Gwynne Dyer: It's time to put nuclear weapons away

The major powers have all had their nuclear weapons on permanent alert, ready to launch in minutes or hours, for the past 40 years. Changes in the level of political risk, even the end of the Cold War, have had little or no effect on that. But wouldn’t it be safer and cheaper to “simply put (the nuclear deterrent) away in a cupboard and keep it as a contingency in case there were ever to be a deterioration in the global security picture”?

In terms of orthodox strategic thinking, that is heresy. But the man who made that heretical suggestion was Sir Nick Harvey, until last month the defense minister in charge of the British government’s nuclear capability review.

Replaced in the recent cabinet reshuffle, Harvey is now free to speak his mind. At last week’s Liberal Democratic Party conference, he did precisely that, saying that he “wanted his legacy to be bringing the United Kingdom down the nuclear ladder”—although, he admitted, “we might struggle to persuade the British public to get off the ladder altogether.”

It isn’t just the British public that loves its nukes. The American, Russian, and French publics would be equally reluctant to give up their nuclear deterrent forces, even though they face no plausible threat of a nuclear war. (The Chinese public isn’t really paying attention yet.) But maybe you could at least persuade the great powers to put the damned things away, and Britain would be a good place to start.

The orthodoxy still says that every self-respecting great power must have its nuclear weapons on permanent alert, in order to deter a surprise attack by some other nuclear power. Nuclear “Pearl Harbours” allegedly lie in wait around every corner. But, as Harvey told The Guardian newspaper, “If you can just break yourself out of that frankly almost lunatic mindset for a second, all sorts of alternatives start to look possible, indeed credible.”

What drove Harvey into this bold assertion was the fact that Britain can no longer afford its nuclear deterrent. It will have to replace its current fleet of four Trident II ballistic-missile submarines by 2028, and the estimated cost is $20 to $30 billion. That’s less than two weeks’ worth of American military spending, but for Britain it would mean cutting deeply into every other area of the defence budget.

The British army is “driving around in vehicles which are literally about to fall to pieces,” he said. The navy needs a new fleet of frigates, and the air force is committed to buying the joint strike fighter. They can’t have it all, and some senior officers are asking: “Is the opportunity cost of having a new generation of nuclear weapons too high, in terms of what it would prevent us doing on other fronts."

So what are the alternatives to eternal hair-trigger readiness for an attack nobody really expects to come? You could just get rid of all your nuclear weapons, of course, and you’d probably be just as safe as you are now. But if you can’t get your head around the idea of nuclear nakedness, you could at least store your magical cloak in the closet, safely out of the reach of foolish children.

What Harvey was actually proposing was that Britain should get rid of its missile-firing submarines when they get too old, and rely on a few cruise missiles with nuclear warheads to keep everybody else honest. Store them somewhere safe, and don’t even take them out unless the international situation has got dramatically worse.

In fact, why not do that right now? Those “boomers”—nuclear-powered submarines carrying long-range ballistic missiles with multiple nuclear warheads—were really designed for “retaliation from the grave” if all the owner’s cities, military bases, ports, and hamburger stands were destroyed in a massive surprise nuclear attack. Does anybody expect such a thing in the current era? Well, then...

And the best thing about putting the nukes in the cupboard is that you eliminate the risk of ugly accidents. In 2009 two boomers, one British and the other French, actually collided underwater. Even at a time unprecedented in world history, when no great power fears attack by any other, it would have been a frightening event if those two submarines had been American and Chinese.

So put the toys away, boys. Don’t expect the Israelis, the Indians and the Pakistanis to follow suit, because they live in parts of the world where full-scale war with a powerful enemy is still a possibility. But together they have only about 500 nuclear weapons; the five nuclear-armed great powers have around 11,000.

Somebody has to start, and Britain is the likeliest candidate of the five. Sir Nick Harvey lost his job in the cabinet reshuffle, but the “nuclear capability review” is still underway.

Even Britain’s generals think that another generation of fully deployed missile-firing submarines would deprive them of most of the other new weapons they want, so the issue will stay on the table. Dumping the boomers and locking the remaining nuclear warheads in the cupboard would be a useful halfway house on the way to getting rid of them entirely.

