Between them, nine countries in the world have roughly 15,000 nuclear weapons. That’s enough to wipe out human civilisation several times over. Even a “limited” nuclear exchange of a hundred or so warheads could cause catastrophic environmental damage, including “global ozone loss on a scale never observed”.
So, do we really need more nukes? Over 90% of nuclear weapons are owned by the USA and Russia, and both President Vladimir Putin and President Donald Trump have committed to increasing their countries’ respective nuclear arsenals. Shouldn’t we be working on reducing our capacity to bring about a radioactive apocalypse with the push of a button?
France and the UK are both recognised nuclear states under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Between them, they have over 500 warheads. Do they really have any strategic use, or would they just make Europe a bigger target in the event that nuclear war did break out? Could Europe send a pro-disarmament message to Russia and the USA if it became a UN-designated “nuclear-weapon-free zone” like Africa and South America? Or is such talk unrealistic? Now that the nuclear genie is out of the bottle, is it impossible to put it back in?
We had a comment from Barry, who thinks the UK should be the first to unilaterally dispose of its nuclear weapons. If a nuclear war ever started, he writes, then having weapons of this nature would not make “one iota of difference”. He believes Britain would anyway never use “The Bomb” without US approval.
To get a reaction, we put Barry’s comment to Dr. Oliver Thränert, Head of the Center for Security Studies (CSS) at the ETH Zurich university in Switzerland. What would he say to Barry?
UK nuclear weapons are under national command, so they can be used if the UK government decides so. But the main purpose of these weapons is to deter war. Because the UK nuclear forces not only serve the purpose of Britain’s national security, but also contribute to the security of the NATO Alliance, a unilateral nuclear disarmament effort would have ramifications that would go beyond Great Britain.
For another perspective, we also spoke to Varinder Bola, Parliamentary Officer for the Nuclear Weapons Policy Liaison Group at the British American Security Information Council (BASIC). What would he say?
Having nuclear weapons actually makes you more of a target, as adversaries might take you out before you launch. With the emergence of new technology, if SSBNs (nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines) become detectable that makes this dynamic particularly pertinent. There’s a lot to be said for the point that there really are no scenarios in which we would realistically contemplate use of UK nukes without the US. In my view, it’s more that we think they are an effective way of burden sharing (and staying up with the US at the top table).
We also had a comment from Bálint, who thinks the threat of nuclear war is exactly what keeps us safe from nuclear war. As long as nuclear weapons exist, Bálint believes it is necessary to keep the Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) concept alive and thus our countries – paradoxically – safe.
Would Oliver Thränert agree with Bálint’s analysis?
From a logic point of view, we do not know, for we cannot know why an event – here a war between great powers – did not occur since 1945. But I do believe that it is plausible to argue that the existence of nuclear weapons contributed to the prevention of large wars. However, nuclear deterrence might fail, and if it does, the damage would be huge. So if you think in historical terms, at some point in history mankind should manage to get rid of nuclear weapons, but the political conditions for such a step are to be met. In particular, a global and intrusive verification regime all which all states could rely would be needed in order to prevent clandestine nuclear programs.
Finally, how would Varinder Bola respond? Does he think nuclear weapons actually make us safer?
If we have nuclear weapons, then Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) is a superior strategy to strategic dominance, an idea that has some frightening traction in Washington these days. But that’s part the problem.. we think people in high places believe in MAD but all actions suggest that they don’t. It’s worth noting that the US officially has a war-fighting counter-force strategy, aiming its nuclear weapons at Russia’s nuclear weapons and that in itself encourages instability. Nuclear weapons do not keep us ‘safe’ in any real sense of the word, they only make our opponents think twice before annoying us. There is still the great danger of accident and miscalculation, and that has to be a worry with personalities like President Trump and Kim Jong-Un in power.
Should Britain and France give up their nuclear weapons? Does having nuclear weapons actually make us a bigger target? Or, paradoxically, is it nuclear weapons that actually help keep us safe? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!