We have looked in chapters one and two at the human, physical and
environmental consequences which using nuclear weapons might have on a
country that has been targeted with attack as well as on the rest of the
world. But what about the consequences to that country itself of using
nuclear weapons? We have already seen that radioactive fallout could end
up coming down thousands of miles from the intended target, as did the
fallout from the Chernobyl meltdown. Are there other likely effects on the
country launching a nuclear attack, as opposed to the country at the
receiving end of such an attack?
Mutually assured destruction, or ‘MAD’, is the logical outcome of
attacking with nuclear weapons a country capable of striking back with
nuclear weapons. It means that despite the enormous amount of death and
destruction which one country may be able to inflict on another country
with its nuclear weapons, if that second country also has nuclear weapons,
it may still be able to inflict an enormous amount of death and destruction
on the first country in retaliation.
In the 1960s, both the US and the Soviet Union had enough nuclear
weapons, and the means to deliver them, to utterly destroy each other many
times over. us Defence Secretary Robert McNamara made it us policy that
such a balance of terror should be maintained, as the best guarantee against
either side attacking the other.
The MAD balance of terror was strengthened by the introduction of ballistic
missile submarines like Polaris and later Trident. This meant that no matter
what one side might do to destroy the planes or missiles of the other, they
would still be able to launch nuclear weapons from secret locations under
the sea in a devastating retaliatory strike.1
The Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM), which was signed in 1972, is perhaps
the best example of the US and Soviet Union cooperating with each other
during the Cold War to maintain the situation of mutually assured destruction.
The ABM Treaty limited the numbers and types of anti-ballistic missile defences
that each side could maintain. The purpose was very specifically to ensure
that one side could not protect itself against incoming missiles to such an
extent as to feel it could survive such an attack. If abm systems became too
effective, that might encourage one side to think they could launch a nuclear
war without fear of retaliation, upsetting the balance created by the situation
To reinforce the concept of MAD and to be confident of overwhelming
even the most sophisticated anti-ballistic missile defences, the US, quickly
followed by the Soviet Union, developed a whole range of devices designed
to ensure that the nuclear weapons would always get through. The most
important of these was the development of the MIRV, or ‘multiple independently-targeted
re-entry vehicle’. MIRVs meant that several warheads could be
launched from a single missile and land on different targets, making it
impossible for radar systems monitoring the trajectory of the missile to know
where the warheads were going to end up.
The ABM Treaty was officially abrogated by President Bush in 2002 and
both the US and Russia have invested heavily in anti-ballistic missile defences
since then. Both sides have significantly reduced the total numbers of nuclear
weapons in their stockpiles as well, but they still retain more than enough
to utterly destroy each other. The development of technologies designed to
defeat and overwhelm the other side goes on.
How does MAD apply to a smaller country like the UK?
The development of MAD as a reality and then as a policy applied in the
1960s to the US and the Soviet Union, who had then and still have now the
vast majority of the world’s nuclear weapons, vastly more than needed to
utterly destroy each other. mad carried with it the implication of total
destruction, against which there was no defence except to ensure that
nuclear weapons would never be used.
MAD, as a concept however, does not depend on total destruction of two
countries with nuclear weapons aimed at each other, but only on the
assured destruction of those two countries. Another term which could be
used here is ‘unacceptable damage’, since this is the term most often used
by governments to describe the purpose of nuclear deterrence.
Nuclear weapons are designed to cause unacceptable damage to another
country, and thus deter that country from attacking oneself. But every
country with nuclear weapons must itself have a level of unacceptable damage
which it would not want inflicted on its own people and infrastructure. If,
by attacking another (nuclear weapon possessing) country a government
were to bring about its own destruction – or a level of unacceptable damage
to its own country – one might presume that it would not attack that country
in the first place. And if attacking that said country is the ‘threat’ being
made by the possession of nuclear weapons, that threat is not very credible.
We cannot easily define what level of destruction counts as unacceptable,
but successive UK governments, for instance, have considered 40–50 per
cent of the population of Moscow killed, together with 40–50 per cent of
the buildings destroyed, to be an unacceptable level of damage to Russia. If
we were to apply the same criteria to London we would have to assume
that 40–50 per cent of the people killed and 40–50 per cent of the buildings
destroyed in London might count as ‘unacceptable damage’.
Alternatively, we can look at a number of different possible targets in
the UK that could be hit in a retaliatory strike by Russia in the event of a
nuclear war. Instead of destroying only London, perhaps we would consider
destruction of Britain’s 40 largest towns and cities as sufficiently devastating
to count as ‘unacceptable damage’? Alternatively, perhaps unacceptable
damage in military terms, or in terms of ‘centres of state control’ would
mean destruction of major airfields, submarine bases, nato command and
control bunkers, nuclear facilities, parliament, etc.
How much nuclear firepower would it take to inflict unacceptable
damage on the uk under these different scenarios? As we have seen, one
100 kt nuclear explosion can have a devastating impact on a large city,
killing tens of thousands instantly, physically destroying an area of several
square miles, and depending on whether it is airburst or groundburst,
depending on the wind speed and other weather conditions, fatal levels of
radioactive fallout could spread over a much larger area.
