What are nuclear bombs for? A military perspective

By Cmdr Robert Green, RN (retd.)


I am the first ex-Royal Navy Commander with nuclear weapon experience to have spoken out against the bomb. My conversion was a cumulative process that began when I was flying nuclear weapons around in helicopters. It became complete with the Gulf War and the break-up of the Soviet Union. I want to begin by mentioning eight military arguments against the bomb.

1. Nuclear Weapons Are Useless In War

I first doubted the military usefulness of nuclear devices when ordered to be ready to use nuclear depth bombs to protect my aircraft carrier from Soviet nuclear-powered submarine attack. This was because our anti-submarine torpedoes were too slow to catch the latest submarines. Any concerns about proportionality (we would have vaporized a chunk of ocean at least a kilometer across, and probably ourselves!), environmental consequences, or escalation to strategic nuclear exchange were brushed aside.

I was much relieved, therefore, when I heard in 1992 that these devices had been withdrawn from service. Though billed as a disarmament measure, it was clear that the latest conventional weapons were able to neutralize all currently envisaged naval targets--and without the undesirable side-effects of nuclear devices like radioactive fallout, Electro-Magnetic Pulse (EMP), or massive underwater disturbance (the EMP equivalent for sonic sensors). They were also discriminate and proportionate in firepower, and therefore carried no risk of escalation.

Yet NATO persisted with its nuclear bomb strategy. I would go further: I fear that nuclear devices were dubbed weapons to fool the military into operating them.

2. Nuclear Weapons Are Terror Devices

If used, nuclear devices are bound to kill, maim, and/or poison huge numbers of civilians. Uniquely, they would also cause genetic mutations among future generations of all forms of life within their radioactive fallout; and these mutations would be cumulative. Thus they are indiscriminate, delayed-action biological terror devices which also explode with devastating power. As such, they are worse than chemical and biological weapons.

3. Nuclear Devices Are Self-Deterring

An aggressor covets another nation because of its value in terms of raw materials, water, fertile land, beauty, etc. A nuclear strike would mean taking over territory made useless through devastation and radioactive poison, withunmanageable survivors amid a health disaster.

Even a low-yield demonstration strike (rumored to be in renewed favor among the U.S., U.K., and French military against rogue states) would so outrage world opinion that it would be self-defeating. No sane aggressor would use nuclear devices.

For a nuclear state facing defeat by a non-nuclear state, there is evidence that nuclear devices are again self-deterring. The U.S. in Korea and Vietnam, and USSR in Cuba and Afghanistan, preferred withdrawal to the ultimate ignominy of resorting to nuclear revenge.

Malcolm Rifkind, Britain's Secretary of State for Defence, surprisingly agrees that nuclear devices can be self-deterring. In a 1993 speech he warned against reviving a war-fighting role for them, because this would: be seriously damaging to our approach to maintaining stability in the European context, quite apart from the impact it would have on our efforts to encourage non-proliferation and greater confidence outside Europe.

How can he reconcile the contradictions in this statement with Britain's determination to continue deploying Polaris and now Trident?

4. Terrorists Are Undeterrable

The Gulf War illustrates the limited value of nuclear deterrence. Saddam Hussein's first Scud attack hit Tel Aviv on Jan. 17,1991. For the first time, the second city of a nuclear state had been attacked and its capital threatened. The aggressor did not have nuclear weapons. The Israelis, cowering in gas masks in their basements, learned that their nuclear deterrent had failed in its primary purpose.

Meanwhile, in Britain the IRA had just missed wiping out the entire Gulf War Cabinet with a mortar bomb attack from a van in Whitehall. They were not deterred by Polaris.

With the break-up of the Soviet Union and an unchecked arms trade, it is only a matter of time before extremists get a nuclear device. Along with the Saddam Husseins of this world, they are the most likely proliferators. Yet Polaris and Trident are useless against such threats.

5. Terrorists Would Love To Get A Nuclear Device

Nuclear blackmail is the ultimate expression of megalomania and terrorism. That is why extremists would love to get a nuclear device. This nightmare will intensify as long as Britain and the other nuclear powers insist on the bomb to guarantee their ultimate security--when in fact it does the opposite.

6. Nuclear Deterrence Undermines Security

The Falklands and Gulf Wars showed that competing for unilateral security leads to more insecurity for others and ultimately oneself. We need a new way of understanding security: one that sees it as a safety net of mutual benefit, not a win/lose military game. True security lies in fostering a just, sustainable world order.

The bomb directly threatens security, both of those who possess it and those it is meant to impress. It provokes the greatest threat: namely, the spread of nuclear devices to megalomaniacs and terrorists--the very people who will not be deterred by the bomb.

