It is commonly believed that nuclear weapons put an end to WWII and prevented WWIII. Both of these beliefs must at least be questioned, since there are other plausible explanations for both results (see WWII and WWIII).
The Cold War ended nearly 25 years ago but we still have nuclear weapons. Have they been keeping us safe since then and are they keeping us safe today?
Britain’s highest serving general, Chief of Defence Staff General Sir Nicholas Houghton, is concerned that people understand how important nuclear weapons are to the defence of the realm. He refers to the uk’s Trident system as ‘the deterrent’ and said on the Andrew Marr Show in November 2015, ‘when people say you are never going to use the deterrent, what I say is that you use the deterrent every second of every minute of every day’.
There is a confusion of language here between ‘using’ the deterrent (i.e. the weapon), in the sense of pressing the button and firing a nuclear missile at somebody and ‘using’ the deterrent (ie the policy), in the sense of preventing somebody from attacking you by the threat of striking back at them with a nuclear missile.
General Houghton is obviously not suggesting that he fires nuclear missiles every second of every minute of every day, but he is implying that his government is successfully preventing potential aggressors from attacking the UK because he is threatening every second of every minute of every day to fire nuclear missiles at them if they do.
Is that meant to mean that without nuclear weapons acting as a deterrent every second of every minute of every day, the UK or any other nuclear weapon state would face an ever-present threat from potential aggressors trying to attack them here and now? Are we, at this present moment, faced with such a threat?
According to the UK government’s own 2015 National Security Strategy, ‘there is currently no immediate direct military threat to the UK mainland.’ This has been the assessment produced by successive UK governments for at least 25 years.
The US is in an even more unassailable position and has been for most of its 240 year history. Despite the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, does anyone realistically think that the Japanese planned to, or could have, actually invaded and occupied the US mainland?
Neither Russia nor China nor any other country is at this precise time threatening to attack and invade either the US or the UK. Perhaps General Houghton believes that during the Cold War, the Soviet Union did pose such a threat. Perhaps he believes that Russia or some other country could, in future, pose such a threat. But the claim that nuclear weapons are here and now ‘being used’ as a deterrent every second of every minute of every day is difficult to understand and if true, highly dangerous – since it implies the ‘deterrent’ could also fail at any second of any minute of any day.
Current threats facing Western governments
- Cyber warfare
- International military conflict
- Instability overseas
- Public health
- Major natural hazards
Are any of these threats addressed by the presence of nuclear weapons? Or do nuclear weapons actually increase the dangers these other threats pose?
1 What could be more terrifying than the thought of a terrorist group getting hold of a nuclear weapon? So long as these weapons exist, they are the ultimate prize for a terrorist group. Having nuclear weapons therefore actually increasing the threat from terrorism.
2 In 2010, Israel used cyber warfare to attack and severely damage an Iranian nuclear processing plant. The highly complex and computer dependent systems which are needed to build and deploy nuclear weapons make a country more susceptible to cyber warfare and increase the dangers of a nuclear weapon being taken over by another party.
3 It is now known that several of the ships Britain sent to fight the Falklands War in 1982 had nuclear weapons on board, including the HMS Sheffield, which was sunk by an Argentine missile. While the Royal Navy insists that the nuclear weapons on board the HMS Sheffield were removed to another ship prior to it sinking, the fact is that having nuclear weapons around when an actual war is taking place is hugely dangerous and increases the risk of a nuclear weapon being detonated on purpose or by accident.