During the UK 2019 General Election campaign the UK’s strategic nuclear weapons, the Trident system, has once again been conjured up as a kind of litmus-test for what makes a ‘real leader’: the willingness to deploy these weapons. The problem is that their deployment never makes sense and neither does their deterrence.
Who is your enemy
Perhaps the single most important lesson a military strategist or tactician needs to learn is this one: always know who your enemy is. Whether force is useful and, if yes, what kind of force is useful always depends on who you are deploying it against. The question of who here refers not to identity of the opponent but rather the enemy’s intent and means. The critical flaw in thinking about strategic nuclear weapons usually start right at this point. Because these weapons are such a “wipe all pieces of the board” element, it may seem that thinking about the who of your opponent is irrelevant as your strategy simply aims at wiping all their pieces off the board or preventing them from doing so to your pieces.
Who would use strategic nuclear weapons against us?
So let us ask the question who would be that fictional opponent that would seek to use strategic nuclear weapons against us? Most conflicts occur between parties that want something of the other party for which the price of conflict seems a reasonable price to pay. So the most common use of a strategic nuclear weapon would rely on its use in extortion. The problem with this strategy is the following: the use of a strategic nuclear weapon implies a willingness to destroy the one you seek to extort something from, together with all their assets. It is like a mugger in the street saying to you: give me your pin-number or I am going to kill you. The act threatened is not going to get the mugger what they want. In fact, when executed the threat is going to make it forever impossible for the mugger to get what they want: your pin-number. That’s why most muggers don’t threaten death, but injury.
“Right!” you might say, “but isn’t that what a enemy who threatens the use of strategic nuclear weapons would also do? Threaten injury? Albeit on a huge scale?” That may seem reasonable until you bring into the equation the scale of destruction and disruption that even a small strategic nuclear attack would cause. These weapons are all ten to a hundred times more destructive then the WWII nuclear devices. The casualty numbers when deployed against a developed economy would run into the millions. It does not really matter that you could make it a hundred times worse if it is already that bad. The evidence from WWII is also very conclusive: high casualty-rates under civilian populations do not generate an urge among those to surrender to the perpetrator of the atrocity. UK/US fire-bombings of German and Japanese cities did little to nothing in terms of moral of the affected population. Japan did not surrender the day after Hiroshima and Nagasaki either.
There is no evidence to suggest that a nation-state actor threatening the use of a strategic nuclear weapon against another nation-state for extortionist purposes is going t have any chance of success because it is simply not credible they will follow up on the threat if there is actually something they want to get out of it. A rational nation-state actor would always deploy a non-nuclear conventional threat. It is not deterrence that keeps a nuclear-state safe from nuclear attack: it is the pointlessness of nuclear attacks that deters nation states from making those attacks.
But if they are useless then why do they exist?
So what is the use of strategic nuclear weapons if there is no sense in using them? Well, first of all they are a status-symbol. A bit like SUV’s, it is pretty irrelevant whether you need them for people to buy them. People are show-offs … just like most other animals on the Earth. And like with most things to bragg about: the more expensive they are the more bragging rights they bring you. Strategic nuclear weapons surely are expensive. But of course there are other uses of them which are conceivable.
If you face an opponent whose conventional forces are vastly superior to yours then some strategists and tacticians may see a use for deploying these weapons on the battlefield. But those are tactical nuclear weapons and those are very different from the strategic nuclear weapons like Trident. Their use essentially only makes sense (strategically) when the conflict occurs on territory that belongs to neither party in the conflict. No surprise then that during the Cold Wars tactical nuclear weapons were designed by the Soviets and the Americans for use in central Europe … not for use in the US or Russia. Blasting your enemies’ troops into oblivion in a country that isn’t yours is one thing … doing so at the expense of your opponent’s territory essentially makes you tactical weapons a strategic one … whilst doing so on your own territory kind of defeats the purpose of defense completely.
It is very questionable whether strategic nuclear weapons like Trident missiles could ever be usefully and legitimately used as tactical weapons. My guess is that they can’t.
Chain of Command
Something which often gets overlooked is the issue of the chain of command. The president or Prime Minister authorizing the use of strategic nuclear weapons is not the one who is actually firing them. The authorization typically goes down the chain of command to the officer in the sub (or the field) who needs to push that final button or enter that final code. If the ordered strike is a response to an already launched strike by the enemy, these officers will know that the counter-strike is pointless and will only inflict more damage but not prevent any. If the ordered strike is a first strike, then these officers know the command is a war-crime. In both scenarios the optimal strategy is not to push the button. In an interesting 2018 BBC documentary a nuclear attack scenario was gamed with several politicians and military officers involved. The details of the fairly realistic scenario don’t matter much in the light of the perhaps surprising outcome. Although political leaders ordered a counter strike, military leaders would stand down the weapons.
Of course military and defence planners have known about this for a long time. People simply aren’t as bloodthirsty as media and film would have you believe. So instead they automatize systems and that brings us to the final folly of strategic nuclear weapons.
So when could nuclear weapons ever be used?
In the utterly irrational doctrine of mutually assured destruction the threat of deployment of strategic nuclear weapons in a counter-strike scenario must be made credible at all costs. The possibility of reasoned thought somewhere in the chain of command makes it almost impossible for this counter-strike deployment to actually happen. Add to that the possibility that a fast-first-strike capability gives very, very little time for an effective counter-strike decision to be made and automization of the decision to counter-strike became the go-to ‘solution’ to both problems.
The story of the Cold War is littered with incidents where strategic nuclear weapons were on the verge of being deployed due to automization errors. It seems to me that the only likely scenario in which a strategic nuclear strike would ever be ordered by a nation-state actor, whether as a first-strike or a counter-strike, would be due to human and system error.
Strategic nuclear weapons and leadership
Strategic nuclear weapons are a fallacy by design. There is no credible scenario in which they would have a reasonable probability of being deployed consciously. The only likely scenarios are mistake-scenarios. If a politician would want to show real leadership in the issue of strategic nuclear weapons, then this could only be in one way: by their unilateral destruction. They are pointlessly devouring resources that would be better used in conventional defence or public services.
The only case we left out as a scenario is this: what about an opponent who is intent on our destruction rather than on any form of extortion? Such opponents might exist, however they usually do not prey on developed economies with the ability to manufacture or buy nuclear weapons. Such genocidal opponents, when state-actors, usually turn their swords on their weakest neighbours. In fact, such an opponent would be less likely to be a state-actor and more likely to be a terrorist group. But strategic nuclear weapons are absolutely pointless in the fight against a terror group. Genocidal opponents, whether as state-actors or terror-groups can be ‘fought’ much cheaper (in terms of human lives and material cost) at a much earlier stage in their development and often by non-violent and constructive means. Waiting for them to go nuclear and then applying MAD as a strategy … is utterly insane.
A final element of this that I have left unmentioned till now is this: the Earth is a closed eco-system and the destructive capacity of strategic nuclear weapons is such that any use of them, sooner or later, will affect the user in a destructive manner as well. Perhaps in a distant future strategic nuclear weapons will become a weapon with a rational deployment strategy in warfare between planets. But between warring factions sharing the ecosphere of a single planet? No.
Strategic nuclear weapons ultimately have only two uses: 1) for posturing about how ‘tough’ a leader is and 2) for creating profit for the manufacturers. But their possession subjects us to the lethal debt, of the risk of erroneous use, we should never want to pay.