 14 052341 3

Nuclear weapons, and the knowledge of the horrors they are capable of producing, have been with us for 35 years. We might be tempted to let familiarity blunt the impact of these facts on our mind, were it not so frequently refreshed by news of ever more powerful weapons, ever-increasing numbers in the stockpiles, and ever more efficient means of delivering them to their targets. Any future nuclear attack could be, and probably will be, enormously more devastating than those experienced in the unfortunate cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Fortunately, the danger of this happening is very much reduced by the ‘balance of terror’: by the fact that the United States and the Soviet Union both possess these weapons in profusion, so that any nuclear attack on either country or on their allies must expect a reply in kind. In this kind of nuclear war there can be no victors.

This prospect of retribution, the deterrent effect, is a positive factor in a gloomy situation. Related to it is the fear of a global nuclear war, which introduces a certain amount of caution into international politics, and makes statesmen think of arms control as a serious possibility. The achievements of arms-control negotiations – the ban on atmospheric testing, the first SALT treaty and the unratified SALT II – are by no means impressive, but arms-control talks in pre-nuclear days did not even get that far.

So the present purpose of nuclear weapons is essentially to prevent nuclear war. If deterrence fails, the result will be global disaster. Experts who discuss military strategy often overlook the fact that the effectiveness of the deterrent does not depend on the actual damage the weapons would do, or on the certainty that they would be used in retaliation against an attack, but on how the potential enemy estimates the damage, and what he thinks is the likelihood of retaliation. He does not have to be sure that the damage will be unacceptable, he does not have to be certain that the trigger will be pulled by the country he is about to attack, as long as these are serious possibilities. Responsible leaders do not gamble at long odds on the survival of their country. ‘Responsible’ is an important qualification: heaven preserve us from a Hitler in charge of a superpower.

Why is there such an intense race in nuclear weaponry, damped only slightly by SALT and similar agreements? Each of the superpowers wants to have more, bigger and better weapons than the other, and any evidence of a ‘gap’, of a superiority on the other side, produces dismay and an increase in the weapons effort. The result is that each side has the physical capacity to kill all the other’s citizens many times over. The arms race would make some sense if the potential enemy could use his weapons in such a way as to avoid retribution. But even if it were possible to mount an operation which was sure to put all the other side’s land-based missiles and planes out of action simultaneously – and there are plenty of doubts about that – there would remain the missiles carried by submarines, powerful and numerous enough to inflict terrible damage. The art of locating submarines does not seem to have got very far. Surely these facts are known to the superpowers’ statesmen and military establishments. Why do they insist that their arms must be bigger and better than the other side’s? Is it that tradition and habit make them continue to count and weigh weapons? Is it pressure from the technical people who enjoy developing more and more ingenious weapons systems? I do not know the answer.

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