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.

Nuclear weapons are a deterrent primarily against nuclear attack. They may not deter aggression by ‘conventional’ (i.e. non-nuclear) forces, because in the event of, say, the Soviet Army invading Western Europe, it is not credible that the United States would pull the nuclear trigger, inviting a nuclear holocaust. Yet even here nuclear weapons may exercise a slight inhibiting force, because of the uncertainty as to when the opponent will get mad enough to strike, regardless of the consequences.

The situation here has become confused, however, by the introduction of ‘tactical’ nuclear weapons. These are small weapons, intended, not for terror attacks against cities or industries (‘strategic weapons’), but for use on the battlefield. To say that they are smaller is a relative statement: they are still very powerful weapons. They come in various kinds and sizes, but most have a range of destruction which in populated areas would cover many non-combatants. Their primary purpose is to act as a deterrent against conventional attack in circumstances where the big strategic weapons would not be a credible deterrent. Whether the threat of tactical nuclear defence against non-nuclear attack is credible depends on the likelihood of a ‘limited’ nuclear exchange, of the tactical nuclear war not escalating into a full exchange of strategic weapons.

There are great uncertainties here, particularly since the Soviet Union has never admitted that there is an important distinction between strategic and tactical weapons. In spite of this, it is Nato policy to rely on the use of tactical nuclear weapons in a situation where their conventional forces are in danger of being overrun. This decision was strongly criticised by the late Lord Mountbatten and by Lord Zuckerman. It is understandable because conventional forces need a great deal of manpower, and are therefore politically embarrassing. It seems unlikely that the Warsaw Pact countries will want to start an invasion of the West in the near future, but this is the main contingency for which Nato plans exist. What is worrying is that the Communist countries, if they did desire such an adventure, might not believe in Nato’s readiness to employ tactical nuclear weapons. Suppose there were an invasion. Nato would then have no choice other than to concede defeat or to use these weapons; and even if using these weapons did not lead to escalation and a general holocaust, it would almost certainly involve the devastation of the battleground – presumably much of Western Europe.

Limiting nuclear war by restricting it to tactical weapons is a very speculative idea. There is another way of limiting it, which has more credibility: the superpowers might avoid attacking each other’s territory, thus limiting the war to Europe – and such a limitation might endure. From a European point of view, it is a most unattractive thought.

Thinking about deterrence necessarily involves thinking about the use of nuclear weapons, and this exercise can easily lead military planners to think of such a use as something actually intended as part of a future war: one now hears talk of tactical weapons, in particular, being acceptable in themselves and not as a deterrent to be held in reserve for an ultimate catastrophe. Coupled with this there is much talk about survival in a nuclear war, and Civil Defence measures, either communal or individual, to improve our chances of survival. This is frightening, not because it is wrong to think of the fate of the survivors as long as we cannot entirely rule out the possibility of nuclear war, but because it presents a war of this kind as something other than an unbearable calamity.

What are the particularly British problems in this situation, and what is the role of the British nuclear arsenal? The latter question is analysed in Lawrence Freedman’s serious and thought-provoking book, Britain and Nuclear Weapons. To the first question, why Britain should have nuclear weapons, he cannot discover any very clear answer. The arguments have changed over the years, but the policy of keeping the weapons, and bringing them up to date, has continued unchanged. It is often stressed that they provide additional strength for the Nato alliance. But, as strategic weapons, they are, from the point of view of Nato, only a marginal addition to the enormous US stockpile: as I have already said, counting weapons of this kind makes no sense, once there are enough to deter. Another argument one hears is that they constitute an independent deterrent, meaning that the decision whether and how to use them rests ultimately in British hands. This would be important if the United States were to turn isolationist again and lose interest in the security of Western Europe. Is the expenditure on the weapons, and on the submarines which carry them, intended for this contingency? And would Britain plan to stand up to Soviet pressure without support from the US? Another aspect of this independence is that the UK would have the physical possibility of precipitating a nuclear exchange if the US were hesitant. It is hardly an attractive thought for the Americans that the game of mutual annihilation could be triggered by their allies, but the same thought may, for the Russians, make the deterrent marginally more credible.

There remains the ‘top table’ argument: the possession of these weapons is supposed to guarantee their owners a seat at the top table, i.e. some weight in international negotiations. This thought must be voiced with some discretion, because Britain supports the idea of Non-proliferation, which involves dissuading non-nuclear countries from acquiring nuclear weapons. If they are essential for us to retain our influence in world affairs, should not others (without aggressive intentions) follow our example? Also it is by no means obvious that membership of the various negotiating committees is necessarily the same as carrying much weight in them.