7. Nuclear Deterrence Undermines Democracy

If a democratic nation is forced to use state-sanctioned violence to defend itself, its leaders must stay within internationally-recognized moral and legal limits. Nuclear deterrence, however, is about threatening violence, unrestrained by morality or the law.

Furthermore, democracy within a nation operating a nuclear deterrence policy is inevitably eroded by the need for secrecy and tight control of equipment, technology, and personnel. The history of the British bomb shows that every major decision was taken without even full Cabinet knowledge, let alone approval. Thatcher decided to have Trident despite disagreement among the Chiefs of Staff: Admiral of the Fleet Sir Henry Leach, First Sea Lord at the time, called Trident a cuckoo in the Naval nest.

8. What If Terrorists Try Nuclear Blackmail?

Rule 1: On no account try to oppose them with a threat of nuclear retaliation. They will just call your bluff, and relish taking as many others with them as they can. Nuclear devices are worse than useless in such a crisis.

My advice would be to emulate the French authorities facing a man with explosives wrapped around his chest who hijacked a class of schoolchildren and threatened to blow them up with him if his demands were not met. They exhausted him by lengthy negotiations while installing surveillance devices to determine his condition and location. At an optimum moment Special Forces moved in and shot him with a silenced handgun. I would prefer a tranquilizer dart.

The way to minimize the chances of a nuclear hijack is to stop treating the bomb as top asset in the arms business. Nuclear deterrence is a myth.

So Why Are France And Britain Acting Together?

Oblivious to these considerations, the French and the Chinese are continuing to test nuclear weapons. The British government (almost alone) has refused to condemn France. Here I want to explore Britain's complicity on this matter.

The tests in the South Pacific have sparked an overdue debate on the role, if any, of nuclear weapons in the future security policy of the European Union (E.U.). At next year's Inter-Governmental Conference (IGC) the French and British governments will be unable to avoid a growing anti-nuclear faction led by neutral Ireland, Sweden, and Austria.

Britain and France have differing nuclear postures, yet both governments have a common need to find a role for their nuclear arsenals in the E.U. and elsewhere. The nuclear weapon establishments fear that they are losing both the argument and their ability to intimidate the non-nuclear majority of states. Dramatic evidence of this occurred in December 1994 when the U.N. General Assembly adopted a resolution asking the International Court of Justice (the World Court) for its first-ever advisory opinion on whether the threat or use of nuclear weapons in any circumstance is permitted under international law. A decision may be announced early in 1996. Almost any opinion by the court will pose grave problems for all the declared nuclear states, and especially for Britain and France. My aim here is to outline new, disturbing justifications by the French and British governments for retaining their nuclear arsenals.

European Union Responds To The French Offer

Philippe Seguin, Speaker of France's National Assembly has tried to argue that Chirac's sudden offer of the French nuclear arsenal to the E.U. was not just a ploy to stem the uproar following his resumption of tests. What he envisaged was a fully-fledged E.U. defence organisation separate from NATO, with its own nuclear force. He revealed that Spain and Italy already help finance French satellite imagery programs. This could be a first step toward joint decisions about targets for the French nuclear arsenal. He saw this as counter-balancing the absolute monopoly of U.S. nuclear forces in NATO.

In Spain a few days later, E.U. foreign ministers virtually unanimously rejected the offer. No one appeared to believe these weapons would add anything to our security, one Belgian diplomat said. Nevertheless, French foreign minister Charette said Paris would spell out its ideas during next year's IGC review of the Maastricht Treaty.

The U.K. has always maintained a two-fold nuclear doctrine. On the one hand its nuclear forces have been part of NATO's deterrents, operating under the Single Integrated Operational Plan (SIOP). At the same time they have been available to provide massive retaliation against an attack on Britain. The U.K. considers its nuclear forces to be fully committed to the defence of its NATO allies. This is, of course, consistent with her nuclear dependence upon the United States.

Since De Gaulle pulled France out of NATO, successive French governments have eased her back in under observer status. However, her nuclear forces are under strictly national control to protect France's territory and vital interests, with no involvement in SIOP or NATO's Nuclear Planning Group.

Discussions began in 1986 on joint British and French development of a Tactical Air-to-Surface Missile (TASM). Further rapprochement came in 1992 when Defence Secretary Rifkind suggested that the more closely we (U.K. and France) can concert our policies, the more weight we shall carry. The then French Prime Minister, Pierre Beregovoy, responded by urging the development of a European deterrence doctrine.

