Trident, Cold War History, and the ‘Myth’ of Deterrence

5 Apr

Trident nuclear submarine HMS Victorious pictured near Faslane, Scotland.

This piece was originally written for the excellent Retrospect, a student-led history journal created and produced by undergraduate students from Edinburgh University’s School of History, Classics, and Archaeology. I am grateful to Kerry, Enzo, and the rest of the team for their permission to reproduce the article here.

Since April 1969 – the same month that British troops arrived in Northern Ireland at the start of ‘The Troubles’ – the Royal Navy began Operation Relentless. Since that time, not a day has passed without there being a British nuclear missile submarine on patrol somewhere in the North Atlantic or the Arctic Ocean. This is Continuous At-Sea Deterrence (CASD), the ability to strike back without warning – and with terrible force – should the UK or its strategic interests be attacked.

‘Deterrence’ is the cornerstone of debates about Britain’s nuclear future, a word used by politicians, military officers, think-tanks, and campaigners. If we fail to replace our current Vanguard-class submarines and their Trident nuclear missiles – so the pro-replacement argument goes – we will be exposed to attack from enemies known and unknown. In 2013 the then Secretary of State for Defence Philip Hammond stated that Trident was a “tried and tested deterrent” and that there was no alternative that “provides the same level of protection.” A recently published Ministry of Defence factsheet on the Trident Successor Programme noted that “the UK’s independent nuclear deterrent remains essential to our security” and that it could “deter any aggressor”. To discuss who our nuclear weapons might be used against is to enter a Rumsfeldian world of known and unknown unknowns.

But – and this is the heart of this article – what do we mean when we talk about deterrence? And do those arguing for renewal or disarmament understand what the term involves and the ways in which history complicates and confuses the concept? As political scientist Nick Ritchie argues, talking about “the deterrent” assigns an implicit, infallible ability to deter, an ability which stands counter to actual historical evidence. Speaking generally (always bad for an historian), the level of historical understanding when it comes to the nuclear debate is very poor. Thus, this article offers some historical context for the debates that are happening right now and demonstrate that an understanding of Britain’s nuclear history and the complicated, multifaceted ways in which nuclear weapons affected the Cold War can add to our contemporary discussions.

The touchstone for most debates on deterrence is some variant of the oft-quoted maxim that ‘nuclear weapons kept the peace for 45 years’. Is this strictly true, though? Well, at the risk of woolly minded fence-sitting, yes and no. Firstly, it is important to offer some form of definition of what deterrence is in a nuclear context. At its simplest, nuclear deterrence is intended to prevent an adversary taking action against you by retaining the capability to retaliate with devastating force. It is a common belief that – as noted above – the existence of nuclear weapons and their deterrent effect stopped the USA and USSR engaging in major war during the decades of the Cold War. Reality is a bit more complicated than that.

In 1989, political scientist John Mueller proposed a controversial theory. Nuclear weapons, Mueller argues, were irrelevant to the superpower antagonism that characterised the Cold War. According to Mueller, the Cold War would have remained cold even if nuclear weapons had not existed. He argues that the vast devastation caused by major war between states in the twentieth century made any such future wars inconceivable. Thus, nuclear weapons merely sat atop a pre-existing trend towards the avoidance of major interstate conflict.

Mueller’s hypothesis has – in the nearly three decades since he proposed it – been the subject of almost constant debate and modification. While his argument for the almost total irrelevance of nuclear weapons is untenable, he does have a point. Nuclear weapons did collide with an evolving sense that industrialised total wars of the kind seen from 1914-18 and 1939-45 caused such destruction that even the most aggressive leaders would think twice about embarking on such a venture. So, this slightly complicates the idea that nuclear weapons – and nuclear weapons alone – kept the peace.

There are, however, instances where the deterrent effect of nuclear weapons did have a demonstrable influence on world affairs. The Cuban Missile Crisis (or the October Crisis as the Cubans called it) was a case where the threat of nuclear devastation caused the leaderships of the USA and USSR to step back from the brink. The awesome destructive potential that had emerged in the era of the hydrogen bomb and the ballistic missile gave Kennedy and Khrushchev pause for thought. For proponents of deterrence, Cuba demonstrates that nuclear weapons can stop wars. The problem is that nuclear weapons were a component of starting the crisis, in both gross and subtle ways. More importantly, the crisis came very close to nuclear war through means other than the decisions made in the Kremlin and the White House. Accidentally stumbling into nuclear war was a very real danger.

There are many instances where nuclear weapons actually increased the risks of war. Although nowhere near as famous as the October Crisis, the events of late 1983 were arguably even more dangerous. November 1983 saw a NATO war-readiness exercise code named Able Archer ’83 take place. This was part of a regular series of tests, but this one came at a time of heightened Cold War tension. The Soviet shooting down of Korean Airlines flight 007, the deployment of US Cruise and Pershing II nuclear missile to Western Europe, Ronald Reagan’s ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Evil Empire’ speeches, and the decrepitude of the Soviet leadership all contributed to a dangerous, febrile atmosphere.

