What are Nuclear Weapons For?

Michael Fallon’s intemperate attack today on Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, has had at least one positive effect: nuclear weapons are now an election issue.

For the record Fallon, UK Defence Secretary, described Miliband as “a man so desperate for power he is ready to barter away our nuclear deterrent in a backroom deal with the SNP.”

In fact, Miliband – along with the other ‘male four’ party leaders (Cameron, Clegg and Farage) has adopted a resolutely pro-nuclear stance – if not out of personal conviction, certainly out of political necessity.

The right-wing pro-nuclear press are sure to massacre any aspiring prime minister who dares step out of line on this key issue – as they did to Labour leader Michael Foot in 1983 when he lead the party to abject defeat on a principled stance of unilateral nuclear disarmament. The only newspaper to support Labour was the Mirror.

Miliband clearly has as little wish to re-run the 1983 election, as the Conservatives desire to recreate the narrative of Labour as ‘soft on defence’ and hence ‘unfit to govern’.

What are nuclear weapons for?

But amid the heat of the election campaigning, it’s worth pausing to ask: why exactly does the UK need nuclear weapons anyway? Is it really a wise way to commit £100 billion of national capital, at a time when schools, hospitals and other public services are increasingly under-funded?

And what exactly is the nature of Britain’s exceptionalism that requires it, as a significant but nonetheless second rank world power, to wield nuclear weapons, when other more important countries – for example Japan and Germany – seem to manage perfectly well without them?

Fallon’s core argument is that the world is a dangerous place, full of unpredictable threats, and that it woiuld be madness to throw away the nuclear guarantor of national security in the light of present uncertainties and even greater future ones.

Take Islamic State, for example, which has grown from nothing into a pseudo-state in the middle east in the space of barely a year. Now there’s a real and present threat to the UK’s national security that it need nuclear weapons to counter – surely?

But the only nuclear threat from IS comes from the possibility that its operatives could assemble a bomb in the UK itself, very likely a ‘dirty bomb’ whose main effect would be to create widespread nuclear contamination.

And this is a danger against which our nuclear missiles would be entirely powerless.

The Russian threat

The other useful bogeyman in the nuclear weapons debate is Vladimir Putin, the Russian leader, who is roundly accused of serious aggression in Ukraine and provocations that reach close to British shores with his miltary aircraft intruding over the Channel – albeit strictly within international air space.

Whether these claims stand up is open to question – but let’s examine some basic facts. First, the Cold War-concluding deal thrashed out between the US President Ronald Reagan and the Russian President Mikhail Gorbachov included a commitment that NATO would not extend into the former ‘Eastern Block’. The promise was soon broken and NATO states now abut Russia’s borders.

Second, what took place in Ukraine in February 2013 after several months of the ‘Euromaidan’ protests was an unconstitutional and anti-democratic coup, planned, financed and coordinated by the US, and backed by the EU and other NATO countries.

Yanukovitch was in many ways an unsatisfactory President, but his violent explusion – immediately after he had signed up to an EU-brokered compromise agreement – was an illegal act which triggered all the problems than have gone on to afflict Ukraine.

So far around 1 million refugees have been forced from their homes, and most of them have fled to Russia. Thousands more, most of them civilians, have been killed, most of them by the random shelling of cities and villages by Ukrainian forces.

Without wishing to proclaim the saintliness of Putin or his regime, it is clear that the original act of aggression – in a country neighbouring Russia, with close economic, military, historical, cultural and linguistic ties to Russia – came from the US, NATO and the EU.

Just in case this account leaves you in any doubt as to the real power dynamics, imagine if Russia pulled something like this off on America’s turf. For example, with pro-Russian governments ruling across Central America, joined with Russia in a nuclear-powered military alliance bristling with missiles pointed at US cities and military targets?

And if Russia went on to engineer a virulently anti-US coup in Mexico, and organize the new regime to bomb and shell cities close to the US border provoking a million refugees to flee across the Rio Grande?

So where do nuclear weapons come into this?

They don’t – and that in a sense is the point. Nuclear weapons have not been used in the Ukraine conflict. And the conflict has taken place in spite of both the main protagonists – the US and Russia – being heavily nuclear-armed nations.

In other words, nuclear weapons failed in their job of preventing conflict.

But there is another argument – that Ukraine opened itself up to Russian aggression precisely because it gave up its nuclear weapons at the end of the Cold War in return for security guarantees.

But this is to ignore the facts: the real aggression directed against Ukraine was the US’s coup of February 2013 against its elected constitutional government. And that is the kind of covert, externally-inspired but internal threat from which nuclear weapons would have provided no protection.

And in the event that Ukraine still had its nuclear weapons at the time, the security crisis would be considerably more tense and dangerous than it already is.

Imagine if the new Ukraine was a nuclear power, able to deploy its nuclear missiles against Russia. Then Putin would surely have acted swiftly and decisively to prevent that from taking place, probably by immediately invading the entire country – perhaps triggering a wider, far more serious and possibly nuclear war in the process.

In other words, Ukraine’s ownership of nuclear weapons, far from ensuring its security, would have achieved the precise reverse.

But this about the UK’s nuclear WMD, right?

What these examples show is that far from the UK’s nuclear weapons guaranteeing its national security in an uncertain world, they could just as well achieve the opposite.

They would provide no defence at all against diffuse terrorist dangers that provide no clear or strikeable targets.

In the event of a wider conflict developing across Europe, Eurasia and the US, the UK’s ownership of nuclear weapons would be just as likely to make it a first-strike nuclear target, as to render it invulnerable to nuclear attack.

And remember that the replacement Trident missile system would be purchased from the US, and all the equipment would be based on US technology.

Thanks to Edward Snowden’s revelations we already know that the US security services have installed ‘back doors’ into computer operating systems, mobile phones, internet routers and so on. Do we really believe they would not do the same to any nuclear weapons systems they supply to Britain?

And here’s something else we know: in the Falklands war, the UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher persuaded France’s President Mitterrand to hand over the secret codes needed to disable Argentina’s Exocet missiles in mid-flight – after an Exocet had already sunk HMS Sheffield, and a double Exocet hit sank MV Atlantic Conveyor. And so the Exocet threat was neutralized, and Argentina ultimately defeated.

So the UK’s use of its ‘independent nuclear deterrent’, should the occasion ever actually demand it, would actually be subject to a US veto. If they didn’t want a UK missile to strike its target, they could just drop it into the sea, or blow it up in the stratosphere.

The UK’s Trident missiles as a US proxy attack force?

Worse, we can not even be completely sure that the US might not at some time find it expedient to direct the UK’s nuclear missiles, without the UK’s knowledge or permission, to make a proxy attack – while appearing not to have responsibility for it.

Imagine – the US, using the UK’s Trident missiles, launches a first strike nuclear attack on, say, the Sebastopol naval base, Kaliningrad and other key Russian military targets. The US escapes blame. Russia, in retaliation, wipes out the UK.

In truth, any idea that the UK’s possession of nuclear weapons contributes to its national security is illusory. Indeed it increases the country’s vulnerability rather than diminishing it – while firmly locking it into the US security establishment for a generation to come.

For Britain to give up its nuclear weapons would be neither naive nor foolish. It would be, on the contrary, wise, prudent and precautionary, and an important move towards a global de-escalation of the very real nuclear threat we all face.

If Nicola Sturgeon’s SNP forces Ed Miliband’s government to renounce nuclear weapons, so much the better. As well as being £100 billion the richer, we should all sleep better in our beds at night.

Oliver Tickell edits The Ecologist.

Oliver Tickell edits The Ecologist, where this article originally appeared.