Comments (11) Add New Comment
Mark Fornataro
The case of Russian Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Petrov is proof enough as to how dangerous nuclear weapons are. In a 1983 error(see link) "Petrov’s computer showed that the United States had launched a ballistic missile towards the Soviet Union. In seconds, several more appeared." He told superiors it was a false warning, averting a nuclear war.
http://rt.com/news/soviet-nuclear-petrov-stanislav-221/
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iSheep
The Sun set on the British empire a long time ago they can't afford much anymore.

That's why their people are immigrating in larger numbers to Canada, the best Country on Earth!

Now they did sell us old obsolete leaky Subs treating us Canadians as silly little children.

Time for a Republic.
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Astro
iSheep, don't forget that the Harper gov't bought them as well.
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Some Common Sense
Astro, those subs were purchased in 1998 under the Chretien Liberals, who then let them fall into an even greater state of disrepair.
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P.Peto
Finally,a positive suggestion from Dr Dyer,it was a long time coming. People have become much too complacent about living with WMD's. You must be living in denial if you think they will never be used again. As long as nations have nuclear weapons you can be assured we will have a nuclear war. It's coming and it's only a matter of time before it does. Your only chance is total nuclear disarmament and how likely is that?
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Nunya Biznis
Let Israel, India and Pakistan remain armed but everyone else has to put their toys in storage?

A: You are dumb

B: You are stupid
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Issac Chandler
Shelved nuclear warheads are not useful in a limited nuclear exchange.
The US & Nato assume the possibility of short limited and winnable nuclear wars:
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miguel
I haven't lost a wink of sleep over nuclear war, since the 70's, after 30 years of Cold War. It was obvious then, that they were all to chicken to do it.
Miguel
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Coastguarder
Nuclear subs are not weapons used in short winnable wars (unless you are acting as the aggressor and use them for a surprise first strike). They are, as Mr Dyer said, there for retaliation in the event that all of your other land and air based capabilities have been neutralized. In that event the boomers "pop up" and level whatever remains of the enemy's cities and /or bases. So if the US and NATO strategy assumes a short and winnable exchange then Britain (NATO ally numero uno) would have no need for their subs. And the suggestion made in the article is to stand down the support crews and mothball the actual weapons with procedures in place to bring them back on line in the event that the political climate deteriorates to the point where military action becomes more likely. At that point you bring the weapons back out of storage and have them ready if necessary. The comment that shelved nukes aren't useful in a limited exchange scenario implies some sort of out of the blue attack. And while people individually sometimes do completely random seeming shit, nation states never do. Too many people are involved in this sort of thing for a completely surprise nuclear attack to happen. There is always posturing, sabre rattling and in most cases some sort of justification/excuse/reason for attacking another country.

China for example isn't just gonna launch a nuclear strike at France one day. If something like that were to happen there would likely be some sort of grievance followed by an escalation of threats and counter threats if appropriate redress wasnt forthcoming etc etc. And it would be during this build up that you would bring your arsenal back online.

This suggestion makes a ton of sense especially when one considers the potential for accidents and the potential severity of the results of an accident. Better to have them locked away that in constant play as they are now...just my $0.02.
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Some guy on the internet
Nunya, I dont think it is so much about "letting" Israel, Pakistan and India keep active nuclear weapons as it is about reasonable expectations. There is no conceivable threat that may require nuclear weapons for the big 5, so they may well shelve their nuclear weapons. Israel, Pakistan and India are almost guaranteed to keep their deterrents well active for the foreseeable future. Whats more, nobody can stop them from doing so, legally or otherwise. Its a matter of doing what you can when you can and not gunning for the moon.
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JohnCan
Nuclear disarmament is trickier than you think, since it forces the question, what do we do the day after all the bombs are gone? Remember the last time the world was nuke free was 1944, when nations were destroying each other the hard way. No one wants to go back to those days, we got the nukes to end that war. So if we got rid of them we'd have to figure some way to avoid the early 20th century of mass armies, conscripted societies and militarized economies waging total war.

Nuclear disarmament would have to be followed up with sweeping restrictions on conventional war: defence spending caps, deployment limitations, restriction of the arms trade, real UN authority perhaps including its own standing army. We'd also have to make serious efforts to resolve the world's longstanding strategic problems. Palestine, Kashmir and Korea are the biggest I can name of but you could think of dozens more.

Hard sell? You have no idea. That's why we're keeping the nukes. It's just easier than making peace.
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