What made things even more dangerous was the way in which information was being passed back to Moscow. Fearful of a pre-emptive nuclear strike by the West, the Soviets had instituted Operation RYaN (short for Raketno-Yadernoe Napadenie, or Nuclear Missile Attack), an intelligence gathering operation that sought out ‘indicators’ that NATO was readying for nuclear attack. Should there be a critical number of these ‘indicators’, then consideration would be given to launching a Soviet pre-emptive strike before NATO could get their missiles off the ground. Under pressure from their superiors to provide evidence of these ‘indicators’, KGB (state security) and GRU (military intelligence) frequently fed back incorrect or downright false information about supposed Western nuclear preparations.

You might well ask “what does this have to do with deterrence and the British Trident debate?” In short, it demonstrates that rather than making the situation safer, the fear of nuclear weapons actually made things more dangerous by increasing the chance that a nuclear war might be started through misperception and misunderstanding. The anxiety created by the vast destructive potential of modern Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles dramatically increased the risks associated with those weapons. The Cold War was plagued by outrageous levels of uncertainty, frequent belief in worst-case scenarios, and the very real and serious risks of deliberately starting, or just stumbling into, a nuclear war.

Instances of deterrence either functioning or not functioning aside, it is also important to consider Britain’s own nuclear history and the myths and legends which have grown up around it. Again, popular perceptions place Britain’s 1946-47 decision to acquire an independent atomic capability within a Cold War context. Britain, so the thinking goes, went for the bomb in order to deter the existential threat posed by the Soviet Union. But as many historians have shown, this is simply not true.

The decision taken by a small cabal within Clement Attlee’s government to proceed with a British atomic bomb programme sat at the intersection of a range of complex influences. The emerging Cold War – which had not quite ‘on’ as the decision was being taken – and the ‘Soviet threat’ were simply two threads in a bigger tapestry. For Attlee and his colleagues, regaining US atomic cooperation after it had been cut off in mid-1946 was a vital factor. More ephemeral was the idea of British power and influence in the world. Britain was already in decline as independence movements grew and flourished in the colonised world. Britain without and empire but with atomic capability would at least retain some power and influence in the world.

The UK tested its first atomic bomb off the coast of Western Australia in October 1952, but this was eclipsed shortly after by the American test of the first hydrogen bomb. Winston Churchill – having regained the premiership in 1951 – decided to push ahead with a British H-bomb project. It was, as he noted, the price that Britain paid for sitting at the ‘top table’ of international affairs. The Grapple X text of 1957 saw the UK become a nuclear (and not just atomic power) and shortly thereafter, the cherished goal of full nuclear cooperation with the United States was realised when Harold Macmillan and Dwight Eisenhower ratified the 1958 Mutual Defence Agreement (MDA), a treaty that is regularly updated and which remains the basis of US-UK nuclear friendship.

And, through ups and downs, we end up back at the start of this article, with the first patrol by a British submarine – equipped with American Polaris missiles and British warheads – in April 1969. Since then – through the imbroglio of the ‘Chevaline’ upgrade programme in the 1970s through the purchase of the current Trident system in the 1980s – Britain’s strategic nuclear ‘deterrent’ capability has been vested in the Royal Navy and its lurking submarines. Has that deterrent deterred? Well, that is a debateable point. Nuclear missiles certainly did not deter the Argentinian invasion of the Falkland Islands.

CASD – with the emphasis on the ‘D’ – sits at the heart of the current Trident successor debate. A belief that nuclear weapons deter and that deterrence is a monolithic panacea for national security needs is central to pro-successor arguments made by individuals and groups at all points on the political compass. But, deterrence is not monolithic and the myth that it served to keep the Cold War from heating up is just that: a myth. As any student of history knows, things are always a lot more complicated than they seem and not easily reduced to simple, easily expressed ideas.

The ritualization of ‘deterrence’ serves to ignore the many complexities of the nuclear age. If you support deterrence, so it goes that you should therefore be willing to use nuclear weapons. After all, effective deterrence relies on the other side believing that you will pull the trigger at some point. Thus, the recent castigation of Jeremy Corbyn as a threat to ‘national security’ when he declared himself unwilling to order the use of such weapons. However, those criticising Corbyn and believing in deterrence must face an uncomfortable truth. The warheads that sit atop our leased missiles (we do not actually own the delivery systems) are strategic weapons. By their very nature, strategic nuclear weapons are – despite advances in targeting technology – indiscriminate and practically guaranteed to kill and maim large numbers of civilians. For example, a single warhead from one of our Trident missiles detonated over the University of Edinburgh would kill approximately 160,000 people and seriously injure at least that many again.

This article does not argue for or against a Trident successor. It is, however, vital that we equip ourselves with the information necessary to make genuinely informed decisions about such a serious matter. The world is full of complex security challenges not easily resolved by a Cold War-esque reliance on the fearsome retaliatory power of nuclear weapons. In the end, in order to make complex decisions, we must understand our nuclear history, myths and legends included.


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