Freedman reviews the arguments for and against remaining ‘nuclear’, the latter being mainly the cost and effort, which could otherwise be devoted to conventional armaments, and finds them fairly evenly balanced. He also reviews the choice of particular equipment, and the present plan of replacing the submarines carrying Polaris missiles by a new generation carrying the more effective Trident missiles. Compared to alternative options, he thinks this a good choice.

This is strongly questioned by Air Vice-Marshal Stewart Menaul. To him, the decision to rely on submarine-carried missiles when the V-bombers became obsolete was misguided, and the choice of Tridents even worse. The only sensible option now, he maintains, would have been Cruise missiles. The views of a professional on such matters should be treated with respect. He tends to see problems in black and white, and he betrays many emotional prejudices. He is grieved by control of the nuclear deterrent having passed from the RAF to the Navy, and his comments on Mountbatten, who ‘was dedicated to ensuring the Navy’s survival, if necessary at the expense of the RAF’, make him sound only a little less evil than the ‘disreputable minority’ of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, started by ‘pro-Communist elements both in the government and the country’ in the late Forties. His historical research seems to have been less thorough than one might wish, to judge by a number of minor slips, such as that Robert Oppenheimer escaped from Germany, or that the Uranium-235 bomb is started by firing two hemispherical pieces together. He blames Alexander, Minister of Defence in 1947, for basing military planning on the ill-conceived assumption that there would be no major war for at least ten years. It does not seem to matter that events have proved this assumption correct. The tone of the book makes me somewhat prejudiced against its conclusion: but it does not follow that his arguments on the relative merits of different weapons systems might not be sound.

If Menaul sees matters in black and white, James Avery Joyce has no doubts about seeing them in white and black. He uses strong language – in my view rightly – to describe and denounce the arms race with its senseless overkill capacity, and with the frightening possibility that some accident, error or wrong speculation might one day unleash the horrors of a full-scale nuclear war. Few will quarrel with his description or disagree that a halt to the arms race, and ultimately disarmament, are imperative. Many people are ready to use their voice, and any influence they may possess, towards these ends. If books like these contribute to the public awareness of the situation, and win more supporters to the cause of disarmament, this is all to the good. But if one warns to know what can be done about it, the book is rather disappointing. It quotes the marginal limitations already achieved, such as the partial Test Ban, and advocates the negotiations now proceeding towards a comprehensive test ban and other desirable measures. It does not attempt to analyse in depth the factors now blocking progress. Joyce advocates a World Disarmament Conference, and/or a European Disarmament Conference, but it is not clear how one could ensure that such conferences would be more productive than those of the past. He would like more use made of the peace-keeping machinery of the United Nations, but we know that, under present rules, there are many situations in which these peace-keeping forces cannot be effective. He says: ‘We must work hard on that “moral equivalent to war”.’ Many of us are ready to work hard, but how is it done?

Protest and Survive (a title inspired by the Civil Defence Pamphlet Protect and Survive) is a collection of essays, edited by E. P. Thompson and Dan Smith, with emphasis on the effect of nuclear weapons on Europe, and particularly on Britain, and on current statements dealing with Civil Defence. An impressive article by Alva Myrdal discusses the function of tactical nuclear weapons, and argues that their real purpose would be to keep nuclear devastation out of the territory of the superpowers. An essay by Dan Smith along similar lines argues that Nato is not, as is claimed, inferior to the Warsaw Pact in conventional forces, and that tactical nuclear weapons are therefore not essential for the security of Western Europe. E. P. Thompson points to the danger which the presence of American Cruise missiles will constitute for Britain, and attacks the revival of Civil Defence. I would emphatically agree with him that any realistic Civil Defence measures can at best have a marginal effect. Whether the presence of the Cruise missiles makes a nuclear attack on this country more likely is debatable, given that they are not the first American missiles to be stationed here and that a pre-emptive Soviet strike against them would make no sense unless other means of retaliation could also be eliminated. The real argument against the Cruise missiles, it seems to me, is that they are just a further addition to a strategic arsenal containing a large capacity for overkill, and therefore part of the futile practice of counting weapons. We should indeed argue against these weapons, and against Nato’s reliance on tactical nuclear arms, but not as Thompson would like it, as an exercise in unilateral nuclear disarmament which, he hopes, would be infectious.

In ‘The American Arms Boom’ Emma Rothschild describes, and castigates, the growing expenditure on arms research, development and production, and its motivation. Elsewhere, Mary Kaldor discusses the conversion problems which would arise as a result of substantial disarmament. Ken Coates, restating the arguments against tactical nuclear war, claims that at one time US plans provided for the possibility of nuclear attacks against targets in allied countries ‘to deny their resources to Soviet troops’. This might perhaps be taken with a grain of salt, since the information comes from a document leaked by the Soviet Union which is supposed to have reached them through a spy.