In 1993 France and the U.K. established a Joint Commission on Nuclear Policy and Doctrine. By then the need was clear, what with the upcoming debate on E.U. security. On Sept. 20, 1995 allegations of much closer collaboration appeared in the Guardian. The Labour Party's defence spokesman, Dr. David Clark, said he had been reliably informed that the French were passing nuclear test data to the U.K. Though denied by the British government, this coincided with reports that test data from Mururoa was being studied in the U.S. under a series of informal agreements within the Western nuclear club.

Nuclear Gunboat Diplomacy

Saddam Hussein's Kuwait adventure allowed three significant changes in U.S./U.K./French nuclear posture. Hitherto, nuclear weapons were to be used only to counter direct aggression against their territory or that of their allies. Now a direct threat had been made to a vital interest outside NATO (access to cheap Middle East oil). Second, Saddam's chemical and biological weapon capability gave them the pretext to threaten nuclear retaliation if he used it. Third, the idea of counter-proliferation could be developed: namely, pre-emptive nuclear attack to neutralize an emergent capability in weapons of mass-destruction.

To make such a threat credible, only a single low-yield nuclear weapon could be used. This was a role for TASM. An aircraft-launched stand-off missile also had the merit of visibility in deployment within range of the rogue state. The only U.K. alternative was a free-fall tactical nuclear bomb, WE-177, which TASM would replace--and thereby still give the RAF a nuclear role. Yet in October 1993 the U.K. government announced it had cancelled participation in TASM. Instead, Trident would be given an added sub-strategic role, with a missile carrying only one warhead.

But the strategic Trident warhead has a yield of over 100 kilotons, some eight times that used against Hiroshima. Another problem is that it would be almost impossible to distinguish between a missile launched by a U.S. and a U.K. Trident submarine. This increased the embarrassment over Trident's excessive firepower and escalating nuclear costs. Implying that withdrawal from TASM was part of the U.K.'s contribution to nuclear disarmament, Rifkind also announced the scrapping of WE-177 in 1998 (the nuclear depth bomb equivalent had been removed from Royal Navy surface ships in 1992). However, he took care to explain the need for the ´Tactical' Trident capable of delivering an unmistakable message of our willingness to defend our vital interests to the utmost (emphasis added). This seems close to the Gaullist view, which emphasises the development of nuclear forces capable of being used in confrontation with countries of the South that may be armed with weapons of massdestruction.

Some Deductions

British and French citizens and taxpayers now know that their governments contemplate using nuclear weapons to help control markets and their access to raw materials. Indeed, there is even serious discussion of demonstration strikes in uninhabited areas, and punitive use against governments that resist coercion. In sum, nuclear gunboat diplomacy.

I heard the Royal Navy Presentation team give evidence of this in its message for the coming year in September 1994. The team was led by a former nuclear attack submarine commanding officer who barely mentioned the U.N. or how the R.N. could help in peacekeeping. Instead his message was of power projection by a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, intervening worldwide to protect the U.K.'s vital interests. He extolled the nuclear submarine as the ultimate stealth weapon for exerting diplomatic pressure. Even I found it toecurlingly embarrassing, and deeply worrying. Where did it leave the U.K. government's commitment in Article VI of the NPT to pursue nuclear disarmament? After all, this was an irresponsible incitement to nuclear proliferation. I suspect the French Navy's view is similar.

Indeed, France's Ambassador in London wrote in August 1995 that France is one of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and one of the five nuclear powers recognized by the Non-Proliferation Treaty. This status confers on her special responsibilities, and particularly the right to maintain her deterrent at a credible level (emphasis added). In an article in the Aug. 19, 1995 issue of the British Medical Journal, a U.K. Foreign & Commonwealth Office spokesman said: We, and the responsible powers, recently had a ringing endorsement from 178 countries in the form of the renewed Non-Proliferation Treaty, which extended indefinitely the right of the nuclear powers to keep their weapons (emphasis added).

The World Court To The Rescue

This is why consideration by the World Court on the legal status of nuclear weapon threat or use is so crucial. It also helps explain the crude attempts by the British and French governments to derail them. Confirmation by the Court that any threat or use of nuclear weapons is illegal would give them the same stigma as chemical and biological weapons, which are shunned by military professionals. The legality of ballistic missile-firing submarine patrols would be questioned. Public perception of nuclear weapons in the U.K and France would be shifted from asset to liability.

International pressure would mount for rapid progress to an enforceable Nuclear Weapons Convention. The moment would loom for a declared nuclear weapon state to break ranks. With Polaris old and targetless and Trident a growing embarrassment to the Treasury, the U.K. is best-placed to take this leading role. The reward would be global gratitude, huge influence in shaping the post-nuclear world order, and a financial windfall.

Peace Magazine Jan-Feb 1996

Peace Magazine Jan-Feb 1996, page 8. Some rights reserved.

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