I changed my mind

About going to bed. The BBC have just given me another look at the debate over the nuclear deterrant. And it sparked a thought.

First, a position statement; having said #iagreewithnick quite a lot lately, it’s interesting to discover I disagree with him on both nuclear questions. I suspect that nuclear power is going to play a part in bridging the energy gap, while we recover from 30 years of crass idiocy in ignoring the sustainability of our economy. I do not believe in the utility of nuclear weapons inside a biosphere. Nick disagrees with me on both counts. Interesting.

But that wasn’t the thought; nor was I thinking about Brown’s odd choice of attack line, which seemed to play much worse with the audience than I thought it would. What I really noticed was the harmony in the views expressed by the red and blue teams, and their fundamental misunderstanding of 21st century geopolitics.

Cameron’s argument was summarized in one idea; we must have strategic nuclear weapons of our own because we do not know what the world will look like in 40 years. Leave aside that Cameron is explicitly endorsing a program to develop new weapons of mass destruction during a recession. Ignore the collateral damage implications of that military strategy, and what that implies about the ethics of a potential Tory government.

There is an extent to which clause two is actually true, but its relationship to clause one is tenuous at best and risibly hubristic at worst. Brown took more or less the same tack in different words. The problem with their view is this; we may not know the shape of 2050 but we can be absolutely sure that it will not look like 1950.

The last great tank battle of the modern era was not in the Gulf wars; it was in the Suez penninsula in 1956, and it involved more tanks on either side than featured in the largest tank engagements of WWII. The reason it was the last great tank battle, and will never be surpassed, is what Israel’s air force did to Egypt and Syria in 1967. The era of air superiority had arrived.

With it, and with the dying throes of the Cold War, the shape of warfare began to change. The wars of the 1970s and 1980s were fought in jungles and deserts by spies and special forces warriors. The wars of the 1990s and 2000s are fought in the streets of cities and the minds of the vulnerable and disenfranchised. Strategic nukes are as useful to a modern national defense infrastructure as arming the SAS with longbows.

The only possible use Britain has for a strategic nuclear program is to start a war. That obsolete approach to international relations could never help us finish one.

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7 Comments

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7 responses to “I changed my mind

  1. I agree with you.

    Moreover, it simply isn’t possible to wage a limited nuclear war.

    Eisenhower knew that and that is why in the 1950s he made it clear that any nuclear threat would be met with overwhelming force. Limited nuclear war will become full nuclear war and then we’ll all die – not great.

    • johnqpublican

      They called it MAD for a reason.

      • Indeed.

        I’m not one to lecture a historian but you’re a medievalist and I’m not sure what you know of the 1950s nuclear scene.

        A part of early cold war strategy relied on tactical nuclear strikes, or limited nuclear war. This meant only attacking military sites.

        For example, if the Russians were being belligerent somewhere and sent troops into say, Iran, the US should consider nuking one of their subs, as a warning. This would show that the US wasn’t afraid to use nuclear weapons but wasn’t aiming at civilians.

        What Eisenhower saw was that this was bound to escalate and he made it clear that any nuclear strike would blot out the sun over eastern europe and would be total rather than limited.

        A lot of American Generals lambasted him for cutting off the tactics available to the US but cutting off tactics was exactly what Eisenhower wanted. He wanted to make Nuclear war as unthinkable as possible because he knew the options were either no nuclear war or no human race.

        This was reaffirmed under Kennedy during various Soviet induced crises when he was advised to attempt various “tactical” nuclear strikes. He did not, and a good thing too. As it is clear from Soviet records and tactics they almost certainly would have overreacted and started WWIII and killed everyone.

        What I’m trying to say is that I cannot possibly see a use for Trident or any Nuclear Deterrent. We’re never going to use it, because we’d never get authorisation from the US to start a nuclear war which would eradicate most of humanity. That’s all you can do with nuclear weapons, you can’t use them tactically without striking non-nuclear states and that is totally immoral. Not that our leaders are moral, but I think they know they’d get a good lynching if they ever nuked thousands of, say, Sri Lankans into dust.

        • johnqpublican

          I agree pretty much entirely with this analysis; imo, if nuclear weapons are going to be useful at all, it’ll be in orbit not in a gravity well. Down here it’s a pretty stupid idea, and would have been seen as such from the start if we didn’t live in such a macho culture.

  2. Your analysis of the changing landscapes of war is tempting, but I don’t have the data to know how generally true it is. You’re obviously talking about the war on Terror, but is that true of the Falklands and Gulf Wars? Or Sierra Leone? Never mind all the wars the UK isn’t actually involved in…

    I also enjoyed this comment on why replacing trident is damn stupid.

    • johnqpublican

      While I am referencing that, I’m also talking about Chechnya, Bangkok, Tehran ’09, Mumbai, the recent ethnic cleansing in Uighar China, and so on. If we go to war with Argentina over the Falklands, would we nuke them? I very much doubt it. That’s a sea-power war, and once again air superiority is as much key as floating tonnage. Look at the Allied uses of bombardment and air-craft carriers in both Gulf wars.

      The underlying point is that strategic nuclear weapons are just that; strategic. They are a weapon designed for a genuine clash of cultures, and they make the assumption that everyone on the other side, civilian or not, is a legitimate casualty.

      That was common doctrine within a generation of the Blitz. It most certainly will not be forty years from now. I would say that if I had to make a call, the coming technology of warfare for the next century is the unmanned offensive vehicle, be it airborne or land-based, not intercontinental collateral damage.

      I personally don’t think tac-nukes are a good idea inside of a biosphere either, but this argument is tailored towards the strategic question.

  3. Pingback: Why we need to scrap Trident « Left Outside