Ben Wallace’s1 belief in Britain as a global military power is reflected in his justification for nuclear weapons. “It is vital for our national security and your safety that the UK continues to be an independent global actor, able to stand up for ourselves and protect our citizens against the most serious threats.” (my emphasis)2 By, ‘stand up for ourselves’ he means not relying on the USA. Wallace is asserting that Britain will, as a matter of conscious fact, engage in nuclear war independently of our principal ally. Wallace ignores 120 years of negative military experiences of Britain as an independent military power. He also ignores post-1945 history of the actual conduct of war by nuclear powers in wars they lost.
Theresa May, when Prime Minister, asserted that, “The whole point of a deterrent is that our enemies need to know that we would be prepared to use it…” She was oblivious to the long-standing understanding that nuclear weapons aren’t a deterrent. Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s most bellicose Prime Minister since Churchill, didn’t threaten a pre-emptive knock-out blow against Argentina in the Falklands campaign in 1982. She didn’t do it because it wasn’t politically feasible. Nuking Buenos Aires was entirely doable as she’d sent 31 nuclear missiles to the south Atlantic. She didn’t nuke Argentina because the impact on Britain would have been devastating.3
Thirty-four years later Theresa May discussed the nuclear renewal programme, “…the decision on whether to renew our nuclear deterrent hinges not just on the threats we face today, but on an assessment of what the world will be like over the coming decades.” The cost, ”…..is estimated that the four new submarines will cost £31 billion to build, with an additional contingency of £10 billion.”4 The single submarine, which is at sea permanently, will deliver nuclear weapons if the Prime Minister authorises an attack. All of which begs the question which was first raised in 1982: is this a fantasy?
May said that the decision depended on, ”…an assessment of what the world will be like over the coming decades.” This sounds shrewd until it’s appreciated that Britain’s Chiefs of Staff have significant biases which blind them to objective analysis. Major wars have been fought since 1945 and all of them have been lost because politicians haven’t learned strategic nous. Although it’s probable that military Staff Officers are taught about Clausewitz there seems very little evidence that it’s had any intellectual impact. Nuclear weapons are a relic from 1945.
Whilst the USA was losing wars in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, 1962-2021, the prospect of nuclear ‘solutions’ was discussed and dismissed as inappropriate.5 The USSR lost in Afghanistan,1979-89, and they too refrained from using nuclear weapons for the same reason. The data on the pointlessness of nuclear weaponry is compelling; those that have nuclear weapons don’t use them, nor make credible threats to use them.
British politicians are floundering. They can’t accept the reality of managing Britain’s decline and they strut the language of global power. This means squandering huge amounts of taxpayer resources. Nothing illustrated this more than when Wallace reduced the size of the British army whilst simultaneously talking of its global role,
The decision by the MOD to implement Army 2020, its programme to reduce the size of the regular Army and increase the number of trained Army reserves, was taken without appropriate testing of feasibility, according to the National Audit Office.6 (my emphasis)
The management of decline is depressing. However, in the case of nuclear weapons there are clear and obvious arguments not to invest any resources at all. They’re pointless and tactically inept. If Britain needs fantasy military aspirations to placate nationalistic politicians, they should employ strategies with at least the possibility that they can be used.