Nuclear weapons and the flawed arguments of nuclear deterrents

During the Cold War many countries took it upon themselves to stockpile nuclear weapons. The idea behind this was that, should their enemies ever consider launching a nuclear strike against them, they would be “deterred” from doing so by the knowledge that they would certainly be destroyed by nuclear weapons in return only slightly after their bombs had landed in their enemy’s country.

This idea was called MAD, or mutually assured destruction, and I don’t think there is a better acronym to describe this way of thinking. It is easy to see the reasoning behind it but, if you devote even a few moments thought to it, then you can see why it is such a flawed concept. To show you why I will start with an example from as recent as the 20th century.

Before World War I Europe had, in its midst, a set of complex alliances each with enormous military power. The main players were the British Empire, France, Russia and Belgium on one side, with a number of other, smaller powers in their midst, and, on the other, Austro-Hungary, Germany and the Ottoman Empire, again with many more, smaller powers that came with them. The idea behind these alliances was almost explicitly to prevent a war in Europe as each would be terrified of the military might of the other to the point where they would be scared of being wiped off the map if they ever went to war.

Yet WWI proceeded to happen and one of the bloodiest wars in the history of mankind raged for four years and irrevocably changed the face of the world forever.

There are many reasons as to why this didn’t work but all lead straight back to one; the human element. I suggest you watch this series by Extra History as I am about to summarise, very quickly, what happened. After the Archduke Franz Ferdinand was shot, but before troops were deployed, there was a rush of diplomatic action to try and avoid this conflict. People at the top and at the bottom knew that this war was going to change everything. This wasn’t a cluster of battles far away in the colonies but something that would be devastating for every nation involved. People knew, and yet it still happened, and that is the principal flaw with MAD.

People often don’t consider the consequences until it’s too late. For the most part that is fine and is just part of being human. You say something you regret and you have to live with it but, ultimately, the world keeps turning. However, when lives are at stake then things become a lot more serious. It’s why we have a justice system, even for war criminals. It’s also why people who do commit a crime often come to regret their decision, because getting into a fight or stealing from a shop was a spur-of-the-moment decision for which the consequences weren’t realised for them.

But enough semantics, why am I talking about this? Well, the UK has its own nuclear deterrent; Trident. It’s a small, expensive naval base in Scotland which houses Britain’s nuclear arsenal. Due to austerity, it is coming into question a lot as it provides very few jobs for the relative cost of it (roughly £2 billion a year for around 500-800 jobs, depending on whose figures you believe) In total it has 4 submarines (Vanguard-class, as the newspapers like to point out to make them sound more important and intimidating than the 30-year old rust-buckets they are)

There was a suggestion, recently, about upgrading Trident to have newer submarines as the old ones are obsolete. The missiles themselves, of course, have the potency of nuclear bombs but the submarines are poor by today’s standards and are in need of scraping as they will come to the end of their operational lifespan (which has already been extended to 2028) fairly soon. However, for me the scrapping of Trident isn’t a morale issue due to the very nature and power of nuclear bombs, and nor is it an economic issue primarily, as it is at least more useful to the country then some of the things the government spends money on.

I also don’t wish to see Britain invaded by foreign powers, as some people have suggested that I do. I’m not a pacifist and I’m not a patriot, I’m a realist. For me the scrapping of Trident is purely logical. Were we to get bombed, then, through MAD, our attackers would be decimated and sentenced to the same fate we are subjected to. More importantly, each Prime Minister, at the start of a new term, has a form to sign regarding retaliation in response to being bombed and all Prime Ministers besides Margaret Thatcher have signed it to say that, under no circumstances are nuclear bombs to be used in retaliation.

Nuclear bombs do not prevent war either. While we live in the most peaceful times in history there are many wars going on around the world right now that have not been stopped by the presence of nuclear bombs. Syria, Egypt, Afghanistan, Venezuela, over 10 more in Africa, the Ukrainian pseudo-war in Europe (for lack of a better word, as I refuse to say “military intervention by Russia”) and the constant tension between North Korea and South Korea.

There are two possibilities for the future: either nuclear bombs exist in this world or they do not. How we achieve the second situation is terrifyingly uncertain.

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