Is Nuclear Deterrence Obsolete?

Nuclear weapons protestors dancing during the first London-Aldermaston March, London, April, 1958. Aldermaston became a nuclear base in 1950 and is now the headquarters of Britain’s Trident missile program.

In the recent foreign policy debate among the three candidates in next week’s general election in Great Britain—the incumbent Gordon Brown (Labour) against David Cameron (Conservative) and Nick Clegg (Liberal Democrat)—it is generally conceded that Clegg won. But I have seen no commentary on the interesting exchange about nuclear deterrence that took place somewhere in the middle of the debate. Britain has at present four Vanguard class submarines that—according to a Cold War agreement between the US and Britain—are designed to carry Trident nuclear missiles leased from the United States. The submarines are becoming obsolete. Clegg noted that it would cost about a hundred billion pounds to replace them with a new generation of submarines, money that might be spent elsewhere. He raised this point at least twice and was ignored by the other two candidates. Finally, the moderator insisted they answer. Gordon Brown said that it was important for Britain to have an independent deterrence—separate from the US’s umbrella—citing the threat posed by countries like Iran. Cameron agreed. Unfortunately Clegg did not ask the obvious question: Why? What earthly function do these submarines serve? Who can they possibly deter, especially since only one of them at a time is ever at sea?

It has become ever clearer that nuclear arms are no longer useful weapons of war. Iran, to take Gordon Brown’s example, has been put on a list of countries that the US is targeting with nuclear weapons—hundreds of them. This strategy has not deterred anything. It has only made the Iranians more belligerent. Russia has at present the largest stockpile of nuclear weapons of any country. Yet in late March, two women were able to board subways in Moscow and blow up suicide vests using conventional explosives. In the “war” against terrorism, nuclear deterrence has little meaning.

It should be noted that when nuclear weapons first began to be constructed in the early 1940s, no one thought of deterrence. The bomb was not designed to “deter” Hitler. It was to defeat him and his Axis allies. In the spring of 1943 the Columbia physicist Robert Serber gave a series of lectures to new recruits at Los Alamos. The opening lines of the printed version read: “The object of the project is to produce a practical military weapon in the form of a bomb in which energy is released by a fast neutron chain reaction in one of more of the materials known to show nuclear fission.”

As far as I can tell, the first suggestion that these weapons could be used for deterrence came from General Leslie Groves, who headed the Manhattan project. Some time after the defeat of Germany, but well before the first successful test of the bomb in July of 1945, he came to Los Alamos. At a small dinner he expressed the view that the Russians would have to be deterred by the bomb. He was sure that they had expansionist plans that included the domination of all of Europe and that nuclear weapons would be necessary to stop them. In fact, Soviet spies had already furnished Stalin with extensive knowledge of the US program well before it became public after Hiroshima; Stalin’s reaction was not to be deterred, but to start a crash program to build nuclear weapons of his own while at the same time occupying the countries of Eastern Europe.

Indeed, if you think about it, deterrence is an odd concept. It implies explicit or implicit negotiations between the deterrer and the deterree. How is one to know when deterrence has been successful? It is easier to know that it has not been when one is attacked. David tried to deter Goliath by invoking the God of the Israelites. Goliath had no interest. If David had shown Goliath his skills with a slingshot instead of attempting to deter him it would probably have provoked a better defense against sling shots. What does one expect a deterree to do, sign a document admitting that he/she is deterred? Would anyone trust such a document? Without such a document how much deterrence is enough? Is one atomic bomb enough? How about fifty or five hundred? Who is to decide? For many decades, the US and Russia were engaged in a policy of “mutually assured destruction”—MAD. How did we know that destruction of the other side was “assured?”

A Trident submarine leaving its base, with the village of Strone visible in the background, Clyde, England, December 29, 2007 (Flickr/JohnED76)

Consider the recent British debate over the Trident missiles: the first thing one must know is that the British have racked up very large debts during the recent recession. Like ours, they are unsustainable. Like ours, the only solution is a combination of reduced services and expenses, along with higher taxes. The second thing one must know is that, although they cost a huge amount of taxpayer money to maintain, only one of Britain’s four Vanguard class submarines capable of carrying Trident missiles is at sea at any given moment. The other three are involved in either training exercises or undergoing maintenance. The crew of the one at sea does not know where it is. Its rules of engagement are contained in a letter from the Prime Minister that is stored in a safe onboard. If the submarine is ever cut off from its base then the letter authorizes the commander to fire the missiles or not depending on his view of the situation.


The purpose of this arrangement was, originally, to get around the Cold War problem of first strike: by arming a British submarine whose whereabouts were unknown with missiles capable of destroying Russian cities, the US would be able to retaliate against even a devastating nuclear attack by the Soviets—thus deterring Moscow from launching such a strike. But in an era in which the major threat no longer comes from a single nuclear-armed opponent but from terrorists and insurgents, what purpose does this one submarine serve?

The French also have four nuclear-weapon-armed submarines as well as airplanes. The Cold War reasoning behind this force de frappe was stated by General de Gaulle in:

Within ten years, we shall have the means to kill 80 million Russians. I truly believe that one does not light-heartedly attack people who are able to kill 80 million Russians, even if one can kill 800 million French, that is if there were 800 million French.

Given the present situation, this statement seems totally absurd. Yet French President Nicolas Sarkozy insists that these submarine and air missiles are needed to retaliate against terrorist states. The French have had terrorist incidents. Against whom can they retaliate with nuclear weapons?

From what I have written so far one might draw the conclusion that a total abolition of nuclear weapons is desirable. On this point I am not so sure. I think about conflicts that might have happened but didn’t. For example, given the numerous recent terrorist acts in India such as the Mumbai bombings that have been traced to Pakistani groups, I think it is quite plausible that without the restraint of nuclear weapons on both sides there would have been war. Here deterrence worked. The lesson from this is that the existing bombs on both sides were both necessary and sufficient in this instance. Instead both countries are engaged in efforts to increase their stockpiles of nuclear arms. To what end? One cannot help but be struck by how ludicrous this is.

The path of a MIRV rocket

Likewise I think that the mainland Chinese might have tried to reclaim Taiwan if it was not for the nuclear umbrella the US provided. I also suspect that some combination of Arab states might have attempted to destroy Israel if it was not for the generally accepted fact that the Israelis have something like two hundred nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them. These cases seem to me to be an argument that the presence of some nuclear weapons has helped to preserve the peace. But how many do you need? I wonder if in our recent agreement with the Russians there have been frank discussions of what mutually assured destruction really requires. It does not look that way. The signed treaty allows for many more warheads than anyone really needs. It also does not eliminate “MIRVing”—having multiple re-entry vehicles on a single rocket, which defeats attempts to deflect the rockets. I think that when the history of this period is eventually written, two of its worst inventions will be the hydrogen bomb and MIRVing. Both were acts of folly.

This leaves us with the dilemma that I think characterizes our age. We seem to have a choice between preserving some nuclear weapons in the hope that they will deter some conventional wars or accepting the fact that conventional wars will continue to occur if we eliminate all nuclear weapons. As a species we are very good at developing technology—nuclear weapons are a big triumph in that department. But when it comes to deciding what to do with it, we seem bewildered.

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