A study produced by Article 36 in 2013 examined the effects of a single
100 kt nuclear detonation (the size of one UK Trident warhead) over
Manchester. This concluded that 81,000 people would be killed directly
and more than 212,000 would be injured. With the destruction of vital
infrastructure, including hospitals and emergency services, the injured would
not stand a high chance of surviving. Everything up to 1.8 km from ground
zero would be completely destroyed and fires would cause severe destruction
out to a distance of 3 km. People up to 7 km from the explosion would still
receive severe second degree burns and most buildings would be damaged.2
The equivalent of one uk Trident submarine of nuclear weapons, or
40 x 100 kt, striking the UK would cause ‘unacceptable damage’ to the
uk under any of the above definitions. Russian submarines, like their US
counterparts, carry much higher yield weapons and they have many more
of these submarines than the UK has. One modern SSBN Russian sub is
normally believed to have 16 missiles, each containing eight warheads of 400
kt each. That is equivalent to 51 MT, or more than ten times the firepower
of a UK Trident submarine. In other words, no matter what Russia may
have already done or threatened to do to the UK, if the UK were to launch
nuclear weapons at Russia, Russia could still retaliate from under the sea
with sufficient ferocity to cause ‘unacceptable damage’ to the UK by any
definition of that term.
It’s a mad, mad world
It should be obvious from the above discussion that were a smaller country
with nuclear weapons (say UK or France) to attack a larger country with
nuclear weapons (say Russia or China), the concept of MAD would certainly
apply: no matter how much damage might be inflicted on a country with a
large number of potentially ‘survivable’ nuclear weapons, that country would
almost certainly be able to inflict an ‘unacceptable’ level of damage in return.
The Russian government, therefore, can hardly be threatened by the
nuclear weapons of countries like the UK or France, knowing that it can
utterly destroy those countries in retaliation, no matter what they may do
to Russia. Why would a UK Prime Minister or a French President ever take
The reverse is of course true in the case of a country like North Korea.
The leadership of North Korea may believe that by threatening the United
States with nuclear weapons, they are somehow protecting themselves
from possible attack. However, since no matter how many nuclear weapons
or advanced delivery systems they may acquire, North Korea will still face
the risk of unacceptable damage from a us retaliatory strike, why would
they ever take such a risk?
Perhaps there are people who would be prepared to take such risks.
Perhaps it is being too generous to apply the principles of logic to such
decisions. Or perhaps there are other calculations at play which outweigh
what we might consider to be an ‘unacceptable’ level of damage to one’s
own country. The reality, however, is that from a rational point of view,
threatening another country with your own country’s destruction is not a
very credible threat.
What about the larger nuclear weapons states attacking the smaller
ones? Surely, the US could launch a massive nuclear attack against North
Korea, for instance, without much risk of triggering unacceptable damage
in return.3 The real risk here is that even a small nuclear weapon state like
North Korea could inflict unacceptable damage on a third party, for
instance South Korea or Japan in this case. This still qualifies as MAD since
a nuclear attack on any other nuclear weapons state runs the risk of causing
catastrophic and unknowable consequences and is therefore irrational.
So-called ‘extended’ deterrence, or the ‘nuclear umbrella’ is the idea that if
Russia, or another country, were to attack another nato country, say for
example Estonia, then the US or the UK would retaliate with a nuclear attack
against Russia. Russia, knowing this would be the result, would therefore
be deterred from attacking Estonia in the first place.
This threat, however, could be perceived by Russia as lacking credibility,
since it would seem unlikely that either the US or the UK would risk
launching their nuclear missiles at Russia merely for the sake of a third
country like Estonia, knowing that Russia would retaliate by launching
nuclear missiles against them. Why would a UK Prime Minister, let alone a
US President, invite the nuclear destruction of their own country for the
sake of Estonia, or Poland, or Turkey, or even France?
Indeed, these were the very concerns which led in the 1970s and ’80s to
the concept of ‘flexible response’ and to the deployment of a whole range
of intermediate nuclear weapons in Europe. These were designed to provide
a nuclear response to any invasion by the Soviet bloc without, it was hoped,
inviting an all-out nuclear attack against the US mainland. Without this
intermediate level of nuclear response, it was felt that the Soviet Union
might not be deterred by the threat of a nuclear strike from the US for the
very reason that such a strike was not credible if merely for the defence of
European allies. A US President is not, and never was, likely to order an all-out
nuclear attack for the sake of its allies if such an attack is sure to invite
a response in kind against the United States itself.
The use of nuclear weapons against Russia or China would almost certainly
result in a devastating nuclear counter-attack on the US and/or any of its
nuclear allies, whether or not a nuclear attack on the US or one of its allies
had already taken place. The use of nuclear weapons against one of the
smaller nuclear weapons states might avoid the risk of an immediate
counter-attack, but risks nuclear weapons being used in retaliation on some
With thousands of nuclear warheads pointing at each other in the US
and Russia, it is unlikely in the extreme that there would be none left to
launch a counter-attack in the event of one side or the other pressing the
nuclear button, no matter how many may have already been launched prior
to that. Therefore one can only assume that neither side is actually ‘deterred’
by the nuclear weapons of the other side as much as they are deterred by
possible use of their own nuclear weapons. Furthermore, it is accepted
NATO policy not to rule out the possibility of a ‘first use’ of nuclear weapons
against a conventional attack on a NATO member state. A conventional
attack by Russia against the west, for instance, would mean they still had a
considerable arsenal of nuclear weapons in reserve. Therefore if NATO were
seriously to consider launching nuclear weapons against Russia in response
to a conventional attack, they would be doing so in the full knowledge that
they were inviting a nuclear retaliation and in such a case they are not
‘deterred’ by that possibility.
The concept of Mutually Assured Destruction, or MAD, means that to
launch nuclear weapons, in most cases, against another country with nuclear
weapons is to invite the assured destruction of your own country in return.
Such a prospect makes a mockery of the idea that having nuclear weapons
somehow ‘deters’ those other countries from attacking. If anything, it is the
likelihood of nuclear retaliation against the countries which have nuclear
weapons that ought reasonably to deter those countries from ever using