Breaking Free from Nuclear Deterrence

Last night I attended a lecture sponsored by The Nuclear Age Peace Foundation given by Commander Robert Green (Royal Navy, Ret.) that calls out to every representative of every country possessing a nuclear capability to pay close attention.


For 20 years, Green served in the British Royal Navy. As a bombardier-navigator, he flew in nuclear strike aircraft and anti-submarine helicopters. On promotion to Commander in 1978, he worked in the UK Ministry of Defence before being appointed to Staff Officer (Intelligence) to the Commander-in-Chief Fleet during the Falklands War.

Since leaving the British Royal Navy in 1982, he has worked tirelessly for the abolition of nuclear weapons and serves as the Co-Director of the Disarmament & Security Centre in New Zealand and is the author of Security Without Nuclear Deterrence.

Here are just a few of the important points Commander Green makes against nuclear weapons.

My skepticism over nuclear deterrence grew when the Berlin Wall came down; but it took the Gulf War to make me break out of my pro-nuclear brainwashing. As the first ex-RN Commander with nuclear weapon experience to speak out against them, it was very traumatic.

In the run-up to the Gulf War, my military intelligence training warned me that the US-led coalition’s blitzkrieg/punitive expedition strategy would give Saddam Hussein the pretext he needed to attack Israel – an undeclared nuclear weapon State. If thereby Israel was drawn into the conflict, this might split the coalition. If not, he still stood to gain widespread Arab support for being the first Arab leader for years to take on the Israelis.

My greatest fear was that the Iraqi leader would be provoked enough to attack Israel with chemical-headed Scud missiles. Knowing that West German technical support was involved in the warhead design, Israel’s Prime Minister Shamir would come under massive pressure to retaliate with a nuclear strike on Baghdad. Iraq had the best anti-nuclear bunkers Western technology could provide; but even if Saddam did not survive, what would happen next? With Baghdad a radiated ruin, the entire Arab world would erupt in fury against Israel and her friends: there would be terror bombings in every allied capital; Israel’s security would be destroyed forever; and Russia would be sucked in.

The first Scud attack hit Tel Aviv on the night of January 18, 1991. For the first time, the second most important city of a de-facto nuclear State had been attacked and its capital threatened. Worse, the aggressor did not have nuclear weapons. The rest of the world still waits to learn what Bush had to promise Shamir for not retaliating – fortunately, the warhead was conventional high explosive, and casualties were light. The Israeli people, cowering in gas-masks in their basements, learned that night that their nuclear “deterrent” had failed in its primary purpose. Some 38 more Scud attacks followed.

Meanwhile, in Britain the IRA just missed wiping out the entire Gulf War Cabinet with a mortar bomb attack from a van in Whitehall. They were not deterred by Polaris – yet a more direct threat to the government could barely be imagined.

Nuclear Deterrence Won’t Work Against Terrorists –

With the break-up of the Soviet Union and an unchecked arms trade, it is only a matter of time before terrorists get a nuclear weapon. They are the most likely “proliferators,” because nuclear blackmail is the ultimate expression of megalomania and terrorism. Yet nuclear deterrence cannot be relied upon against such threats.

What If Terrorists Try Nuclear Blackmail?

The first rule is that on no account should the threat of nuclear annihilation be used to try and oppose them. They will just call your bluff – because targeting them with even a small nuclear weapon would be impossible without incurring unacceptable collateral damage and provoking global outrage. Indeed, they would relish taking as many others with them as they could. So nuclear weapons are worse than useless in such a crisis.

My advice would be to emulate how the French authorities dealt with a man with explosives wrapped around his chest who hijacked a class of schoolchildren and threatened to blow them up if his demands were not met. They exhausted him by lengthy negotiations while installing surveillance devices to determine his condition and location. At an optimum moment Special Forces moved in and shot him dead with a silenced handgun.

The most important underlying point to make here is that the surest way to minimize the chances of a nuclear hijack is to stop treating the Bomb as a top asset in the security business and the ultimate political virility symbol.

This nightmare will intensify as long as the five permanent members of the UN Security Council insist on the Bomb to “guarantee” their ultimate security – when in fact it does the exact opposite – while trying to deny it to other States. Such a policy of nuclear apartheid is hypocritical and un-sustainable.

Nuclear Deterrence Undermines Security –

The Falklands and Gulf Wars taught me that competing for unilateral security leads to more insecurity, both for others and ultimately oneself. We need a new understanding of security: one that sees it as a safety net for all, not a “win or lose” military game which leaves the underlying problems which caused the war unresolved, and feeds the arms trade. True security lies in fostering a just, sustainable world order.
The Bomb directly threatens security – both of those who possess it and those it is meant to impress. Indeed, it is a security problem, not a solution. This is because it provokes the greatest threat: namely, the spread of nuclear weapons to megalomaniac leaders and terrorists – who are least likely to be deterred.

Nuclear Deterrence Undermines Democracy –

Democracy depends on responsible use of political and military power, with leaders held accountable to the will of the majority of the people. If a democratic nation is forced to use State-sanctioned violence to defend itself, its leaders must stay within recognized moral and legal limits.

Morality –

The policy of nuclear deterrence inevitably involves an actual intention to use nuclear weapons under certain – admittedly extreme – circumstances. Michael Dummett, Wykeham Professor of Logic at New College, Oxford took up the argument in a speech on 19 October 1993:

“We have to ask ourselves, ‘Is it wrong to have an intention to do what is wrong?’ Plainly it is. So, ‘Is it wrong to have a conditional intention to do what would be wrong?’ There is a seductive argument which goes: ‘The point is to prevent the condition from arising in which I am threatening to use nuclear weapons.’ What is wrong about that is not any consequence of forming that intention; it is that you give your will, albeit conditionally, to the act intended.

“The strategy of deterrence requires a conditional intention to commit a monstrously wicked act: to annihilate entire cities and all the people living in them. It is therefore a strategy which no government should use and no citizen should support.”

From Nuclear Deterrence to Abolition –

On 4 December 1996 in Washington, General Lee Butler USAF (Ret’d),Commander-in-Chief of US Strategic Command from 1992- 94, explained to the National Press Club why he, too, had “made the long and arduous journey from staunch advocate of nuclear deterrence to public proponent of nuclear abolition.” He warned: “Options are being lost as urgent questions are unasked, or unanswered; as outmoded routines perpetuate Cold War patterns and thinking; and as a new generation of nuclear actors and aspirants lurch backward toward a chilling world where the principal antagonists could find no better solution to their entangled security fears than Mutual Assured Destruction.”

As a member of the Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons, General Butler had joined Field Marshal Lord Carver, Chief of the UK Defence Staff from 1973-76, in stating:

“The risks of retaining nuclear arsenals in perpetuity far outweigh any possible benefit imputed to deterrence … The end of the Cold War has created a new climate for international action to eliminate nuclear weapons, a new opportunity. It must be exploited quickly or it will be lost.”

Their first recommended step towards this is for all nuclear forces to be taken off alert. This would “reduce dramatically the chance of an accidental or unauthorized nuclear weapons launch.” Apart from making the world much safer, it would puncture the myths of nuclear deterrence doctrine once and for all.

Rob Green is but one of the many clear and compelling voices of common sense in the abolition of nuclear weapons. My hope is that his voice, and others like him, will rise to such a level that every country will realize that they can no longer afford not to take those necessary actions in making the world safe from nuclear threat.

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